Labour Still Needs Community Organising – But it Has to Change

Adopting community organising was an important step to rebuilding Labour's roots in working-class areas – but to be effective it needs to focus on building power that lasts beyond elections.

Rewind to the aftermath of our almost-victory in 2017 as we sought the magic ingredient to push us over the line into power. The answer seemed clear: organising.

As the parliamentary candidate for Rother Valley in 2019 – the home of the Battle of Orgreave, a Labour seat since its inception in 1918, which we lost to the Tories in December by 6,318 votes – I know what we needed from a Labour Party organising unit to win in leave voting seats where people had lost trust in us. 

A consensus had grown among the Left of the party that a conservative and limited campaigning strategy was to blame for our lack of success. We had too often focused on knocking on doors to identify voters’ intentions without any attempt to have persuasive conversations, to unpick why people weren’t voting Labour or to seek to relate or even understand working-class people’s concerns.

Decades of tearing down community-based institutions – from tenants associations to trade unions – resulted in the loss of a sense of collectivity and solidarity amongst our class. It is an issue which desperately needs redressing. But it is made an even greater challenge when set alongside the decline of social and organising spaces, such as miners’ welfares and social clubs. 

Community organising, the process of building powerful communities and working-class leaders, of winning tangible change through collective action, is an essential solution to these problems.

And so it was welcome when the Labour Party turned in this direction. Dan Firth, who had experience in the NGO sector with Citizens UK, devised a plan to radically transform staff structures introduce a campaigning model to the party – this produced the Community Organising Unit (COU).

The idea was to embed community organisers in key target marginal seats across the country to listen to the issues that people care about, and help them build campaigns to win real change on a local level. Delivering a youth centre through a local campaign was far more tangible to voters, the logic went, than a promise to build one in a manifesto that in reality few people would read.

The COU had a blueprint for how this would work. In 2015, Doncaster CLP and their MP Ed Miliband led a campaign against unscrupulous rent-to-own company BrightHouse who were ripping off vulnerable people in the community. A vibrant community campaign of house meetings, street stalls and protests saw many members get active and engaged for the first time. And they won: BrightHouse was forced to give £15million to 80,000 customers across the country.

This is a great story and a commendable example to attempt to replicate and scale. But, unfortunately, the Community Organising Unit hasn’t been able to match that success – despite a budget well in excess of £1 million.

There are many reasons why that might be the case. In 2018 the Community Organising Unit launched, recruiting a diverse and talented organising team, who were committed to doing the hard slog to rebuild trust in our communities – and to win a Labour government along the way. 

But as electoral pressures came to overtake long-term strategies, that dream dissipated. The goalposts were constantly shifted, alongside the COU’s plans and models, and no consistent method of measuring success was introduced.

After setting out to challenge the dominant model of organising within the party, the unit quickly became enmeshed in existing practices. The project had aimed to win local issue-based campaigns. Instead, organisers were drafted in to help with local electioneering, by-elections and ultimately the general election.

At times, the COU seemed almost to be doing the job of Labour’s regional offices. But most community organisers were relatively new to the party and were given little support in navigating organisational structures or winning campaigns.

Take an example from my own region in Yorkshire. A promising campaign was launched in rural Shipley, organising the community against multi-million pound bus company FirstBus. A bus service that had served a housing estate for decades, connecting a largely elderly population to the town centre, had been cut because it wasn’t profitable.

Alongside the Labour Party, members of the community were coming out in force, sticking up posters on local bus stops, gaining over 500 signatures on an open letter and holding vibrant community meetings. They escalated to direct action, forming a human blockade in the street, wielding makeshift signs to divert buses back to their estate – while delivering homemade cakes to the bus drivers in true Yorkshire nan fashion.

But at this critical time in the campaign, just before securing a win for the community, the COU’s organisers were pulled out of Shipley and sent to constituencies deemed more strategically important for the local elections. After the elections were over, when the organisers returned to Shipley, the momentum of the campaign had died and the community had hardened against Labour, who had raised their expectations and then abandoned them.

There is no doubt that our movement needs to rebuild from the grassroots in communities and workplaces if we ever want a chance of implementing socialism and improving the lives of the many. This is a long-term project that needs proper direction, that can’t be measured on electoral successes within a year of starting up and shouldn’t be used as a factional battering ram. But we must engage in good faith criticism of the way Labour organises if we are to win again.

The Labour Party has a lot to learn from the likes of community union ACORN, who have recruited members in their droves since the election and the onset of the coronavirus crisis, building a rank-and-file organisation that is embedded in our communities. They have a replaceable model for building leadership that has seen them grow from a few friends in Bristol to a national union of thousands in five years. ACORN uses direct action to take on landlords, international banks and fossil fuel companies – and they’re winning.

But there are other forms of organising developing during the current crisis too, particularly mutual aid groups. Labour should look to these and also radical service provision, such as buyers clubs and community childcare, to show that our party is grounded in our communities and that can provide for the people the Tories are failing.

In the area I represent as a councillor, the community is supporting children to grow and tend to an apple orchard in the middle of an ex-pit village, providing free food and activities for working-class kids. But international examples are worthwhile too. We can learn from the Black Panther breakfast clubs, a programme to feed children which scaled up quickly across the United States. Former Panther Billy X Jennings called the programme “one of the biggest and baddest things we ever did.”

Like the breakfast clubs, the parents of the children tending our orchard become leaders in our movement, understanding deeply how communities can achieve things through struggle and solidarity. We have the seeds of community organising already planted, and an effective Community Organising Unit could help us grow these initiatives into political consciousness and power. 

The party’s huge resources mean we could be setting a wider agenda, investing in and supporting trade unions, community organisations like ACORN and small local projects, to scale up and set alight the sparks of organising work that is already taking place. Organising empowers the working-class communities Labour needs to defeat the Tories – both day by day in terms of their anti-worker policies and in the longer term in an election.

Labour’s electoral woes won’t be overcome without reweaving a social fabric torn apart by decades of neoliberalism. When we look around us we can see that there is a real appetite for organising to meet the challenges we face as a society, from coronavirus to the climate crisis, poverty pay and growing inequality.

If we don’t capture this energy we are wasting a resource which can bring enormous dynamism to the party. But we can’t see community organising just as a means of winning elections or gaining votes; community organising is about building working-class power. If Labour’s Community Organising Unit can be reorganised on this basis, then it can play a crucial role in the fightback against the Tory government.