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