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Understanding Community Organising

If Labour is to make use of community organising, the party has to understand that it is not about short-term electoral gains – it's about building long-term power in communities.

In 2008, Barack Obama claimed the most transformative experience of his career was working as a community organiser with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago. His opponents took the opportunity to mock this rather odd line in the CV of a presidential candidate. Sarah Palin joked, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organiser,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

A decade later and debates about the effectiveness of Labour’s Community Organising Unit often fail to address a fundamental question once asked by former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani: “what exactly does a community organiser actually do?”

Community organising is an approach to creating social change that was developed by Saul Alinsky through his Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago in the late 1930s. It focuses on questions of power inequalities and organises community members around their own self-interest to achieve small, tangible wins against the powers-that-be through confrontational tactics. The Left has traditionally been weary of Alinsky who consciously pitted himself against communists and the union movement, which he perceived as hopelessly naïve, ideological and unable to compromise. 

What has differentiated community organising from other forms of progressive and socialist politics is its “pragmatic” (non-partisan, anti-ideological) bent, its focus on leadership development and the goal of building organisations driven by “people power”. There was no overarching vision of a future society – it was the process that mattered. Alinsky focussed on “immediate, specific, and winnable issues” for the purpose of growing the organisation and building the collective power of its members. The tradition has developed over the years through the Industrial Areas Foundation, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and other organisations.

When Obama’s campaign team adopted certain aspects of the rhetoric and tactics of community organising for his election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 they did so only by creating a fundamental contradiction: were communities organising for their own power or to get Obama elected? The two objectives weren’t mutually exclusive, but in the heat of an election campaign the temptation is always to prioritise voter identification and turnout.

There is something deeply antithetical to the spirit of community organising in mobilising citizens for the instrumental goal of electing a politician. Regardless of how progressive a politician’s ideals might be, community organising is about increasing the power, resilience and self-confidence of a community.

“Change won’t come from the top” said a young Obama, “change will come from a mobilised grassroots.” Obama never fulfilled those hopes that he would become America’s Organiser-in-Chief and champion the power of social movements as instruments of social change. In hindsight, much of his rhetoric on community organising appears self-serving. 

This is why the debate over community organising in Labour is taking place on the wrong terrain. Its proponents should not try to justify it in terms of short-term electoral gains. The real value of community organising lies in its ability to strengthen the bonds and organisational capacity of a community against attack by powerful interests. Labour can use techniques from the tradition to begin to rebuild trust where it has been lost, re-establish connections with neglected parts of the country and train a new generation of leaders.

If the purpose of community organising is properly understood as a pursuit of these long-term goals, it need not deliver immediate electoral victories in its first 12 months. A leaked report presented to Labour’s National Executive Committee seeking to justify continued investment in the Community Organising Unit reads like a pre-given conclusion in search of an argument with cherry-picked evidence. But that shouldn’t be surprising. In many respects, community organising is unsuited to flash electoral campaigns precisely because it relies on the gradual and long-term development of organisations and leaders. 

Community organising isn’t persuasive conversation training or increasing the contact rate with voters. That’s just campaigning. As it turned out, there were major weaknesses with Labour’s ground campaign, particularly in regions outside of major cities. Labour needs to get better at campaigning too, but this is a different question, and confusing the two only muddies the water.

Labour’s community organisers have already done amazing work. From supporting tenants of rogue landlords to fighting alongside low-paid workers for living wages, Labour’s organisers have been out there building resilience against years of Tory austerity. Community organising is not a factional tool designed to entrench a particular group’s grip on power. It should be given an opportunity to develop and to help re-establish Labour’s presence in community life. 

There are important tools in community organising: the art of personal storytelling, the purposeful and strategic “one-to-one” relational meeting, the focus on building a community group’s power and the cultivation of future leaders. Labour can incorporate these as part of its arsenal. In particular, community organising can help solve three fundamental problems.

First, community organising flips the script on how to reconnect Labour to the communities it seeks to serve. Rather than start by delivering Labour’s transformative message, an important first step is to listen and to identify shared needs and interests. Too often, we wonder how to better communicate our message without listening to what matters for local communities. By actively supporting local community groups the Labour Party can help rebuild its reputation and work with people on their own terms, not simply during election campaigns. This is a valuable good in itself, but will pay electoral dividends through the solidarity it generates.

Second, it helps rebuild organisation outside of the major cities. Labour has been stacking up votes in inner-city seats and losing voters in different parts of the country for several decades. It desperately needs to extend its supporter base to regional areas through work with local communities. This is already happening to a limited extent, but training in community organising techniques can help Labour councillors and activists engage with more people and support projects for social change. Struggling alongside communities against dodgy landlords, unfair employers and ongoing cuts to local services in regional areas will help expand Labour’s support base. 

Third, community organising can help strike a balance between ensuring an effective digital strategy that has a targeted and strategic approach to social media and a ground campaign rooted in local struggles and built on face-to-face relationships. Rebecca Long-Bailey made the important point of building a “dedicated creative digital communications unit within the party.” But we shouldn’t become too enamoured by slick social media campaigns that don’t necessarily target those we really need to reach.

One of the lessons of the Corbyn era is the limits of a London-centric “hub and spokes” model of digital campaigning in which a small, centralised leadership communicates digital messages out to an email list and on social media pages. We have shown in 2017 that we can outplay the Tories on social media, but this is no replacement for long-term relationship building.

Community organising encourages a patient labour of listening, investing in people and building lasting relationships. By working with communities to solve their problems Labour can offer tangible proof that it’s on their side.