Can political parties be community organisers?


  • Social enterprise
  • Communities

Having failed for years to persuade Labour’s bosses that the traditional hierarchical model of party organisation was bust I wrote positively last year about the attempt by the Conservative Party to turn its grass roots organisation outwards with the development of local social projects. Sadly, I later had to admit that the practice didn’t quite live up to the expectations.

So naturally I was interested in David Miliband’s weekend call for radical party reform. The bookies' favourite to be the next leader of the opposition said:

We have to rebuild the Labour movement as an organising, campaigning ‘movement for change’ – open, reaching out to local communities, more democratic. And it has to be bottom-up and not top-down.

This is in the best traditions of the Labour Party. It is where our movement started – trade unions, the co-op. Before working people had the vote they organised for change, to campaign against things like child labour and for things like decent working conditions. And it persists in some areas to this day – it is this tradition we saw in those seats that were held against the swing in the general election’.

I agree entirely with the sentiment. Society would be stronger and politics better if parties had deeper community roots. Sadly, it's a lot easier said than done.

The biggest problem is reconciling local freedom and community organisation with party discipline. David Miliband quotes the success of Gisela Stuart’s campaign in Edgebaston as evidence of the power of strong community based organisation. But local activists have said that their ability to mobilise behind the MP was also related to her record of voting against the Government whip on controversial questions. This issue is even more difficult at council level. If a party runs the local authority but local branches then campaign against its unpopular decisions (and let’s face it there's going to be plenty of them in the years to come) it undermines party unity and can confuse voters. Stewart campaigned against the decisions of the Tory Lib Dem coalition running Birmingham City Council but she will find it much more problematic if the council goes Labour again.

This is less of an issue if the local party is focusing on community self-help but the examples Miliband quotes – like London Citizens – tend to be campaigning organisations. The Conservative experience shows how hard it is to develop a social enterprise model. This takes us to the second issue – resources. Here at the RSA we have for several years been in the process of reforming Fellowship from the traditional membership model to one that focuses on collaboration and civic innovation. Most recently, for example, we have launched the Catalyst Fund which gives groups of Fellows small grants to develop social initiatives.  The far-from-complete process of Fellowship reform has up to now involved multiplying the budget spent on outreach and support many times over. Although David Miliband is to be commended for digging into his own campaign funds to fund training for community organisers, it is unclear whether the national Labour Party has the money to invest in community development or that  – when push comes to shove – this investment would be prioritised over more traditional campaign spending.

The third and possibly hardest challenge concerns organisational culture. Creative, committed people (the kinds you need for community self help) have a million and one options and distractions. It is hard to attract them and hard to retain them. Few community groups provide a good enough offer for such people. There is, in my opinion, one overriding reason. The grim reality of voluntary organisation is that bad behaviour drives out good more effectively than vice versa. It only takes one or two difficult people to make meetings unbearable and decision making impossible. The creative people quickly stop coming, leaving the wreckers free to complain that they are now the only activists. As part of a project we co-sponsored with the NCVO, I have discussed this dynamic with people from a whole range of membership organisations. After some initial flannelling, they all admit it is a huge problem. Indeed I once heard it described as ‘the inverse law of activism’ – the people you least want to be active are the ones most likely to become so.

Apart from election campaigning for friends I haven’t been active in the Labour Party for many years, so maybe it has already started to change. If not David Miliband faces a task of cultural transformation which – he needs to acknowledge more fully - will take many battles and many years to bear fruit.

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