This is what community looks like: lessons from the Library

February 10, 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

Latest

  • Comment Why Labour should make energy efficiency their top infrastructure priority

    Why Labour should make energy efficiency their top infrastructure priority

     Melting into a sweaty puddle in a boiling hot office it’s easy to forget the winter, and the fact that every year, thousands of people die from living in cold homes. But they do, and it’s a national scandal. Millions more can’t afford to keep their homes warm, and suffer not only from the cold, but from the myriad physical and mental health problems that fuel poverty brings. The UK has some of the worst insulated homes in Europe. So […]

    Read more →
  • News Cameron’s new defence secretary accused of calling female columnist a ‘slut’

    Cameron’s new defence secretary accused of calling female columnist a ‘slut’

    This morning, the Mail on Sunday have reported that the new secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, allegedly called Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon a ‘slut’. The story comes after Gordon wrote in the Telegraph earlier in the week that a cabinet minister, who she did not name, had spoken to her in a bar in July 2010 and called her a ‘slut’. Recounting the conversation, she explained, the unnamed minister approached her and asked ‘if you work at the Telegraph, […]

    Read more →
  • News Miliband says he’ll have ‘Public Question Time’ if PM

    Miliband says he’ll have ‘Public Question Time’ if PM

    Ed Miliband has said that if is Prime Minister this time next year he will introduce what he’s called ‘Public Question Time’. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Miliband said that alongside Prime Ministers Questions – which is an opportunity for MPs and peers to ask government ministers questions – that takes place every Wednesday lunchtime, he would take questions from the public on any subject. Following his speech on Friday and as part of a wider effort […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Who governs: governments or business?

    Who governs: governments or business?

    Who, in reality, makes the rules we live by? This is a question that has grown in importance as we see multinational corporations casting their net across the globe. Big business is often at the heart of some lobbying scandal or conspiracy theories about who is at the top of the chain. But we are currently seeing a real-life attempt by companies to wield excessive influence over national governments. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (also known as TTIP) […]

    Read more →
  • News Seats and Selections PPC selected in key marginal seat Great Grimsby

    PPC selected in key marginal seat Great Grimsby

    Today, Melanie Onn has been selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC), for key marginal seat Great Grimsby. Onn, who will stand as Labour’s candidate as current MP Austin Mitchell is stepping down, grew up in Grimsby and currently works as an organiser for UNISON. Prior to being selected, on her website she explained her reasons for wanting to be Labour’s candidate for the area: “Grimsby is the place that I am proud to call home. Grimsby is the place […]

    Read more →