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.
But, against this we have our assets: great staff, a committed and impressive director, the land, facilities, and a community buzzing with energy. (Note to Conservative ‘Big Society’ rhetoric – although you don’t hear much on that these days – we are a professional organisation and it can’t just be run on a voluntary basis).
So we have been thinking long and hard about how to retain the essential ethos and rationale of what we are about but be sustainable for the long-term and utilise new opportunities. How do we do more with less council and government funding? Doing more with less is going to be the challenge for many years ahead, even if Labour does win the election.
As an organisation we’ve had to be more business orientated, making a greater return from our assets, but not lose the sense of community purpose. We’ve put in a new Astroturf pitch which replaces the concrete pitch. It has massively increased opportunities for football, netball and other sports (Astroturf is at a premium in Camden) and at the same time it brings a significant income and helps our sustainability in the long-term – it will generate about a tenth of our income. Careful not to lose sight of our remit, we’re making sure there are free sessions for under-18s and a well known local Premier League football club is now providing free coaching.
In addition we’re establishing a shop next to the pitch, we’re putting in some outdoor table tennis tables, our basketball hoops have proved popular and community sports days are planned.
In inner London, for a place like Camden, public space is at a premium, few people have gardens and allotment waiting lists are lengthy or closed. So a couple of years ago I thought let’s create a community garden, and this is now coming to fruition.
In fact there is a gardening revolution taken shape across many parts of the capital with growers putting down roots and community gardens sprouting. There is a real appetite to get back to nature.
We’ve big ambitions. Just under a year ago we recruited a great community gardener and things have literally begun flowering. ‘Bloomtown’ is involving local people in what to grow from colourful bouquets and edible species to vegetables and herbs. The great thing about doing this ourselves is we can plant useful plants like fruit trees and bushes. We’ve teamed up with the London Orchard Project to grow all manner of trees including quinces, apples, cherries and damsons. Three weeks ago on a Thursday 35 people turned up for the planting. They were from all ages, including people working for businesses in our area that we’ve teamed up with and who see helping our space as part of giving something back.
We’ve planted thousands of bulbs and municipal fencing is being injected with climbing plants. One resident is taking cuttings from her own climbers to grow on site. We’re also planting useful and scented herbs like bay and myrtle that people can use.
We’ve won grants to help transform the space and spur the gardening programme. But it is more than toil and soil. There’s a great opportunity to bring the generations together, enable people to meet their neighbours and create a green oasis next to where they live.
Kids can see how things are grown, right in the centre of town. We want to create a seed and cuttings exchange and enable residents’ window boxes to bloom.
Often gardeners can grow a glut of produce so one idea I thought we could do is to establish a swap shop. To take part you donate a small portion to our community association so we can give out to the poorest in our area and you can swap the rest.
We’re also working with a local charity which supports people with learning difficulties, with the local school which doesn’t have much outside space, the local estate, and an asylum seeker group.
We’ve got a mini-meadow planned and are creating a nature walk and space to support bees (we’ve established a ‘bee hotel’), birds and other species. We’re going to create our own compost and, in time green energy too.
It is also about enabling people to acquire new skills and want to establish opportunities particularly for the out-of-work including in horticulture. With our kitchens on site we can have growing-to-baking sessions and cooking workshops and given our diverse populations there are opportunities to grow and cook things from people’s different backgrounds.
Things are going from strength to strength and the more people we tell about what we are doing the more people want to get involved and add to the many ideas.
As well as gardening we want to have a greater use of the space. Across the world people play chess, backgammon and draughts on outdoor tables. I want to put in some of those too, perfect for warmer months, and ideally we might attract a local club or pensioner group to play each day, again helping bring people together.
As well as being a green oasis, sporting centre and social hub, we want to create more opportunities for young people alongside the youth club and activities we already run. This can give a greater role for the other main part of the community – local businesses.
In our area we’ve got a great Business Improvement District, Camden Town Unlimited and they run an excellent incubator space for start-up businesses. Across from our site is the famous Camden Market.
We want to connect young people to the opportunities in the area and develop them on site too, whether it be training or learning new skills. Not everything needs to go through schools. Community centres are ideally placed. One idea is to build a network of local people from a range of jobs and careers and they can talk to young people about what is involved and the skills they need.
We also want to develop nursery provision too which is lacking in the area. These are just some of the projects planned.
What we are doing is underpinned by social values by community spirit. These are the same as Labour values. We are extending opportunity, expanding local services, bringing people together to help each other. It is a virtuous circle, and one that is self-reinforcing. We are getting about 100 volunteers a week for the garden, and even more for sports with people then engaging across our activities. One guy who volunteers in the garden every week and runs a lovely cafe up the road now wants to work with us to set up a cafe on our site over the summer months. This will add to the buzz.
And the more that people come together the more it happens.
We can talk about change. We can pass motions for change. And when in power we can pass laws dictating change. But, why not just do it. That was the spirit that brought me into the Labour Party. And I found it inspiring meeting many like minded people, keen to act, involved in their own organisations – to make their community, to make the world a better place. So let’s celebrate community action. Let’s put it at the heart of the party. Let’s tap the talents of our members. Let’s encourage more people to see the Labour Party as the vehicle for progressive change. It can be done.
Jake Sumner is a former Camden Councillor and Trustee of CCA