The C Word

Members of Citizens UK during a demonstration for the Living Wage. Image:

Now that the dust is settling on the new coalition government, we are able to reflect with more composure on the election campaign. For many individuals (not enough), one of the most striking events of the campaign was a speech Gordon Brown gave to Citizens UK in Methodist Hall on 3rd May. Those who saw it recognised a fiercely intelligent, emotive politician giving the speech of his life. It was an impassioned and inspiring speech which blind-sided the majority of Brown’s detractors. The press had slated him ever since he became Prime Minister (and indeed, before then) for his perceived lack of the human-touch and his inability to comfortably interact with the electorate. He had occupied the awkward middle-ground between trying to live up to Tony Blair (although he isn’t the worst Blair impersonator – hats off to Mr Cameron) and staying true to his somewhat dour Presbyterian roots. This speech finally saw him presenting himself as he wanted – he was Prometheus throwing off his shackles to continue his task of serving the people (the awkward classical allusion is appropriate – Brown made surprising references to both Cicero and Demosthenes, albeit more well-wrought than my own).

However, this speech was not just one of the crowning moments of Brown’s political career. It was the conclusion of a year’s hard-work by the group Citizens UK.  An umbrella group for any number of different organisations, Citizens UK works to increase the power of congregations, trade unions, schools, and community groups in public life through the ethos of community organising. All of their affiliates are grassroots organisations, looking to achieve small, but important, goals. Their biggest success so far is the Living Wage Campaign, which is proving to be one of the most exciting and effective grassroots campaigns for many years.

Labour introduced the minimum wage in 1997, and in the process did more for the workers of Britain than almost any other government of the post-war period. This was a great first step, but nothing more: it has become increasingly apparent that the minimum wage is not sufficient for people to live on, particularly in big cities, and especially in London. So, London Citizens launched the Living Wage Campaign, which seeks to force companies and government agencies to raise the minimum wage of all their workers in line with the ‘living wage’ of £7.60. By harnessing the techniques taught by Citizens UK, London Citizens managed to persuade Lambeth Council into becoming the first council to sign up to this pledge. Since then the movement has gone from strength to strength, with Boris Johnson agreeing to support the campaign, and has now broken free of the London circular to move to other cities around the country.

This all sounds great, like an unstoppable wave sweeping the country. It is a whole-heartedly democratic movement, from the bottom up, and it is beginning to both revitalise and renew British politics. Citizens UK is, however, by no means revolutionary, and its techniques are not the result of state-of-the-art think-tanks spewing forth ream upon ream of policy doggerel. What they do is they talk to people. They build relationships. They utilise communities, and they form their own communities. By sitting down with someone and finding out what their problem is, solutions can be found. Once a problem is highlighted, the next step is to find out how many other people have this problem, and how many people are willing to help find a solution to it. It is an exponential process, constantly growing and constantly evolving. That is why it is so effective. It is a reaction to the politics of the last thirteen years, the top-down bureaucratomania of New Labour, and a return to the beginnings of the Labour Movement.

Whilst it seems curious to think that in our ever-increasingly technocratic world the most exciting political movement to arise is one based upon cups of tea in someone’s living room, the power and the potential of community organising is singularly apparent. The wave of popularity that it is currently enjoying can be traced back to (as almost any new political development in recent years can be) Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He utilised house meetings in the early days of his campaign, to slowly and steadily build up support and momentum. Where Obama leads, Britain follows.

The seemingly unstoppable force of renewal, as utilised by Obama’s campaign, soon found a home in British politics. The most curious sign of this was the attempted re-branding of the Conservative Party as the party for ‘change.’ But, despite the Conservatives’ abuse of semantics, it would appear that this notion of ‘change’ is going to stay with British politics. The whole basis of Citizens UK and community organising is one of a constant state of flux, where any success merely forms the beginning of a solution for the next problem, and any new member gained immediately takes on responsibility for generating new members. This is shown in ‘change”s latest political incarnation, David Miliband’s ‘Movement for Change’, the show-piece of his Labour leadership bid.

However, we should pause for thought here and think about the effects of this fetishisation of change. Should ‘change’ be something we are constantly searching for? Should we abandon any type of continuity in lieu of some vague notion of reformation? Should we never be satisfied with our achievements, always looking for more? The answer to these questions is, in the perfect world, yes. We should always be looking to what we can do next, who we can help, and what we can achieve. On the other hand, it’s evidently dangerous to allow oneself to be sucked in by such an ill-defined notion as that typified by the contemporary usage of the ‘c’ word. For one reason, it invariably leads to disappointment, as the backlash to Obama’s administration has demonstrated (‘where’s our change Barack?’). For another reason, it runs the risk of becoming change for change’s sake, a ludicrous proposition.

Before I finish, it needs to be remembered that the natural home of community organising is in the labour movement. This is why the Conservatives’ vapid idea of the ‘Big Society’ and their ‘time for change’ campaign slogan have not caught the public’s attention as much as Oliver Letwin might have wished. It may appear that the Conservatives are using the techniques of community organising in their flag-ship education policy, their ‘big idea’ of free schools, but this is simply not the case. This is not community organising, it is a way of creating opportunities for the well-off Southern middle-class. Instead, look to the work of Citizens UK. Get in contact with your local Living Wage Campaign and get involved. This is a political movement for our times, and it is an opportunity to really contribute to the betterment of our society.

By Daniel Davies


6 responses to “The C Word

  1. I agree with everything you say here. It’s ridiculous that opposition parties jave jumped on the ‘change’ bandwagon. The reason people see through it is that the essence of democracy is the debate between opposing political ideologies, and therefore, it should go without saying that an opposition provides ‘change.’ It’s a nothing promise. With the Conservatives ‘Big Society’ idea, far from being progressive, they are moving regressively. It is an idea reminiscent of the pre-war era, especially in the USA but the UK also, which is deeply suspicious of any state involvement in society.

