‘Community Organising’ has been a buzz phrase of the Labour leadership election campaign so far. A term in vogue ever since Obama’s victory in the states, but perhaps one often misused or misunderstood – with different models of organising in operation here in the UK, some effective in different ways and less so in others, a lot needs to be explained, especially from a Labour Party point of view.
There has been much talk about Labour’s lost supporters in the wake of May’s general election defeat. Whereas once the party seemed preoccupied with keeping ‘Middle England’ inside the Labour tent, there is now a recognition that the party lost because so many of its traditional voters deserted it, either by staying at home or by voting for another party. This is not a new development. Labour has been losing its core vote for many years. In some areas of the country this is manifesting itself in the rise of the British National Party. In other places it is the Liberal Democrats or independents who are benefiting. More usually, however, many traditional Labour voters are simply staying at home.
The reasons for the abandonment of Labour are numerous and will be debated in other arenas. There have undoubtedly been policy shortcomings, Labour’s focus has been elsewhere and there is a general feeling that the party lost its way domestically as it became mired in international conflicts. More importantly, however, is the sense among many of its lost voters that Labour no longer represents them. Whereas once these voters would look to Labour to protect them in times of need they now feel abandoned, isolated and increasingly resentful. Coinciding with their own loss of identity and belonging, these voters have ditched Labour. How the party reconnects with these voters is the key question of this leadership election.
The next leader of the party will have a unique opportunity to take advantage of their new position. A total review of our organisation is needed. The existing structures of the party, its processes for making policy and the way it campaigns are all based on the party in government, often overtly as with the “Partnership in Power” process. These things will need to be adapted for opposition and for new political times, techniques and technologies. We need to learn the lessons of the general election – both the failures and the successes.
The party itself will always see winning elections as a central purpose, but it cannot be successful in doing so without a widening of its aims and how we achieve them. Our mission as a party is surely to create a proper grassroots organisation that values and involves members and supporters with the aim of leading our communities outside of elected structures as well as within them and using both to complement the other. To do that, party structures have to change.
We have seen that the grassroots power of ‘community organising’ can lead to monumental results, as Hope not hate demonstrated across the country and particularly in Barking in Dagenham where over 1500 individuals joined the campaign trail alongside hundreds of local residents, churchgoers, trade unionists, community groups and party members to deliver the most resounding electoral defeat of the far right in modern times – Labour 51- BNP 0. Demonstrating the key borough-wide role is the fact that the margin of victory in the Barking and Dagenham sides of the borough only differed by an average 50 votes. Stoke, Sandwell, Burnley, Oldham and many other places attest to the scale and depth of mobilisation against the far right.
Building on the huge European election effort the year before, which despite the collapse of the Labour vote leading to Griffin and Brons taking seats, the campaign dwarfed the Labour partys campaign in some areas and mobilised almost as any activists as some of the main political partys. During the general election the pioneering work being carried out in Oxford East and Birmingham Edgbaston or even Walthamstow demonstrated that the Labour Party is able to use similar models of organising to motivate, empower and involve a far wider range of people than just the paid up party members. Indeed to actually recruit fresh members and get them campaigning in a much more effective way – entrenched in and acting on behalf of – the communities that they sought to win support from. The question facing the Labour Party is how this can be mainstreamed into every day campaigning up and down the country.
In the words of Jon Cruddas MP, seen by many as a potential Howard Dean figure who could lead a rejuvenation of the party’s grassroots and a radical shake up of its structures: “Now we need to rediscover our campaigning traditions of democracy and socialism, and build a grass-roots movement for a new covenant between the people and Labour.”
Sam Tarry, National Chair of Young Labour.
Sam works as a campaign organiser for Labour Friends of Searchlight and Hope not hate.
‘Organising to Win’ – An Invitation to Saturday’s Conference
Full details and registration here:
“I’m a great believer in taking action not just talking – thats why I have spent the past few weeks arranging a conference taking place this Saturday that I would like to invite all LabourList readers to come and take part in. ‘Organising to win’ takes place tomorrow at the University of London Union, on Malet Street London. This conference is, I believe, part of beginning the process of renewing our party at the grassroots. We will hear key note speeches from Jon Cruddas MP, Devin Burghart from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, Seattle on how the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the US captured the organising agenda, skills training workshops, debates on what type of organising works, and we will have a debate between the leadership candidates on their vision of how Labour reconnects with communities.
Hope to see you there
Full conference Agenda and Programme here.