Community Organising

What do Ed Miliband’s Labour party and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have in common?

Part of their dramatic failures was down to the limitations of embracing community organising as a strategy for winning elections and as a model for exercising power.

Much has been said about what organisational lessons Labour should learn from the 2015 defeat. For example

  • Mike Kane argued that Stella Creasy’s Sharkstoppers campaign should be a template.
  • Stella herself said that voter ID should be complemented with community organising which “has brought energy and innovation to our campaigning”. Wes Steering has said that “We need to open up our party to wider involvement to build the movement we need to win elections and change our country.”
  • Rafael Behr said that “the standard model treats members as a resource to serve the party when it should be the other way around: party as a service to its members and their neighbours.”
  • Paul Cotterill said that “All politics is local, even at constituency scale.  Just do stuff.  Throw away the Labour stickers.  Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder.  Come election time, if people know what you’ve been up to, they’ll vote for you.  If not, they won’t.”

There is something in all of these positions but, to varying degrees, all of them are limited by the idea that community organising offers either a method for winning elections or a credible platform for government. It does not.

You could fit what I know about Egyptian politics into a tweet. However, I was very impressed by Hazem Kandil’s argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had won over many with their ability to run community services but that operating these services did nothing to prepare them to reform a corrupt and reactionary Egyptian bureaucracy.

The same could be said of Ed Miliband’s Labour party. The skills needed to be an effective community organiser have very little to do with the traits people look for in politicians. For example, effective organisers are not visible, concentrate on developing local leaders and constantly struggle for the victory of their side. As Saul Alinsky put it

“Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.”

Credible politicians have very few of these traits. They are visible, they attach themselves to successful campaigns and they position themselves as unifiers who can bring factions together for the greater good.

the skills needed to effectively organise at a community level have little or anything to do with the skills needed to govern effectively.

Similarly, the skills needed to effectively organise at a community level have little or anything to do with the skills needed to govern effectively. Running a campaign to get companies in an area to pay the living wage requires a completely different approach than designing and implementing an economic policy that will bring about full employment.

There is lots that Labour could learn from community organising, not in terms of a programme for government or a blueprint for campaign, but around public service reform. Teachers, doctors and police would all benefit by developing their listening skills, their ability to bring people together and to mobilising local civic institutions. This was an area on which Ed Miliband was curious silent.

Whoever is chosen as the next leader of the Labour party should incorporate the ideas of community organising into the area of public service reform rather than modernising the party or governing the country,

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