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Defend The Community Organising Unit: Activists into Organisers

by Tom Williams / March 13, 2020

Image: Labour Community Organising Training, 2018, c/o Momentum

Theory and Strategy  }
Powerlessness is the root of so many of the problems faced by ordinary people. Community organising can challenge this. 3775 words / 15 min read

This is the first of two pieces we will be publishing in defence of Labour’s Community Organising Unit

Community organising is, intrinsically, about bringing people together. The idea that the Labour Party should stop doing it because party bureaucrats are threatened by it is an affront to our movement.

One of the difficulties of community organising is that the term itself is seems vague, and most people don’t really know what it means. There are of course different versions of it, but in essence, community organising simply means bringing members of a community together in order to build relational power—power with people, not over people.

Often this invokes the ideas of Saul Alinsky, the Chicago community activist. A common left critique of Alinsky is that he encouraged small, professionally-led ‘corporate’ campaigns, prioritising minor victories. Barack Obama came from an Alinksyite organizing background, as does Citizens UK in Britain. Yet while the spectre of Alinsky haunts almost every community organising project, and will almost inevitably swirl around any attempts by a bourgeois-democratic Parliamentary party to coordinate grassroots activism, Labour’s Community Organising Unit (COU) has demonstrated the potential and ambition to go further.

Unlike the Alinskyist organisers—derided by Jane McAlevey as merely ‘mobilisers’ , Labour’s paid organisers have been tasked with transferring power from the elite to the majority by bringing new people into political life and finding local, organic leaders; people who have some form of following. They also undertake the time-consuming process of identifying local issues—poor housing, poor wages, lack of bus services—to organise around and campaign on. This often involves going down many dispiriting cul-de-sacs, as well as finding and empowering the aforementioned organic leaders (one of the COU’s key initiatives is “train the trainer” workshops). It can also involve finding already-existing campaigns that align with Labour Party principles; crucially, the COU eschews the notion that the Labour Party’s politicians and policy wonks have a monopoly on good ideas. The campaigns they alight on are not controlled by the paid organiser, the director of the COU, the General Secretary, or the Party leader. The paid organiser is simply the coach standing at the side of the football pitch; they will, at times, have to make important decisions, but they are not puppeteers. Ultimately, it is the grassroots activists who determine what happens.

This commitment to the grassroots is crucial. Powerlessness is the root of so many of the problems faced by ordinary people, meaning superficial offers made by ruling class fractions—for example the opportunity to “take back control”—can seem appealing. Yet change is rarely, if ever, benevolently granted. No progressive societal change has ever really happened without grassroots organising, or something that looks a lot like it. Change has come not from policy wonks but from people creating a critical mass of pressure from the bottom up. Indeed, contrary to what many Party loyalists would like to believe, Labour governments haven’t always been responsible for positive social reform.

The NHS is perhaps the best example of this. It remains a defining area of mutual interest around which an increasingly disparate party membership can coalesce. Yet, although it was part of the Labour government’s 1945 settlement, the NHS has its roots in community and trade union organising, including an extension of trade union activity beyond point of production struggles into the wider community.

The NHS was prefigured by the ‘Friendly Societies’ established in working class communities—subscription-based organisations set up to cover the cost of healthcare, which was then something most working class people could neither afford nor access. In the tiny pit village of Tredegar, workers formed a ‘Medical Aid Society’. It was to become one of the first providers of healthcare to working class people in Britain, and inspired Tredegar miner Aneurin Bevan, perhaps the most successful radical left politician in the history of the UK, to champion the creation of the National Health Service. The Tredegar Medical Aid Society was the result of a struggle upwards on the part of ordinary working people, and was democratically controlled by its members. Rhian E. Jones has detailed how the Tredegar Medical Aid Society both met needs in a context of “little or no state provision for… healthcare” and was drawn on by Bevan.

Housing is another triumph of community organising. While many men were engaged—often forcibly—in the imperial folly of the First World War, an influx of factory and munitions workers to the Glasgow area led to Glaswegian women being told that their rent would increase. The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association was, by this point, already organising to protest against the squalid condition of their houses, and subsequently created tenants unions and organised rent strikes and demonstrations. As many as 20,000 people participated in these direct actions, in defiance of wartime legislation. This ultimately led to the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Bill—the first known instance of government regulation of private landlords.

