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How many organisers does it take to change our communities?  Quite a few, apparently.  The ballot papers for the Labour leadership election went out yesterday, with David Miliband having recruited 1,000 community organisers as part of his bid.  In doing so he's stolen a march on the Government, which has promised to recruit and train 5,000 of them to get the Big Society going.

How many organisers does it take to change our communities?  Quite a few, apparently.  The ballot papers for the Labour leadership election went out yesterday, with David Miliband having recruited 1,000 community organisers as part of his bid.  In doing so he's stolen a march on the Government, which has promised to recruit and train 5,000 of them to get the Big Society going.

So soon we're going to have 6,000 new organisers, and the idea has new-found favour on both sides of the political divide.  This, and the pre-election timing of both pledges, surely begs the question: are community organisers simply the latest must-have policy accessory, or can they really make a difference to our communities?

The cynical amongst us might incline to the former.  Indeed, it is easy to see why they might do so.  It's pretty clear that the driving influence behind both initiatives has been the experience of Barack Obama - the Conservatives acknowledged this explicitly back in March, and David Miliband has used the familiar-sounding 'Movement for Change' as his banner for recruitment.  There's no mystery as to why politicians might want to nail their colours to that particular mast.

But how relevant is this US experience to communities in this country, in this moment?  Obama, drawing on the teachings of the urban radical Saul Alinsky, worked in Chicago for a non-profit organisation that wanted to help improve people's lives by bringing them together and winning concessions or funding for projects that would benefit them. And even he, with all his persistence and personality, and with unjust situations to arouse the passions, found it difficult to engage, motivate and empower local people.  One of my enduring memories of Dreams from my Father is the sheer persistence, belief and personal drive it took to achieve what he did.

The situation in the UK is a bit different.  The Conservatives have had to gloss over the conflict and struggle at the root of their policy, and have taken the organisers ‘in-house’.  In doing so it seems to me that they will have surrendered at least some of the policy’s driving force.  How much harder will the Big Society organisers find it to engage and motivate communities if, unlike Obama, they are seen as part of the establishment and therefore somehow associated with the very problems they are trying to solve?

Equally, how will they fare in the face of widespread suspicion that, in the current economic climate, there are few concessions or funding packages to be won?  And with the best will in the world, how many will have the Obama-esque persistence and personality that they're likely to need?  Alinsky-ite organisers have been able to draw strength from people's dissatisfaction and feelings of disenfranchisement.  The Big Society organisers won't have that luxury.

In that sense, the Miliband organisers are in a better position - they can align themselves against the establishment and draw on people's anger to motivate and engage them.  But the purpose of these organisers is overtly political, as well as social, in that they are Labour party members and intended to promote grass-roots engagement with politics.  This worked well for Obama (him again) during his run for the presidency.  But it's a separate task, and I wonder whether it will diminish, or even conflict with, organisers' focus on community issues.

There’s also a question as to how much duplication there will be between these organisers and the community development workers, local councillors, party members and others who are already active in their communities, only under a different name.

And yet we shouldn’t be cynical.  Communities are going to have to organise themselves, and where there are barriers to that, they're going to need some help.  Better organised groups have stronger voices and greater opportunities, and in community terms that means less isolation, better services and a better quality of life.

A piece of research I conducted at the end of last year indicated that the level of organisation in a community is largely self-perpetuating: organised communities organise themselves; those that lack that structure need a significant leg-up before they can reach that self-sustaining position.  I do believe that organisers, be they Big Society or Labour, have the potential to provide that external leg-up, but their effectiveness will depend on who they are, how they're presented to communities, what their agendas are, and how well they're trained, funded and supported.  If they’re being made available, they're an opportunity for communities that should not be allowed to go begging.  But we don’t yet know enough about them to judge.

And a final thought, for anyone who’s still reading this.  One of the first four Big Society 'vanguard' areas is the Labour heartland of Liverpool, which raises the intriguing prospect of red and blue-shirted organisers all trying to organise the same community.  There’s already one rivalry between those colours on Merseyside – do we need another?

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