Community organising is the buzz word of the leadership campaign. David Miliband is recruiting and training community organisers and his brother Ed Miliband wants the party to be like London Citizens.
The reasons for going down this road are self evident. If we are rooted in the communities we represent then we can serve them better. On a local level we will be better placed to sort the smaller things – pot holes, anti-social behaviour and road safety. On the national stage we will hear and understand more quickly the impact of our policies. If our national leaders had been more closely connected to their constituents in 2007/8 it is unlikely the removal of the 10p tax rate would have occurred at all.
One of the questions posed at Saturday’s Labour Friends of Searchlight Conference was:
“How can community campaigning be applied to the Labour Party? How can we change the Labour Party to initiate the campaign organisation which leadership candidates claim to want?”
It’s an interesting debate. In my view it can be done. Across the pond Obama famously did it and rolled into the White House on the back of it. In the UK there are a number of isolated examples of constituencies and branches changing their own organisations to embed themselves in their local areas.
I have written about the Birmingham Edgbaston experience on LabourList here. In the aftermath of the general election our community campaigning has changed once again. In our current conversation with voters we are asking them to identify the one big issue of local concern in each ward. We will then be holding two community conferences in September so residents can vote on which issue they’d like us to address. The ‘us’ in this case is political representatives and local people. We’re also proactively seeking out people to become community champions who we as a local party will support.
But if this type of activity it is to happen more widely within the Labour Party serious changes to our structures need to be made.
In the first instance, the Labour Party would need to invest some of its admittedly scarce resources in developing a cadre of professional community organisers. This would be a significantly different and supplementary role to the Regional Organiser role we have at the moment. These community organisers would be people with a track record of delivery, need not be full time and would certainly cover more than one seat. Their role would need to be primarily strategic and advisory rather than necessarily executive. I have found that many Labour activists are keen to implement community organising in their own seats but lack the knowledge to do so.
These organisers should operate initially in a small number of seats which would in effect act as a pilot scheme. The scheme should be performance managed not by election results or contact rate but by the number of activists each seat recruits and trains. Constituencies would need to apply to be part of the pilot and demonstrate a commitment to community organising.
Before undertaking the pilot the necessary tools should be built or put in place for community organising. For example, at the moment it is difficult for a community organiser to use the database tools provided by the party to keep accurate records of helpers. The membership system does not allow non members and contact creator (understandably) does not allow you to keep records of those who are not on the electoral roll. This means you have to create another database with all the updating that this requires. This is just one example but there are many others.
These three ideas represent only the direction of travel. Further changes would necessarily follow.
All the while, whoever wins needs to remember that implementing community organising at a party level will be an enormous challenge. It will take time, money and commitment. It’s also vital to recognise that political party community organising is different to single issue community organising and different again to that practised by resident-based groups like London Citizens.
Because whilst community engagement is a good thing in itself it all the while has to be balanced with the need of a political party to get people elected. It is political representatives who enable us to put part of our values into practice. We can therefore learn from the different models of community organising on offer, but ultimately the Labour Party will have to find its own way.