Community organising – it’s in our DNA

19th May, 2012 11:43 am

Since the emergence of Barack Obama, as a community organiser turned presidential candidate, community organisation has been cited as the future direction for political movements.

Over the years we have seen the movement for change and Arnie Graf, the American community organiser who trained Obama, now advising Ed Miliband.

This is nothing new, in the past the Labour movement was to be found involved in all manner of community initiatives – if anything, organising in the community runs through the DNA of the party.

Just for example, here in the South Wales Valleys we have a long history and tradition of community activism.

Blackwood Institute was maintained by contributions taken directly from the wages of miners’ who each paid 3d a week. As was Oakdale Miners’ Institute, currently at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, which was also sustained by the wages of miners.

These places were home to libraries and study groups where miners could take advantage of educational opportunities they may have missed out on at school.

Perhaps most significantly, in the early 1900s ironworkers in Tredegar each agreed to contribute a halfpenny per week to the Tredegar Medical Aid Society in return for free health care. It was this model that Aneurin Bevan used to lay the foundations for the National Health Service.

On a smaller scale in Islwyn, the Labour movement has been responsible for all sorts of fetes and community events, together with traditional political campaigns around workers rights. Probably the reason why we have such a successful electoral record.

It is quite clear if we look to the past that we can learn the lessons of the future. That means taking a more active role in the towns and villages that we seek to represent.

There are so many people who are not party members but are working in their communities purely because they care and yet they have very little interest in becoming members of any political party – we have to encourage them to join us.

Changing our structure away from meetings and motions is only part of it. We now have to change our way of doing politics. Traditional leafleting, canvassing by phone or on foot will always be important, as community activism will become over the coming years.

In future, we not only have to give people a reason to vote Labour but we have to demonstrate how we can have a positive impact on the community. That means getting involved in environmental, church and sports groups. It also means encouraging members to become school governors as well as standing for town and borough council.

Of course this is not going to happen overnight – it calls for the Labour Party to make a massive investment of time, energy and yes money into training members so that they can be equipped with the skills to become leaders in their communities.

We ask a lot of our members in terms of time and resources. When we ask someone to join the Labour Party, we have to offer something back not merely see activists as an extra pair of hands for door knocking or leafleting.

This is the only way of growing our activist base. Besides, helping out with a recycling project or food bank is bound to be worthwhile and interesting.

The concept of community organisation could also find itself onto the national scene. The idea of the bulk buying of electricity, which has recently mooted by Ed Miliband, is an exciting concept which strikes at the very heart of the argument that the Labour Party is only interested winning elections and does point to a different way of doing politics.

This idea could also be expanded, for example, we could also be looking at ways of addressing unemployment by bringing businesses together in regional job fairs or offering practical career advice.

This would show that the Labour Party can offer practical help and can act as an agent for social change. This sends out a powerful message that the Labour Party wants to put its values into action whether it finds itself in government or not.

Ultimately, it is about restoring faith in politics again by changing lives directly. It is finally time that the party started showing how politics can make a real difference to their lives.

Christopher Evans is the Labour MP for Islwyn.

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  • Daniel Speight

    But Chris getting  involved in the community also means you will have to take a stand sometimes and that may not be politically expedient. It means that sometimes you have to go against the leadership and ignore the focus groups. Do you think you can do that?

    • treborc1

       No he cannot, he comes from an area I know pretty well coming as I do from Tylorstown, this idea that people are going to wave flags for labour in the once proud valley, I suspect some of  the labour party top table would find it hard to sit down, once they get the flag removed.

  • treborc1

    Well i would have thought a food bank might have  said more about what is wrong then to be proud of, just shows  how far out of touch I have become with the younger labour politician.

  • Joe

    Why no mention of Unite’s new community activist scheme? Over 1k members in a couple of months and several regional organisers. It’s the next and most vital part of community organising – organising the unemployed and the down-trodden.

  • treborc1

    I come from an area of the valley devastated by the closure of the mining industry, worse most of it was decimated by Wilson when he closed the mines , and then decimated by Thatcher, labour wins in the valleys because people could never vote Tory, they vote labour because  well it’s the lesser of two evils.

    But this idea that labour can make the valley glow by some how having somebody from the American elections turn us into a placard carry flag waving party, it’s not going to happen, labour tried it at one of Browns conferences, it failed as the people were more interested in talking politics in the pubs or in the lectures going on in the Unions fringe meetings.

    You want people to take an interest in politics then start talking to them about what matters not trying to turn us into some America copy with people screaming or fainting when Obama or Miliband walks in.

    It’s politics not the dam X factor.

    • JoeDM

      The mining industry in the valleys was decimated by the fact that there was no longer any effective demand for the high quality, but high cost, deep mined coal produced there.   Back in the 80s you could buy a ton of cheaper coal and transport it halfway around the world at less cost than a tone of top quality Welsh coal. It was baisc economics not politics.

      • So how did Tower Colliery – earmarked for closure by Thatcher – manage to continue producing coal until 2008, following a workers buy-out?

        Thatcher’s attack on the working class was ideological and it’s her economic shortsightedness [continued by New Labour and now Cameron] that has deepened the crisis we are currently experiencing.

        • treborc1

          Because if I remember it carried on with the Carmarthenshire vein, which finally ran out a new mine would have cost £200 million and they could not get the loans,so it closed. TATA is now looking to see if they can re-open two mines to get coking coal to be used in the steel works in my area, but also to  send  to India and China.

          The worry is of course Miners may have to be brought in from other countries as the workers in the UK can of course get better wages in Australia .

          Funny old world

          • Taffy Owen

            The lads can earn a fortune over there but at the price of living in a hole. We have nearly 3m unemployed, its really bad here. Why would it be difficult to recruit miners?

            http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204621904577016172350869312.html 

          • treborc1

            But of course we have a country now fixed with the Min wage, I would not do it would you, and I did it once and once was enough

          • Dave Postles

            Pay them top whack; that’s how it used to be.

          • treborc1

             £85 a week

  • Taffy Owen

    There is a need to define what Labour is first

  • Brumanuensis

    In principle, I’m all in favour of this sort of community organising, up to and including the alteration of Clause 1 to incorporate this into our constitution.

    However.

    What worries me is that the benefits of such engagement could be lost if non-Labour members of the community feel that Labour is only engaging for the sake of political advantage. To be fair, this is one of our motives, albeit alongside a genuine – it must be – desire to offer practical assistance to communities and community groups. So how are we to counteract any perception of cynical carpet-bagging? Especially given the strong, anti-politics mood that currenty afflicts Britain?

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