David Cameron (who, hilariously, once wanted to implement community organising via the Home Office) may claim credit for the legalising of gay marriage, but the idea that a Conservative-led government would have done this without decades of campaigning from LGBTQ+ activist groups is frankly laughable. Equally, community organising has also been a crucial element of the women’s movement. Women couldn’t simply wait for a progressive, feminist-adjacent government to be elected while none were on the horizon. Generations of women from the late ’60s onwards self-organised initiatives to improve their own personal circumstances and those of the women around them, involving everything from provision of healthcare and childcare to creating refuges for women subjected to domestic violence and rape. As Hilary Wainwright notes, emphasising the impact of feminist struggles on parts of the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s:

“the democracy of the women’s movement places a high value on the social and economic organisations, formal and informal, created by women to press their needs directly”.1

This led, eventually, to the provision of funding from progressive local authorities like the Greater London Council, and laid the groundwork for positive change at legislative level. Community organising, therefore, can combine (and has combined) two aspects: firstly, as with Tredegar and significant parts of the women’s movement, the direct, collective meeting of needs; secondly, the building of collective power to make demands on the state and capital.

The community organisers in London who worked on housing campaigns trained and organised with women just like this. In 2019, a Westminster resident named Liza found out that the Duke of Westminster—the world’s youngest billionaire—was planning to demolish her home on a mixed estate. Most of her neighbours were resigned to losing their homes. However, on the day Liza found out about the demolition, she also met with a local community organiser, who told her, “we can win this”. Over the coming months, with the help of the COU, Liza and other residents from across the two estates began to organise. Beginning with organising the first ever meeting of social and private residents—which was the first opportunity for residents to come together to share their anger—through to running a door-knocking campaign and organising councillors to train residents in how to negotiate effectively, the power of the residents grew. As their power grew, so did their belief they could beat the billionaire.

Over 100,000 people signed the team’s petition against the gentrification of their estates, but more importantly, a core team of residents, who had never seen themselves as political, became organisers. After four months of campaigning, the residents won, and the council informed Liza and the other residents that they had the right to return. Liza—a working class Muslim woman—has since put herself forward as a council candidate for the Labour Party.

In London, where the vast majority of working class people are seeing their communities sold off, with rents skyrocketing and housing built for millionaires, this was a triumph against all odds that should make any Labour Party member proud. It sends a clear message about whose side Labour is on.

Given examples like this, and the historical role of organising in advancing the interests of the working class and other oppressed communities—all within the limits imposed by liberal capitalism—one might be forgiven for wondering why there is any internal resistance to it at all, never mind the outright hostility experienced by some COU staff. The most obvious explanation is that many Party officials feel as threatened by organisers and grassroots power as they do by candidates from other parties. Community organising in areas where there is a Labour council threatens the councillors because it necessarily involves eroding some of their power. MPs and councillors presume a monopoly of legitimate political knowledge and the capacity to act, derived from the state. Community knowledge challenges this monopoly by institutionalising and activating knowledge and capacities to act from below.

Those who disparage the COU feel threatened by grassroots power and organisational change. MPs and councillors are often uninterested in anything that isn’t geared towards maintaining and extending their power. The COU is thus perceived to be as big a threat as the Tories or open selection. This is clearly ludicrous. Every councillor and MP in the country should be a community organiser. Instead of feeling threatened, they should get trained. Imagine if the Labour Party had councillors up and down the country able to identify and train new grassroots leaders. It would build real local power, and re-energise local democracy from the bottom up. When Ed Millband lost the general election in 2017, the first thing he did was train in community organising. Alongside his consitutents, he campaigned—and won—against the rip-off rent-to-buy company Brighthouse. This enabled Miliband to reconnect with his Doncaster constituents, turn the local party into a campaigning organisation, and actively achieve something that, as Party leader, he only talked about.

As community organising became a major topic of conversation in the immediate aftermath of Labour’s heartbreaking election defeat, it also became contested territory. Moderates like former leadership candidate Emily Thornberry and the MP for Leeds North West Alex Sobel wrote in reasonably approving terms about the COU—but with caveats. These caveats work to attempt to incorporate aspects of community organising whilst maintaining the state and its representatives’ monopoly on legitimate political action and knowledge. Sobel’s bizarre, solipsistic piece for the Guardian (the closing paragraph began “Frankly, I’m tired”) advocated for various things that the COU already does, before implying—either disingenuously or just wrongly—that the COU exists “just as a vehicle to campaign”. If this was the case, and the COU was merely an attempt to win elections, there wouldn’t have been such antipathy towards it from councillors and MPs suspicious of its utility. Sobel—possibly as part of an abortive pitch for deputy leader—seemed determined to pass community organising off as his own idea, and his article seemed, as much as anything, to be an attempt to characterise Members of Parliament as indefatigable stalwarts, evangelists for social justice.

