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,

What can Labour learn from the Obama campaign

Obama has achieved something that has proved impossible for politicians across the world since the credit crunch: he has been re-elected. Can the Labour party learn anything from his success? In particular, what can Labour learn from the Obama campaign’s so-called “ground game”?

Not only can Labour learn from the Democrats 2012 campaign, they can go further. Rather than solely focusing their efforts around “getting out the vote”, the Labour party can build solid and long lasting relationship with citizens.



But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, lets look at the Obama campaign. It was a very different beast to 2008. Technology played a far more prominent role than ever before and the operation was run along hyper-professional lines.

This piece in The Atlantic explains some of the ways in which technology ran through the campaign. Gone are the days when a website and a facebook account are seen as modern. The Obama campaign created new tech products such as “Dashboard”, “the Call Tool”, “the Facebook Blaster”, “the PeopleMatcher”, and most importantly “Narwhal”.

And what did they do with these products? They used them to raise money, attract volunteers and target voters.

“The team’s only real goal was to elect the President”

This leads on to the second point. The campaign was a professionally run, modern, effective “get out the vote” operation. There is some contrast here with the idealism and community organizing style of the 2008 campaign. As Anthony Painter says in his New Statesmen piece “the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012”

Instead, the campaign used a Starbucks-like approach that included “behavioral psychology, data-mining, and randomized experiments” as ways of targeting voters with an incredibly fine grained approach. Even Karl Rove is impressed.

We should not underestimate how hard it is to run a professional operation of this type. We can see this in the Romney campaign which has been described by insiders as  “nothing short of a fiasco“. For example, their much hyped Orca system did not work properly and volunteers did not know how to use it.



The principle lesson that the Labour party can learn from this is the importance of building a polished, professional campaigning staff and infrastructure. Part of this involves brining in people from outside of politics, such as people who have been working in technology developing computer programmes. Another part involves being open to experimental and data driven approaches to campaigning.

So far so obvious.

A further lesson is that the ground game is more effective if given more time to take root. As Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, said;

“Starting a conversation with a persuadable voter months before Election Day allows us to be more effective in responding to that voter’s priorities than if they first hear from us a few weeks out. Building and maintaining our grass-roots foundation takes time and resources, but we believe those early investments will make a difference.”

In the UK we have a tradition of short election campaigns. This can mean that in many areas the only time that voters hear from political parties (apart from on the TV) is in the 6 weeks before the election. To put it mildly, it can be quite hard to really strike up any kind of rapport with voters in 6 weeks. Especially when very few people are members of political parties.

The Labour party should put a high priority in going further than the Obama campaign and should be continually talking to voters, listening, responding and, most importantly, organizing.



The Obama campaign shows that it is possible for political parties to use sophisticated techniques and longer term campaigning to identify and mobilize potential voters. This is of great relevance to the Labour Party as it seeks to secure a majority at the next election.

Peter Kellner at the polling company YouGov has written a very thorough analysis looking at which voters the Labour party needs to attract. He essentially argues that there are three groups of voters who used to vote Labour but no longer do that Labour needs to convince; people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010, people who stopped voting and people who vote for the Conservatives in 2010.

Kellner’s main argument is that the people who previously voted Labour but started to vote for the Lib Dems will now vote for Labour again at the next election. He argues that this means that Labour should concentrate on the other two groups who are, he tells us, more likely to describe themselves as “centre-right” in their political views and “less likely than [Labour] loyalists to live in social housing, work in the public sector or belong to a trade union”.

If Labour was to adopt wholesale the approach of the Obama campaign they would be identifying with precise detail who these people are, what their priorities are and would then be sending very personalised messages to them.

A more radical approach would be to actual enter into conversations with these people. For example, the Labour party does not have to accept that these people are not in Trade Unions. The party could actually ask people about their experience of work and see if they are interested in joining together with their co-workers so that they can have more influence at work.



The Institue of Economic Affairs is wrong: we need more competition in the market for ideas

It’s rare that turkeys write articles in right wing newspapers calling for more Christmas but that is exactly what Ruth Porter the communications director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has done. There are some interesting lessons hidden away in an otherwise contradictory and risible piece.

In her article for The Telegraph Ms. Porters argues that;

“One of the greatest scourges on government today is group identity politics and lobbying of vested interest groups. There is only one answer – it is time for the government to take on all groups at the same time and to finally call for an end to group identity politics. This is a time of economic crisis, it is imperative that the government actually find the courage to govern in the national interest.”

Having read this sharp denunciation of interest groups that lobby government, you might be surprised to learn that the Institute of Economic Affairs actually lobbies government itself. Not only that, but they have a pretty consistent line when it comes to lobbying. They continually and vocally call for fewer legal protections at work, less regulation of banks, lower public funding for green policies and reduced benefits. They will not tell anyone where they get the money to do this lobbying from but we can be pretty sure that it is people and corporations that favour these types of policies (or “vested interests” as some would call them) that fund them.

