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In Defence of Community Organising

Community organising is a vital part of rebuilding the Labour Party at the grassroots – but it will take time and shouldn't be expected to produce immediate results, argues Ian Lavery.

This leadership election is primarily about the people who lead us and the ideas they bring. I have made my contribution to this debate clear: we need to finally accept the referendum result and talk about the country we want to live in after Brexit; we need working-class communities in town and city alike to be at the centre of the party’s return to power; and we need to convince people that the huge shift in wealth and power we promised is achievable.

But if we are asking people not to mourn but to organise, then we need to talk about organisation as well, and whether our structures are doing all they can to develop our ability to win. Rebecca Long-Bailey has promised to modernise our party. I have worked on Labour campaigns for decades and too often seen resistance to change motivated by the fear of losing internal power struggles. That fear has been on display from people who have wrongly presented community organising as a factional attack.   

But the terrain on which we fight elections is changing under our feet and our party operation must be flexible. Chairing the Labour campaign, I could see all too clearly where we weren’t adapting fast enough and, despite our best efforts, sliding backward from 2017. This election we had more activists than ever reaching more people than ever. But it was often difficult to get people out of major cities until late in the campaign. We need to establish Labour’s presence in the areas we need to win. Our plan to win has to mix our broader political approach with our organisational ideas – or it will not work.  

Labour’s new Community Organising Unit (COU), pledged by Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 and launched throughout 2018, can be an example of how the best of our traditions can meet the modern day. Where local civil society and the trade union movement have collapsed, Labour can play a role in building community power and rebuilding trust at the same time, as we were always meant to. And we can combine this with new technologies and models of organisation to support activists.

This election, Labour’s community organisers trained thousands of activists in the art of persuasive conversations. The unit operated in only 30 key seats for a short time, but without it we may well have lost even more. In Yorkshire, the swing away from Labour in seats where community organisers operated was 3% compared to a regional swing of over 10%. An assessment of all community organising events in the round indicates a similar pattern of reduced swing.    

Of course, more detailed analysis of our systems is needed and calculating the impact of particular initiatives will always be an inexact science. But the contribution of community organisers is undeniable when looking at the full picture. For instance, the popular narrative around our solitary win in Putney is that it was driven solely by middle-class professionals deserting the Conservatives over Brexit. But this ignores our Community Organising team, which spent extensive time organising with working-class residents in Roehampton around housing conditions in one of Europe’s biggest estates.

To win elections we need to look beyond just the elections themselves. Ideas and leadership are vital to rebuilding trust, but so are real connections. In an age where it is harder to map how voters make decisions and they are bombarded with information from different sources, the human element is critical. Labour has to show people, not just tell them, that it is on their side.

We can do that by using our time in opposition to create real change in people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, and put Labour at the heart of community life. Organising can amplify the work of Labour councillors and their ability to reach, engage and help people. They can aid people and unions to achieve concrete wins against Tory cuts, bad bosses, and dodgy landlords. They can support mutual aid projects and the important work of local charities, while organising people to change the conditions that make charity necessary. They can build power.

Over the last year, Labour’s community organisers have worked with organisations and people at the sharp end of fighting austerity, developing grassroots leadership and building people-led campaigns whether supporting tenants to take on rogue landlords or football fans in Newcastle to challenge billionaire owner Mike Ashley. Many of our manifesto policies were developed through conversations with people from all walks of life telling us what needed to change in their lives.

One of the problems we had at the election was that people did not believe another way of life was possible. Thatcher and her heirs attacked public services and also introduced the cold logic of profiteering into every element of our communities, stripping decency out of public life. People heard us talk of a society built around the common good and could not imagine what it looked like and how we would get there.

Strong community organising can start to change those perceptions by giving concrete examples of how we can work together for change now and how much more we could achieve with a Labour government. In future we should not need a unit – community, industrial, digital and doorstep organising should be conducted simultaneously by networks of staff and volunteers. But we are not there yet.

Our current model is imperfect. But we should not abandon new inventions because some of our ideas are in the prototype stage – just as we should not abandon Labour’s much needed shift away from failed business-as-usual politics because our first attempt to break new ground failed.

I grew up in a community where people were close-knit, and talked about many things including politics – and when we needed to, we organised together. We didn’t support Labour because Labour “found the right way to reach us.” We were not “people who needed a Labour government,” we were the people who wanted to shape a Labour government. We supported Labour because we were Labour.

A far-reaching attempt to re-establish Labour in the places we need to win, in political, industrial and community spheres, has to be part of our strategy to rebuild trust and win the next election. The status quo is not enough.