As a former community organiser, here’s why Labour should keep the unit

Zarah Sultana
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Before I was elected to parliament, I was a community organiser. Working with grassroots activists and community leaders, I was part of a team that helped to organise and empower working-class people to defend and advance their interests.

We worked on campaigns ranging from protecting an NHS surgery from closure in the West Midlands and resisting a billionaire landlord’s attempt to evict families from council homes to build luxury flats in London, to organising Newcastle United football fans in opposition to Mike Ashley.

I was part of Labour’s community organising unit, an initiative launched by Jeremy Corbyn in 2018. I saw first-hand the necessity of the unit, its effects and its potential. That is why I am mortified that the leadership has decided to disband the team, a decision made all the worse by the fact it is happening in the midst of a pandemic and during the deepest recession on record.

Admiration for community organising is hardly a factional trait. It was flirted with by both David and Ed Miliband, who were inspired by its success with centrist Democrats in the USA. Its importance was also stressed in Labour Together’s 2019 election review, a document reflecting viewpoints from across the party. And the need for community organising is hard to overstate.

In a society as unequal as Britain, where wealth and power are hoarded by the super-rich, how do you end an economy rigged for the few and build a society that truly works for all? It cannot be done by relying on the grace and favour of press barons or wealthy donors; their interests are firmly tied to the status quo. Instead, it must be done from the bottom up, by building grassroots power, bringing working-class people together to tackle injustice and to fight for a better future.

This was Corbynism’s hope to be a social movement, building up organising and activism in communities across the country. It was neatly summed by the unit’s slogan: By the Many, For the Many.

Nobody in Labour should doubt the necessity of this task. The Thatcherite assault on working-class institutions has been remarkably successful. For 40 years, trade union membership and militancy have steeply declined; Labour clubs and co-operatives that once sustained ideals of collectivism and solidarity have all but disappeared. That void hasn’t been left empty. All too often, it has been filled with Thatcherism’s mantra of dog-eat-dog and the nativism of the Right.

The electoral consequences of this trend pose a grave threat to Labour. In many of the seats we lost in 2019, Labour had seen its vote share decline for decades, with 1997 and 2017 as the notable exceptions. In this sense, 2019 was a reversion to form, not the blip it is often depicted to be.

Reversing this trend is a mammoth task, which of course the Unit could not hope to do alone, let alone do in two years. Rebuilding trade union membership and engagement must also be central to this mission. But the challenges we faced were compounded by the fact that by December 2019 many working-class communities had come to see Labour as obstructing their vote for Brexit.

Even though it was a long-term response to a long-term problem, the unit achieved some impressive results. It trained more than 20,000 people in persuasive conversation techniques and helped to use that people-power to mitigate the impact of the Brexit divide and media hostility. As my colleague Ian Lavery wrote in Tribune, where community organisers were deployed in Yorkshire, the swing against Labour was markedly reduced compared to where community organisers were not deployed.

The full value of the unit, however, was never going to be seen so quickly. 40 years of damage cannot be undone that fast. But it was part of a serious response to a real problem, which anyone committed to radically transforming Britain needs to answer: how do we build up power and institutions representing the vast majority of people to take on the dominance of the super-rich?

In its place, the new leadership seems to have opted for focus groups and “authentic values alignment”, as advised by PR firms. What does this signal? Labour members may fear that it’s not just the community organising unit that has been binned, but the hope to radically transform Britain as well.

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