It might seem strange to some of you to read an article by a lobby group funded by a group of people who presumably have a fair bit in common, calling for the government to ignore lobby groups that are funded by people with a fair bit in common…

What are we to make of this?

Actually what the Institute of Economic Affairs really wants is for the government to stop listening to lobby groups that disagree with the Institute. They signal out AgeUK for protecting pensioners and the National Trust for protecting our historical buildings. Truly these are heinous crimes and I am sure everyone in AgeUK should feel very ashamed of themselves for daring to advocate for older people.

Beneath all this transparently self-serving nonsense there is a serious lesson here. There has been much internal discussion within the Labour Party about the extent to which local branches should expend their efforts on community organizing or more traditional voter identification. Those who favour the community organizer model could learn a lot by doing exactly the opposite of what Ruth Porter advises (actually this is probably also a good guide for life in general).

Rather than needing fewer and weaker groups, we need more and stronger movements fighting for a better life for the people we seek to represent.

The government would not have been able to disproportionately target cuts at young people and those on low and middle incomes if these people had stronger, better organized groups representing and amplify their voices.

Ruth Porter is right when she says that older people’s benefits have been better protected from cuts than others because of the power of their organizations. But we should not be sad about this fact, we should celebrate it and translate it into action to build the power of young people and workers on low and middle incomes.

There is an excellent book by two American political scientists on the dangers of “Winner Takes It All” politics that warns of the dangers inherent in a system where there are no effective checks on the lobbying power of the wealthiest Americans. The only practical way to counter this trend is to develop groups made up of people on middle or low incomes (historically Trade Unions) to act as a check and prevent government policy becoming captured by a very few interest groups.

Or to put it in language that the Institute of Economic Affairs might understand; we must ensure that there is maximum competition in the ideas market.


The private is political

Tenants in private rented accommodation don’t get a lot of attention from politicians. There are sometimes vague calls to cut red tape or to protect tenants’ rights (depending on your politics) but the real hard edge of housing discussions tends to be around mortgages and government built housing.

Reading Ken Livingtone’s manifesto for housing in London and this story about tenants trying to collectively buy their property I was struck by how much more adventurous policy could be in this area.

You see Ken proposes to set up a state back lettings agency, to campaign for lower rents and to “lobby for better regulation of the private rented sector”. All of which seems fine but I would imagine would have very little impact, especially since the Tory led government are very unlikely to increase regulation on the sector and landlords will set their rents according to the market not the mayor.

The Capitol Park Towers tenants association in South West DC are concerned that their apartments are going to be sold and that the new owners will increase the rent dramatically.

Currently, the City government does a few things to support tenants in this situation, notably the Opportunity to Purchase Act gives residents the first right of refusal to buy their apartments and their is theoretical money to support this (theoretical but oversubscribed).

Say that we believed that the existing tenants should be given every chance of taking over collective ownership of their block, what support might the government provide that goes beyond what is currently offered?

Here are some thoughts;

  • Support with organizing the tenants association

Where there is no tenants association and one needs to be quickly formed there are lots of things that need to be done including knocking on doors, holding meetings, drawing up constitutions, setting up bank accounts, holding elections and so on.

This is all work that is quite demanding and can be very tricky given the importance of what is being talked about and the need to balance strong personalities. Community organizers can be a big help in these situations. In Camden, the Federation of Private Tenants do an excellent job and I have seen how ONE DC have done similar work in Washington.

  • A city wide network of people who have been through the same thing

Tenants who find themselves in this situation are often keen to hear from other people that have had similar experiences. Not necessarily so that they can do things in exactly the same way but to feel less alone, to believe that things can be achieved and to pick up a few tips on what to do and what not to do.

  • Credit

Perhaps this is a bit controversial but I think the city government could provide lines of credit to tenants in this situation.

You can imagine a situation whereby the tenants association collectively agreed to transfer the ownership of their apartments to a Community Land Trust. Each tenant could put in as much money as they saw fit (either from savings or raised privately e.g. through a co-op or bank) to own a percentage of their property. In addition, the tenants association could raise as much money collectively as possible (e.g. through government grants, foundations etc…). The difference between the asking price and the amount the tenants raised could be made up through a loan from the city government. This loan would then be re-paid through both rent but also whenever a unit was sold.

I’m no expert on this but I think you can imagine an agreement whereby a percentage of the sale price of each unit went back to the city and the new owner agreed to pay the city a percentage of the sale price when they eventually sold their property. And so on until the loan plus interest was repaid.

I think the combination of a credit facility, professional organizers and a network of people who have been through the experience would be a real support for private tenants who want to take collective ownership of their apartments.

Do let me know if you have any thoughts on this idea, as I have not seen it written about much elsewhere…