In an occasional series to run through the new year, the “Rooted in community” posts will look at those practical, local activities where Labour values are transforming peoples’ lives.
At a time of cuts and public spending restraint, Labour can still make a difference by going back to its community roots. Today, Jake Sumner describes how an old piano factory in Camden Town became a hub for social change that is rejuvenating the local community
Labour is strongest when it is connected to communities. It seems obvious but it is often overlooked what that fully means.
Knocking on doors is one way of course, and for candidates and local parties it helps with understanding and acting on people’s concerns.
One idea I picked up in the USA on the Obama campaigns is starting on the door with: ‘Hello, I’m a volunteer [with the Obama campaign]’. Saying you’re a volunteer sounds normal. Millions of people are volunteers in all walks of life. And being a volunteer has other gains: volunteers aren’t expected to know everything, giving more latitude on the doorstep, and it is easier to recruit volunteers too.
In the USA I asked everyone voting Obama if they wanted to help out and I recruited about 40 volunteers. Asking people to become a volunteer is a much smaller step than becoming a member. But, above all, a volunteer reflects more what many Labour members actually are: committed members of the community. Some PPCs I’ve talked to like the idea and are using in their areas.
A tweaked introduction is one thing, more fundamentally I’ve always thought of the Labour Party as a movement of volunteers and community champions. This idea can be the party’s strength and the basis for approaching policies and action.
Woven through Labour’s DNA is community politics. Labour has been a movement for change, a vehicle to campaign for social improvement, to bring people together in collective and common good.
Many local organisations have their roots through the work of Labour members from local advice and community centres, advocacy organisations, local charities and groups covering tenant, environment, BME, heath and education issues. National organisations too, have their roots in Labour – like the Ramblers Association and the work that GHB Ward began in Sheffield demanding public access to the local moorland.
Many of these organisations aren’t party political but they are imbued with Labour values and the Labour Party in turn has been shaped by them. It has also made Labour stronger and makes Labour better at campaigning.
There is a question as to whether Labour is still the movement it has been and how can we rekindle this to make the party stronger?
Today, there is an increasing focus on seeking elected office to Parliament. It is often seen as the sole way to achieve social change, obscuring the idea that through working via community organisations a considerable and tangible difference can be made. If we are serious about decentralisation then we must be less Westminster bubble focused, less-Parliament-centric. Community politics and action should be the bedrock and foundation of what we do. This is something Arnie Graf has talked about and looked to rebuild with the Labour party.
It brings huge opportunities. It is the story of the possible and it is what I will now outline through my involvement with my community organisation where I live in Camden.
Nearly 30 years ago local people in Camden Town in north London put down the roots of Castlehaven Community Association (CCA) converting an old piano factory to a community centre to plug the gap of the lack of facilities and services for older and younger people. It has provided many different services for the local community from an under-5s drop in for mums to a youth club and days out for pensioners to local history talks.
I’ve been involved for 15 years first as a local councillor and over the last decade as a member of the Board and Trustee.
The organisation has grown quite a bit since it started out and we now employ more than 20 staff, we’ve four acres of land which houses two main buildings (one a purpose build youth centre) a children’s playground, football pitch and park space.
But the organisation is at a crossroads. Funding is ever tighter. The Government has cut funding to community organisations, while Camden Council’s budget is severely squeezed through the huge government cuts to councils which affect cities and areas like ours the most. Other grants from third party and philanthropic organisations are also much harder to come by.