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’s wrong with rising house prices?

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme could raise house prices by 20% in the next couple of years, according to a report by Fathom Consultancy.

This is not being heralded as good news by everyone (although The Express has followed its time honoured tradition of solely reporting on speculation about house prices with a very positive story)

But why would it be a bad thing for house prices to go up? We don’t worry so much when share prices go up, why are house prices any different?

Three of the most important reasons for concern about booming house prices are;

  • It could be a bubble followed by a housing crash leaving people in ‘negative equity’

  • Rising house prices can make it harder for first time buyers to afford to buy (especially if they do not have help from the bank of mum and dad)

  • Less commented on, but still important, richer people might benefit disproportionately from rising house prices since they own more property wealth than the rest of us

So, as Lenin famously once said, what is to be done?

There is a healthy debate in think-tank land about so-called ‘de-coupling’, the idea that as the economy grows middle and low income people do not benefit because their wages do not keep up. This has lead to proposals such as living wage zones and representation of low paid workers on remuneration committees.

Perhaps we need a similar debate around how we can ensure that everyone benefits from rising house prices.

This could involve ways of re-distributing housing wealth including;

A land value tax

– A ‘mansion tax

– Or even more technical reforms of how we tax land and property which can be found in the Mirrelees Review

The money that these measures raise could then in turn be used to benefit those who do not have the good fortune of owning expensive properties that have gone up in value.

This could happen, for example, through;

– Funding a programme of housing associations or council built starter homes

– Funding part of the state pension as it becomes increasingly contributory

– Paying for part of a new universal adult social care system

Of course, as with so many questions of public policy, there is a possibility that any attempt to both take the heat out of the housing market and distribute gains more fairly, could be self defeating if they dampen the market too much.

However, this does not take away from the principle, that, currently, wealthy people disproportionately benefit from rising house prices and that we need to think about how we create a system in which more and more people, especially those on low and middle incomes, can benefit.