Monday, 23 February 2009

How to change your community

Politics beyond political parties tends to be single issue: local planning, human rights, the environment, etc. These alliances are fluid, occasional, vacillating. Not the sort of thing that can congregate to challenge the prevailing politics for any length of time or beyond a limited set of issues in other words. At the Fabian Conference on Saturday, Neil Jameson of London Citizens outlines how another form of organisation: community based activism that is beyond political parties can be effective.

There is a crisis of local politics and community cohesion. Political parties are not seen as community organisations. Rather, they are seen as brokers between the local community and authority. At least, where they are effective that is how they are seen. So what is there to gather the disparate forces of community interest, articulate their needs, and apply pressure for change?

Such organisation does not come spontaneously and that is where the community organiser comes in. Before you dismiss the concept, it is worth remembering that a community organiser now occupies the Oval Office. London Citizens' most effective campaign is the London Living Wage campaign which insists on a minimum £7.45 per hour income for workers. The objective is clear and that is what has enabled faith groups, trade unions, community organisations, and, of course, citizens themselves to unite behind its banner.

This type of campaign is the way forward. Political parties can be part of that process but they should never seek to take it over. They will show their worth by what they achieve in practical terms. I once worked on a campaign to save a community centre in North West London- a highly controversial case that received wall to wall coverage at the time. One of the political parties attended every single community meeting. They spoke against the decimation of a local community in the media. When it came to the vote on the planning committee they voted FOR the development (despite the fact that there were ample legal arguments against the development.) It was shockingly manipulative.

Political parties can respond to well-formed community opinions. That is the role of organisations like London Citizens. The work they are doing in community capacity building is enormously valuable. That is what is needed to rebuild communities as living breathing political entities, rather than simply dormitories.

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