Thornberry’s intervention was even more ludicrous. “If we’re going to have a community organiser network,” she concluded, “it should always be the heads of region who decide where they need to be based and what they need to do, in consultation with that region’s MPs, not someone operating out of London.” This may be the crux of the issue. The majority of Labour’s regional offices have for too long behaved like vassal states, and the battle they are fighting with the COU and the party’s left is cultural as well as political. Despite regional directors being paid by members, many of them were hoping for Labour to be defeated so that Jeremy Corbyn could be deposed—not primarily because of his ideas around wealth redistribution, but because they see Party members and local communities as peasants who must be kept outside the city walls. They have no interest in building relationships and power with communities. In former “Red Wall” seats, had anybody been paying attention, it would have been clear that Labour’s support had been haemorrhaging for decades. Yet when offered a means of reversing that trend, the regional officials rejected it. Why? Because it threatened their power, their status, and their opinions of themselves as expert technocrats with a deep understanding of politics.

Perhaps the most egregious and disingenuous intervention in the debate around the COU, however, has come from Lisa Nandy. Nandy at one point seemed to be outlining the beginnings of a case for community organising, albeit from the perspective of the communitarian right rather than the radically democratising left. Yet, in a leadership bid defined by sickening cynicism, spiteful, factional hatchet jobs, entitlement, and outright lies, she has recently pivoted (without any of the commentariat pointing out the inconsistency, of course) to a position that indulges the most self-righteous, self-serving, bumptious, oafish impulses of politicians on the Labour right. In conversation with the Huffington Post, she decried “employing young graduates to go into areas to tell communities how to empower themselves in working class communities where we’ve had to do that for generations,” before adding “We know how to organise quite well thank you very much, that’s why we are still here.”

The use of “we” here is jaw-dropping. Nandy—a graduate herself, and also the grandchild of a Liberal politician and eventual life peer—has been a politician for fourteen of her forty years. For a quarter of her life she has been in receipt of an MP’s salary—currently around £80,000. She is ‘political class’ to her core. The suggestion that someone from the COU, earning probably a quarter of her income, is part of some unaccountable elite, while Nandy herself is a salt-of-the-earth class warrior in the mould of the London matchgirls (who self-organised strikes against their exploitative, dangerous working conditions), is risible.

Two important truths should be gleaned from this malignant punching down at Party employees with no right of reply, particularly in the context of an agreement that staffers would not be attacked by any of the leadership candidates. Firstly, it signals that Nandy’s appeals for loyalty are really just demands for deference to the party establishment and machine. Secondly, exempting workers employed to work on a project inextricably linked to Jeremy Corbyn from the pledge to leave Party workers out of the campaign demonstrates that Nandy—and by extension the tendencies among the membership to whom she is pitching—regard the thousands of members sympathetic to Corbyn as politically illegitimate and undeserving of the basic decency extended to others.

Nandy has made a point of being noncommittal on the validity of strikes at a time when unions are facing an existential threat. The idea that this is a person who seeks to empower ordinary people must be treated with undisguised scorn.

Organising, as MPs and councillors would prefer, absolutely can be a supplement to electoral activity, but it is doubtful whether it’s even possible, let alone desirable, for it to be prescribed from on high by anonymous regional party bureaucrats or members of a technocratic political class that is understandably detested by swathes of working class people.

This is something Sobel and Thornberry are either unable or unwilling to grasp: even those Labour politicians who are truly decent, self-sacrificing, and hard-working are often associated with wildly unpopular policies and developments, increasingly through no fault of their own. For the past four years, Labour’s poor performance has been blamed on Jeremy Corbyn, when in reality Labour councillors were either being kicked for having to implement measures effectively imposed by the Tory government’s commitment to austerity, or (rightly) punished for implementing it enthusiastically. There are Labour councils who are unsympathetic to unions, who deprive residents of vital public services, and who seem to glean an almost libidinal pleasure from attacking marginalised groups such as sex workers or Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. A strategy that centres self-interested, spiteful, contemptuous nonentities in attempts to reconnect Labour with the very same communities they have spent years betraying is one that would only be adopted by someone determined for the community organising project to fail. Until these councillors and MPs start turning up at protests and picket lines, and until they address the contradictions between what they do and what they say they believe, it’s best for them not to bark orders at people they’ve spent years ignoring and immiserating. Rejecting the idea of politics as the preserve of an unaccountable elite is both an ideological and pragmatic commitment for community organisers. By expanding the sense of what politics can be beyond the executive and legislative, we might be able to undo the damage done by the Parliamentary ratfucking that saw Corbynism move, in the public imaginary, from insurgent to establishment.

Galvanising communities by forging new solidarities and repairing old ones is crucial, and we must resist attempts to further centralise the process. Trust in politicians has justifiably evaporated. The political class has consistently proved itself to be detached, insulated, and ineffectual. Bureaucracy has long been a dirty word. For evidence of the shortcomings of top down movements led by discredited or outright disgraced politicians, look no further than the ruinous post-referendum Remain campaign—a campaign that failed in all of its stated objectives, hardened Brexit, and strong-armed Labour into a position that saw it obliterated at the ballot box.

