We don’t have to choose between the party and community organising

by Karin Christiansen

With the re-launch of “movement for change” there are some important debates that need to be started within the party, but also a few that we really need to move beyond.

We should stop debating whether community organising is an ends or a means, whether it is about winning elections or empowering communities.  It is both. People can prioritise and see the sequencing in different ways, but we can still all let’s get on and do it.  As Anthony Painter pointed out in Uncut on Feb 4, when the original Chicago modellers hit the barriers of political power, they shifted their techniques to “hard” direct party-political campaigning.

But beware straw men in this “organising as means or ends” debate. Community organisers are well aware of the importance of who wins an election to achieving and delivering on community empowerment objectives. Similarly, even those who see community organising in purely instrumentalist terms, as basically a great technique for recruiting door knockers to up our contact rates and get out the vote, don’t believe that winning elections is the sole function of the Labour party, but that empowering communities matters too. Differences in emphasis, articulation and ideas about what causes what don’t mean there should be oppositions of either principle or practice.

Anthony Painter emphasises that we shouldn’t be looking to pick a winning model right now, but need more experimentation and evidence. I would go further and suggest that we shouldn’t be looking to pick a single model at all. There is no single approach to organising that will work everywhere or for everyone. Context matters – in terms of party, people and place. Our organisers need to be given a full range of models, skills and techniques that they can select from, experiment with and adapt to the situation they find themselves in. A central London or Birmingham constituency is likely to respond very differently to its counterparts in the semi-rural home counties or the industrial heartlands of the North.

So the movement for change is an approach that should be central to the future of the Labour party, simultaneously as a way of winning elections, re-engaging with communities and empowering people. But the movement cannot mean everyone marching in line and in time. Rather, it should be seen as an approach to experimenting and skilling up a new cadre of organisers armed with a wealth of techniques and approaches with which to support our activists, supporters, members and comrades.

We need to try different approaches and collect the evidence on how and why they work. What we must not do is pit them against each other or encourage factionalism around particular schools of thought or practice.

The Labour party needs the movement for change not just to transform communities, but for those very community organisers and communities in turn to transform the Labour Party.

Karin Christiansen is part of Labour Values and a contributing author to The Change We Need.

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3 Responses to “We don’t have to choose between the party and community organising”

  1. Hi Karin

    For those new to the movement for change, in terms of policy what change are you advocating?

  2. Robert says:

    I’ve no much to say really except this…

    18 Feb 2011

    THE deaths of two people who were waiting for appeals to be heard against the loss of benefits has prompted calls for a fairer assessment system.

    The two claimants, both from West Dunbartonshire, died from the conditions which caused them to claim Incapacity Benefit (IB) while waiting for appeals to be heard against cuts to their benefits.

    One was deemed fit for work during a work capability assessment, despite having a deteriorating chronic illness, and lost both incapacity benefit and disability living allowance.

    When his support worker appeared at the appeal tribunal she had to report her client could not be there because he was dead. The appeal was upheld and the backpayment will become part of his estate.

    The other had a congenital condition which caused difficulty in walking but was assessed capable of work and his incapacity benefit was withdrawn. He was waiting for a date for an appeal tribunal when he died.

    The assessment was inadequate and very unprofessional. The doctor simply did not have the information
    A third person, again from West Dunbartonshire, died recently after winning a second appeal tribunal following three years of repeated assessments and decisions being overturned.

    He worked as a shop assistant in his 20s but was forced to give up due to severe heart and lung problems caused by a degenerative syndrome.

    An “indefinite” award of IB and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was revoked after only two months on the basis of a questionnaire he had filled in.

    Six months later it was reinstated by an appeal tribunal. Despite this ruling and the finding that his condition was worse than the original assessment, his case was once again referred for medical assessment.

    Once again, the benefit was withdrawn. He appealed again, with help from staff at the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, and a tribunal date set for a further six months on.

    This is Labour not the Tories and it’s a pretty shocking inditment of were Labour has gone, and now you have Miliband telling people he will back the Tories as he said in Wales last week.

    All I can say after 46 years in labour do not kncok on my door grass roots or not.

  3. Tacitus says:

    Whenever I hear the term “movement for change” I think of Liberal ‘wishy washy’ community politics and I start to trmeble in fear. Just what is this change they are offering? Communitarianism? Is that really how low we are prepared to stoop\? To forego our socialist values, for a few votes from local community organisations?

    Are we really that desperate for power that we have to nick (no pun intended) Lib Dem policies, or are we offering something different? If we are – we need to shout it louder, because I sure don’t know.

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