    The reason Obama’s offer of ‘change’ was seen as so revolutionary was because it did – unlike Cameron – offer a genuine change in mentality. He’s had to compromise, but he’s already, for instance, made movements to prise business interests from important industries, especially the front-line service of healthcare. It’s ultimately a re-assessment of the deeply entrenched belief in free-market thinking, if not a complete overhaul of it (not that he ever promised that). Obama’s administration should be judged on his second term. That’s the just the way it works with them being limited to two terms. Hopefully Obama will move to reform further once he (if he!) gains a second term, when he doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected.

  2. I do think though, that this article was more of a political campaign in itself. Whether Citizens UK do a good job or not (for the record, I think they do), this isn’t really the place to dedicate three-quarters of the article to championing them when it seems to me the essence of the article is about the use of the notion of ‘change’ in electioneering, rather than specifically about the group. Also, while I don’t mind you trying to garner support for the group, I don’t think this blog, which assesses cultural phenonema, is the place to tell readers that they should get involved.

  3. I think that your comment here:

    “The reason people see through it is that the essence of democracy is the debate between opposing political ideologies, and therefore, it should go without saying that an opposition provides ‘change.’”

    Is perhaps too much of an abstract reason for why people see through these ideas of change. I think that it is undeniably a factor, but, as I argued in my post, in my opinion the main reason the ‘Big Society’ idea failed was because it came from the Tory Party; they were pretending to be something they’re not. It should also be remembered that we can’t dismiss the effectiveness of this bandwagon – Obama won the American election, the Tories ‘won’ the General Election, and David Miliband is favourite for the Labour Leadership election.

    If you are interested in essays, better informed than my post, about the Tory ideology I highly recommend these two articles from the LRB (as always):

    I would also say that Cameron was very much trying to go for the same ‘change’ as Obama, but its just that his proposition was much flimsier. It was easy to see Obama’s change as ‘revolutionary’ because of what he signified: the antithesis of the Bush administration. However, it was just signification, and one man does not a revolution make. The US political system is far too complicated and gargantuan for one man to have too much of an effect on anything, which is why we should celebrate Obama’s compromised successes all the more. Cameron also tried to set himself up as the antithesis of the Labour government, but it was quite apparent how much of a ludicrous idea this was. He too was trying to offer ‘revolutionary’ change, but was a square peg in a round hole. Luckily for him there were enough factors in the election for this fault to not prove too costly, and he still became PM. If Labour fought the election more effectively, and ridiculed and attacked Cameron’s shoddy ideology, then Cameron would have had a much closer fight on his hands. But, we’re straying into the world of counterfactuals now, which doesn’t help anyone.

    It should also be remembered that the Lib Dems, in their own way, were also cashing in on this ‘change.’ They were setting themselves up as the ‘new politics’ and as opposed to not just one ideology, but the entire ideology of British politics – the establishment. It is clear now, however, that this was an even more flimsy idea than Cameron’s.

    As a justification for why I wrote my article, and why I think it is appropriate, here are the three goals I sought to achieve in its writing:

    1. To explain what was going on at the Citizens UK event on the 3rd May. I know many of my friends who saw Brown’s speech were inspired by it, and so I thought it was worthwhile to explain the background to it.
    2. To inform people about the Living Wage Campaign, as an example of the method I was writing about. I got the idea from my piece from learning about the grass-roots organising of Citizens UK, and the idea of grass-roots organisation is an idea and method I thing incredibly exciting, and one which has implications for any number of different contexts. The Living Wage Campaign was a means to explaining this technique.
    3. To analyse, in brief, the wider context of the debate. Namely, looking at ‘change’ as a political ideology.

    So, my piece explained, informed, and analysed. As far as I can see, this is definitely in keeping with the ethos of the OE. I do not want to read about detached culture, about Pater’s art for art’s sake. Whilst I think that that idea is fine, in small doses, it should not be the entire basis of every post on.

    Your argument is seeking to apply boarders to what can be considered culture, and what is deserving of cultural assessment. I will not try to give a definition of culture here, as that is fool-hardy and I am in no-way qualified to give such a definition, but I will say that, in my opinion, culture includes our politics, as well as our art. Luke has written a fair few posts about advertising. In my opinion, my post is more applicable to ‘cultural assessment’ than advertising is. This is because advertising, whilst contributing to a ‘culture’, is totally devoid of any creativity because its primary purpose is to sell. However, I appreciate Luke’s comments on advertising as I think that there is enough room for a very broad definition of culture, and they are written well, and are informed.

    Finally, the only difference between my article and your article ‘A Plea for Political Politeness’ is that my article is concerned with a political campaign, whilst yours was concerned with a cartoon. We both used these concerns as a means for a wider discussion, as a means-to-an-end, and I do not accept that your article is ‘appropriate’ whilst mine is ‘inappropriate’ simply because my article serves a practical purpose as well as a theoretical purpose.

  4. Just to be clear, I certainly appreciate the direction of your article. My problem was not that I didn’t consider it ‘cultural’ enough – like you, I would never deign to define what constitutes culture – but more the tone of some of it, which seemed at points more like political campaign on behalf of Citizens UK and the Labour Party, than a critical examination of notions of ‘change,’ for instance, in politics. Personally, I have no problem with the garnering of support for these institutions, especially Citizens UK, but, as I said, it seemes a little misplaced here.

    I should stress though, that this is a minor niggle for me that I don’t intend to make a big deal out of. Otherwise, I really enjoyed and agreed with your words.

  5. The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was enacted on 1st April 1999, not 1997.

    Just sayin’.

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