This is what community looks like: lessons from the Library

10th February, 2013 11:30 am

By Sarah Sackman and Reema Patel

In a leafy corner of North London, where Margaret Thatcher was once the local MP, a quiet revolution is stirring – centred around a local campaign to Save Friern Barnet Library. Five months ago the Library was occupied and reopened after it had been closed as part of the Tory Council’s programme of cuts. Local residents donated thousands of books and man hours to keep the Library open. Then – following a court battle and lengthy negotiations – this week the Council handed over the keys of the Library to local residents who will now run the library service supported by public funds. This dynamic campaign, mounted by an unlikely alliance of middle and working class residents, Occupy activists, Labour councillors, local business people, single mums, young families and religious leaders, offers a powerful rebuff to the former MP’s declaration that “there is no such thing as society”.

The story of Friern Barnet Library has already resonated beyond its locality and could hold valuable lessons for developing the messages and methods of One Nation Labour.

The campaign’s success was based on people’s emotional identification with the Library as a fixture in community life. Libraries everywhere provide access not only to free books and resources but to a social reality outside the market. As Zadie Smith has written, libraries are one of the few institutions where you don’t have to buy anything in order to stay.

The Library campaign epitomised the “politics of place”. Public spaces, which include libraries, pubs, museums, places of worship and local parks, are a source of much community activism. These shared spaces are cherished precisely because they are public. In an increasingly privatised, atomised world they provide spaces where strangers can come together, notwithstanding their cultural, social and generational differences, and be bound by their commitment to the community. All of this chimes with the relational politics urged by One Nation Labour.

In his recent speech entitled ‘Earning and Belonging’ to the Resolution Foundation, Jon Cruddas spoke about the need to build resilient communities. This means moving away from a policy agenda built exclusively around fiscal transfers administered by a remote state “towards interventions and campaigns that bring people together and enable them to improve their common life and build their power from the bottom up”. This bottom up ethos, exemplified by the Friern Barnet Library campaign, recognises that citizens are not simply passive consumers of public resources or private philanthropy (as the Tories would have it) but that they ought to enjoy a more active role in the state’s activities.

The Library campaign demonstrated residents’ willingness to participate in the running of services. This is not pure voluntarism; the residents have insisted that they must be supported by the resources and knowhow of local government. This is where One Nation Labour departs from the Big Society.

As well as its message, the Library campaign also suggests a different way of doing politics. In suburban areas like Barnet where support for Labour is hard won, local parties need to be imaginative in reaching out to potential supporters beyond our core vote. A library is an example of a social good which matters to people of different political persuasions. It can, as in Barnet, become a focal point for forging new political alliances.

The Friern Barnet Library campaign was not a Labour campaign but a community campaign. However, taking a leaf out of Arnie Graf’s book, the protest benefited from the involvement of Party members who were able to bring their campaigning skills, their networks and their knowledge of local government to help broker a deal with the Council and secure the Library’s future. Labour activists and councillors were right to position themselves on the side of the community, just as the Party generally must reflect the values of those it seeks to represent. What was so uplifting about the Library campaign was not just its spirited opposition to the Tory cuts but its positive message about what it was for: a community’s loyalty to state institutions and a commitment to working in partnership with government to deliver the services and preserve the spaces which bind us together.

Sarah Sackman is a Labour party and community activist. She represented the Friern Barnet Library campaigners in court. Reema Patel is Labour & Co-operative activist, law student & McKenzie friend to the Friern Barnet community.

  • David B

    This type of social enterprise is what we need across the public sector and not just in local government but in education, healt and other sectors of government that need the same treatment.

    If it works here it works everywhere

  • Jeremy_Preece

    This is the key point:

    “This is not pure voluntarism; the residents have insisted that they must be supported by the resources and knowhow of local government. This is where One Nation Labour departs from the Big Society.”
    I feel that a lot of publicity will have to emphasise this point as I am sure that elements of the Tory party will claim it as just that, one of their “big society” victories.
    We remeber how Cameron tried to claim such a victory over the food banks who are feeding families forced by this government’s policies, into poverty.

    But here the local community demand the resources of local government and do dismantle it.

  • Pingback: Update – Friern Barnet Library: What Community Looks Like | Reema Patel's Blog()


  • Comment Europe Featured Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Terrorists bring death and destruction to the streets of Paris… Europe faces its biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War as thousands of refugees flee conflict in Africa and the Middle East… world leaders gather in Paris at the UN climate change conference to find solutions to the looming global climate crisis… These are some of the biggest global challenges facing us today, challenges that require urgent action, challenges that can only be solved at international level, in cooperation […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour to have free vote on airstrikes in Syria

    Labour to have free vote on airstrikes in Syria

    Labour MPs will not be whipped on how to vote on proposals for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and the party will not take an official stance on the issue. When it comes to a House of Commons debate, Jeremy Corbyn will argue against, while Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn will speak in favour of intervention. Both will make their cases from the Labour frontbench. This follows a lengthy meeting of the Shadow Cabinet today, lasting almost two hours. Reports […]

    Read more →
  • News Corbyn writes to Cameron to demand two-day debate on Syria

    Corbyn writes to Cameron to demand two-day debate on Syria

    Jeremy Corbyn has today called on David Cameron to allow a two-day Commons debate on proposed intervention in Syria. The Labour leader is currently discussing Labour’s position on airstrikes against ISIS in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, with sources suggesting he has offered a free vote, but with the party taking an official stance against intervention. You can read Corbyn’s full letter to the Prime Minister here: Dear David As of this morning we have not had a clear proposal from the […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour release results of member consultation on Syria

    Labour release results of member consultation on Syria

    Labour have released the findings of their policy consultation on intervention in Syria with members over the weekend – claiming it shows 75% are opposed to airstrikes against ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn sent out an email on Friday evening to members and supporters asking for their opinion on how Labour should approach the Government’s proposals for intervention in Syria. The party have today said that 107,875 people responded to the consultation, of which 64,771 were confirmed as full Labour Party members. Of those 65,000 […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Uncategorized McMahon gains Momentum in Oldham

    McMahon gains Momentum in Oldham

    @PeoplesMomentum London thanks so much for campaigning today and throughout the campaign #IbackJim — Jim McMahon OBE (@CllrJimMcMahon) November 28, 2015 Winds of change are blowing through the Labour Party. According to some, it’s a storm blowing the party into dangerous, choppy waters. But, this past weekend in Oldham, amidst real, rather than metaphorical, strong wind (and heavy rain), a different way to harness this great gust for the common good was in evidence. On Saturday, Momentum, the grassroots […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends