Movement for change: the man who coined the phrase questions its embrace by Labour

by Anthony Painter

It is rum that community organising has risen to such prominence as a result of the election of Barack Obama. Because, of course, he would never have been president had he not turned his back on community organising. By the time he went to Harvard to study law, he had lost faith in the ability of organising to achieve significant change.

One of his leading activists turned around one day and said to the young Barack, “Ain’t nothing gonna change, Mr Obama. We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can”.

David Mendell, Obama’s biographer, also chronicles his loss of faith in organising by his third year on the south side of Chicago. He had come to the conclusion that without hard political power, his time was wasted. Upon the untimely death of his political hero, Harold Washington, Obama “felt shackled by the limited power of a small nonprofit group to create expansive change”, writes Mendell.

His campaign certainly adopted some of the insights of the community organising tradition: focus on organisation building, networked through kith and kin, focus on the ultra-local. Equally, it concentrated ruthlessly on hard political power, was centrally directed and had intense message discipline. In other words, its core narrative came from the top, while its organisation reached into community grassroots. It was focused on the hard power of community campaigning rather than the soft power of community organising.

When the Birmingham Edgbaston campaign looked to learn from the success of Obama ’08, it sought to understand it as a community-based hard political campaign, as opposed to looking back at Obama’s community organising years. Obama ’08 – the movement for change – was a political movement. Its plan was to mirror the “new (political) organiser” model described by Zack Exley, and then develop ever more sophisticated means of issue-based community engagement once victory had been secured. And that is what it is now doing.

Simultaneously, campaigners in Oxford, Tower Hamlets, Gedling, Westminster North, Dulwich and West Norwood and many other places were innovating and learning in similar ways. What is so impressive is that the Labour movement has been able to evolve effectively from within itself in many places. It is a cause for intense optimism.

At the same time, the hope not hate campaign combined community campaign, issue focus, political education, utter professionalism and devotion to the cause, with the latest innovations in new and social media (many directly from the Obama ’08 campaign). In May 2010, it wiped the BNP off the face of the electoral map. Constituency Labour parties and issue-based campaigns were enjoying real success. Their success was based around matching the hard politics of electoral success with the soft politics of community dialogue and issue identification. And it was springing out of the Labour political and cultural tradition.

Labour not only needs to learn from its own traditions and any successes of sister parties; there are lessons to learn outside the movement also. And that is what “movement for change” – which has received the backing of Ed Miliband according to the Guardian – is designed to do. It has finance and is recruiting. It is to be constituted as a socialist society within the Labour party and will acquire the status of other similar affiliates, such as the fabian society, BAME Labour, or the Co-op party.

“Movement for change” brings with it insights from the successes of London citizens. Most impressive are their achievements in getting companies and public bodies to adopt the living wage. Since being established by David Miliband, movement for change has provoked two equal and opposite reactions within the Labour party: enthusiasm and suspicion. There is a real buzz around them in some quarters; in others, there is resistance not just from sticks in the mud but from some of the party’s most successful campaigners.

My own view – and this is a conversation I have been involved with for some time both intellectually and practically – is that movement for change has something real to offer, but it is as yet unproven. We do not know what impact it will have on electoral success and whether it will achieve real change. We just don’t know whether the early creases will be ironed out. And there is a worryingly top down nature to adopting one pathway as the right approach when it comes to new organising models (this is the practical reality of making it an affiliate with endorsement). What will actually mesh with the party’s culture is unknown – though we have a number of models that we know have worked in specific circumstances.

It is important to realise that among the loose language being used in this arena that what was done in Birmingham Edgbaston, and elsewhere, is very different to what hope not hate did. Both of these models do have an electoral objective and have resulted in important election victories. However they are both very different to the community organising focus of movement for change, which has no explicit electoral objective.

What is important now is for the party to have a real dialogue and to avoid elevating one approach above the rest. It needs evidence-based organising, if you like. What will change communities by organising them and what will get Labour people in place to make decisions that change communities through elected office? It is a pragmatic question – as how the party organises should be.

As a party, as an organisation, there is more creative energy in local Labour parties now than at any time for at least a decade. The fashion for community organising may be piquant given that Barack Obama deserted it for Harvard law school – though his 2008 campaign did adopt harder techniques that learnt in some (limited) respects from the community organising tradition. Obama ’08 – and his movement for change – has precipitated a questioning of the ways in which the party campaigns.

Nobody has the right answers yet is my hunch, so let’s keep an open mind before adopting any single model into the party structures. Let us work out the best (and various) ways to nurture this creative energy and achieve the real and lasting change that frustratingly evaded Obama in Chicago’s south side. That is until he was able to include some line items for investment in the south side in his first budget as US president.

Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: the Movement for Change.

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One Response to “Movement for change: the man who coined the phrase questions its embrace by Labour”

  1. Ian Silvera says:

    I wonder how many young activists will see the ‘movement for change’ as a work experience or ‘get your foot in the door’ opportunity. Rather than a movement in and of itself? Cynical, I know.

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