Jeremy Corbyn may have been co-opted into the wood-and-green-leather shenanigans mentioned above, but he has long understood the distaste for the use of soulless, “computer says no” bureaucracy as a means of preventing people from having any real agency. This, along with an understanding that elections are won not over a few months but over many years, is why he set up the COU.

After decades of defeat, during which trade unions (who often now use the language of community organising, but typically only as a euphemism for recruitment, which remains their limited and limiting focus) have been reduced to barely-relevant husks and working class communities have been systematically dismantled, it is vital to demonstrate that the working class can win. Throughout the land, but especially in Leave-voting, post-industrial areas where former Labour voters felt the party was trying to disenfranchise them, we must create a new mutuality, a new collective defiance, and a renewed trust in the Party as a vehicle that can advance the interests of these communities. Words ceased to be sufficient years ago—it’s time to show and do.

It’s important here to distinguish community organising from milky Victorian notions of service. Community organising should not be some communitarian equivalent of noblesse oblige. It’s not about liberal evangelists visiting a poor part of town to pick up litter. It’s about pulling together residents in that part of town and empowering them to corral the council into installing extra bins, or into investing as much in street cleansing there as they do in the commercial centres. In Wolverhampton, Zarah Sultana—now a socialist MP with a gift for aggravating the haemorrhoids of all Britain’s worst people—worked with patient groups, residents, and former MP Eleanor Smith to prevent the closure of a GP surgery which treated elderly and disabled residents. Helped to move beyond protesting and into action, residents were equipped with the organising skills to widen their campaign across the community and put pressure on the local Clinical Commissioning Group to drop their plans to close the surgery. At a public meeting, a crowd of several hundred filled a large church in the area. Using personal stories from patients who told the room how much the surgery meant to them, and how seriously travel affected their health, community organisers were able bring the human impact to bear and prevent closure. Without the work of the community and the guidance of the CO team, it is clear that the surgery would have been closed with a minimum of fuss, and another vital service would have been lost forever. In an election that the Tories, Lib Dems and media were determined to define via Brexit, this wasn’t enough to secure the seat, but it is a platform from which Labour could rebuild. A number of community leaders involved in the campaign are now planning to stand for Labour in the council elections in May.

As well as being politically and (in the longer term) electorally expedient, this solidarity-building work can and should be joyful. As Lynne Segal argues (derived from Spinoza and Deleuze), joy is an extension of capacities for action and connection.2 There is a thrill to be gleaned from being present as a 60-year-old ex-docker realises that he and a trans woman share a need for a decent bus service between the civic centre and the suburbs, and watching as their upward struggles melt into one another. As such, this work is educational and democratising, and should take place alongside programmes to further educate and democratise.

Adopting a truly ambitious attitude, one aspiration of the COU could be to implement aspects of Labour’s programme despite not being in government. Free childcare, for example, could be delivered through cohering groups of parents who wouldn’t otherwise know each other and arranging for communal play sessions that could be supervised by one (responsible, DBS-checked) adult—thereby giving the others precious time for wage labour, immaterial labour, and self-care. This could also help build the much-lamented ‘credibility’ Labour lost in 2019, and, moreover, build consent for socialism itself as the way society should be organised.

No one is saying the COU is perfect or beyond criticism, but what it represents (or could come to represent) is a labour movement repurposed and reimagined so as to be fit for the 21st century. In Culture & Society, Raymond Williams described the culture of the working class in Britain as “a very remarkable creative achievement”,3 before later, in The Long Revolution, lamenting those working class institutions having lost their cohering capacity and instead adapted themselves to the dominant purposes of capitalism. One aspect of this loss was precisely the muddying of the distinction between working class values of solidarity and bourgeois values of service.4 The Labour Party was for years disaggregated from movementism. It was merely an alternative bourgeois-democratic institution. As a result, the activities of trade unions are now limited to the workplace. Co-ops are repurposed to serve the purposes of capitalism.

In 2016, and in every public vote ever since, many working class people have voted to “take back control”. Only through community organising and a revivified, people-powered Labour Party will they ever truly do so.


  1. Hilary Wainwright. 1987. Labour: A Tale of Two Parties. London: Hogarth Press, p. 166. 

  2. Lynne Segal. 2017. Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. London: Verso, p. 18. 

  3. Raymond Williams. 1958. Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell. London: Hogarth Press, p. 309.  

  4. Raymond Williams. 1961. The Long Revolution. Cardigan: Parthian, p.273. 


Author:

Tom Williams (@shirleymush)

Tom Williams is co-organiser of Southampton Transformed, a festival of ideas, art, and music working to build power, solidarity and joy in Southampton. He has lived in Southampton all his life. Tom worked as a primary school teacher for ten years, and currently works as a tutor in trade union studies. He is political education officer for Southampton and Romsey CLP.