Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Starmer’s War on Grassroots Politics

For Keir Starmer, scrapping the Community Organising Unit and attacking party democracy are part of a single project: to turn Labour back into a party of the establishment.

Its days had appeared numbered for some time, but it has finally been confirmed that Labour’s Community Organising Unit is to be disbanded. Earlier this month, the party informed community organising staff that their contracts, which are due to expire in May, would not be renewed. With unemployment soaring, this hardly seems like the act of a conscientious employer, not least one that supposedly prides itself on being ‘the party of work and jobs’. The party now appears to expect unpaid CLP officers to pick up the slack.

The dismantling of the Community Organising Unit must be looked at in the context of Keir Starmer’s ongoing drive to marginalise the socialist left at all levels, from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party machine to the constituencies, where the crackdown grows ever more absurd. It emerged on Wednesday that the chair and secretary of North West Cambridgeshire CLP had been suspended over a motion of no confidence in Starmer and general secretary David Evans which had been withdrawn before it was even debated.

It appears that the Community Organising Unit had come to be seen as something of a hive of sedition, and as one of the last redoubts of Corbynism. In particular, it seems that it is viewed by the current leadership as ‘indelibly linked’ to Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief of staff, Karie Murphy, with its staff apparently looked on with suspicion as her ‘personal allies.’ If this really is uppermost in the party leadership’s concerns, it’s a bizarrely neurotic way of determining whether or not the Community Organising Unit should have a future.

There’s nothing inherently radical in the idea of community organising itself, and Labour’s experiments with it predate Corbyn’s leadership. Indeed, community organising was briefly in vogue on the Labour right. When Barack Obama—famously, a former community organiser—became US president, there was much discussion in Labour Party circles about how it might be brought to Britain. David Miliband, for instance, set up the Obama-style Movement for Change, which lasted about as long as his leadership prospects.

Blue Labour thinker Maurice Glasman, also a former community organiser, subsequently introduced Ed Miliband to Alinskyite campaigner Arnie Graf, who was then appointed by Labour to pioneer new organising methods. As Eunice Goes recounts in her study of Miliband’s leadership, Graf was viewed with suspicion among Miliband’s shadow cabinet, which viewed his campaign themes—including payday loans and the living wage—as ‘too anti-business.’ Rumours about Graf’s immigration status were then briefed to The Sun.

Jeremy Corbyn picked up the baton following his shock rise to the Labour leadership. After much bureaucratic obstruction, the Community Organising Unit was launched in January 2018. It could hardly reverse four decades of labour movement decline single-handedly, but at its best it undertook some impressive initiatives, such as organising among renters and football fans’ groups, as well as stimulating lively discussion about economic alternatives and Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution in some working-class communities.

Of course, the Community Organising Unit couldn’t prevent a terrible defeat for Labour at the 2019 general election, but it does appear to have helped stem some losses. Ian Lavery wrote in Tribune a year ago that Labour’s community organisers had been active in 30 key marginals during the campaign, and that where they had been active in Yorkshire, the swing against Labour was only three per cent compared to a regional swing of 10 per cent.

It would be reductive, in any case, to assess the Community Organising Unit purely by its electoral efficacy. Its foundation marked an important recognition that Labour needed to thoroughly rebuild at the grassroots after 40 years of the party being hollowed out. With the institutions that once rooted the party in working-class areas—trade union branches, Labour clubs, co-operatives and so on—having largely been pulled up (a long-term strategic objective of the Thatcherite project), Labour has been substantially weakened electorally.

The impact of all this goes well beyond any electoral implications. A much more profound demoralisation has set in. In the absence of these institutions, once fundamental in binding many working-class communities, the nativist and revanchist appeals of the right have been able to make more headway. As Callum Cant put it: “When people’s everyday lives are lived in a state of constant alienation and isolation then you can dominate them by dominating their media system—and this is exactly what the Tory party managed to do.”

Obviously, it would have been asking far too much to expect the Community Organising Unit to reverse these trends all by itself. Nevertheless, it did lay foundations that ought to have been built on. Angela Rayner appeared to recognise as much in her ‘Manifesto for a Movement’, issued as part of her campaign for the deputy leadership, when she called on Labour ‘to find a new strength and collective purpose’ through an ‘activist-led and activist-centred’ approach to locally-rooted organising. 

Warm words but, as it has turned out, they couldn’t be more at odds with the centralising, bureaucratic power grab which Keir Starmer has presided over. The abolition of the Community Organising Unit is a clear backward step, intended to satisfy Labour’s most retrograde elements. Right-wing Labour councillors seem to have resented its influence with a passion; some of them heckled and scoffed at Rebecca Long-Bailey for mentioning it on the hustings during the leadership election last year.

It also goes against the recommendations of Labour Together’s 2019 Election Review—generally a thoughtful and constructive document—which suggested that community organising should be central to building “a genuine popular movement… deeply rooted in our communities.” The current Labour leadership, regrettably, appears to have zero interest in building any such movement, beholden as it is to self-interested bureaucrats and managerialist office-holders who can’t bear to relinquish any of their own petty privileges.

Almost exactly a year ago, before he took office, Tribune wrote of Keir Starmer’s project that its aim was ‘a slicker parliamentary operation, closer relationships with the press and a return to focus-grouped professional politics.’ It predicted ‘another four or five years of Labour trying to master the dark arts of Westminster, while the party in the broader country continues to wither on the vine.’ That diagnosis now seems accurate. So, too, does its conclusion in the wake of Corbyn’s suspension last October:

 [Corbynism] was convinced that there was another way of doing politics – one which could be more participatory, more democratic and more engaged with social movements outside of Westminster. This is an approach which Starmer and his team have set out to dismantle in the Labour Party, reducing it again to a narrow electoral vehicle which sees its own membership as an inconvenience. Soon, they will put the final nail in this coffin by shutting down the Community Organising Unit.

Already, the pattern looks grimly familiar. The Guardian reported last week that a report produced (inevitably) by a consultancy firm had advised the Labour leadership that more ostentatious displays of patriotism would help ‘give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.’ Where the Community Organising Unit aimed to raise people’s sights and convince them that a better world was both possible and necessary, the Starmer leadership offers only contrived nationalism in lieu of any substantial vision for social change.

The Community Organising Unit was only given three years, but despite its short life, its example is worth studying. If Labour is serious about rebuilding trust among the people it aspires to represent, it cannot afford to treat them as mere floating-voting consumers, to be condescended to with signalling and branding. It has to prove that it is committed to their material welfare and empowerment. The Community Organising Unit was founded on this recognition, and Labour will be worse off without it.