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()

Latest

  • News Polling Labour storm to 10 point lead in London

    Labour storm to 10 point lead in London

    Labour hold a 10 point lead over the Conservatives in London, according to a new poll. They are on course to increase the two point lead they had in the capital in 2010, despite losing a mid-term Mayoral election, and make around eight gains. According to a Guardian/ICM poll the voting intention for Londoners (with change from 2010 in brackets) is: Labour 42% (+5), Tories 32% (-3), Lib Dems 9% (-13), UKIP 9% (+7), Greens 8% (+6) On a uniform […]

    Read more →
  • News Unions Unite donate extra £1 million to Labour’s election war chest

    Unite donate extra £1 million to Labour’s election war chest

    Unite the Union have pledged an extra £1 million to Labour’s election campaign today. It is a huge boost for Miliband on the first day of the short campaign, following an assured performance in last night’s leaders’ interviews. This brings the amount Unite have donated to Labour’s campaign to £3.5 million. In an article for the Daily Mirror, Len McClusky, General Secretary of the union, said they were making the cash injection because “Labour’s commitments will make a huge difference […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Polling Give the people what they want: Labour’s devolvers and the desire to give power away

    Give the people what they want: Labour’s devolvers and the desire to give power away

    The time has come to give people what they want – power over their own lives and their own communities. The aloof and distant state, making decisions in giant offices in Whitehall can feel – and act – as distantly as the big businesses, utility companies, landlords and transport companies that treat us like numbers on a page rather than individuals with needs and hopes of our own. Labour stands ready to take on the power challenge. Whilst tackling economic […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour campaign launch: A message of hope amid Tory warnings will prove a delicate balancing act for Miliband

    Labour campaign launch: A message of hope amid Tory warnings will prove a delicate balancing act for Miliband

    “Britain can do better than this.” “Britain can do better than this.” “Britain can do better than this.” Seven times we heard the refrain in the opening two and a half minutes of Miliband’s speech – so often was it repeated that it stopped being clear if they were all clap lines or not, leading to a couple of awkward moments. But that line, along with Labour’s official election campaign slogan “A better plan. A better future”, show that at the […]

    Read more →
  • News Seats and Selections Coventry North West: Might Geoffrey Robinson stay on as an MP after all?

    Coventry North West: Might Geoffrey Robinson stay on as an MP after all?

    Yesterday evening we reported that Coventry North West MP Geoffrey Robinson was considering stepping down from the Commons at the very last minute – only hours after Parliament shut down for the election – with rumours circulating that a Miliband aide was one of those in the running for the seat. Yet after a tetchy 24 hours (in which the local party have announced plans for an emergency meeting tomorrow night to discuss their options) it now appears that Robinson […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit