In Defence of Community Organising

In Defence of Community Organising

In Defence of Community Organising

Community organising is a vital part of rebuilding the Labour Party at the grassroots – but it will take time and shouldn’t be expected to produce immediate results, argues Ian Lavery. 

This leadership election is primarily about the people who lead us and the ideas they bring. I have made my contribution to this debate clear: we need to finally accept the referendum result and talk about the country we want to live in after Brexit; we need working-class communities in town and city alike to be at the centre of the party’s return to power; and we need to convince people that the huge shift in wealth and power we promised is achievable.

But if we are asking people not to mourn but to organise, then we need to talk about organisation as well, and whether our structures are doing all they can to develop our ability to win. Rebecca Long-Bailey has promised to modernise our party. I have worked on Labour campaigns for decades and too often seen resistance to change motivated by the fear of losing internal power struggles. That fear has been on display from people who have wrongly presented community organising as a factional attack.   

But the terrain on which we fight elections is changing under our feet and our party operation must be flexible. Chairing the Labour campaign, I could see all too clearly where we weren’t adapting fast enough and, despite our best efforts, sliding backward from 2017. This election we had more activists than ever reaching more people than ever. But it was often difficult to get people out of major cities until late in the campaign. We need to establish Labour’s presence in the areas we need to win. Our plan to win has to mix our broader political approach with our organisational ideas – or it will not work.  

Labour’s new Community Organising Unit (COU), pledged by Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 and launched throughout 2018, can be an example of how the best of our traditions can meet the modern day. Where local civil society and the trade union movement have collapsed, Labour can play a role in building community power and rebuilding trust at the same time, as we were always meant to. And we can combine this with new technologies and models of organisation to support activists.

This election, Labour’s community organisers trained thousands of activists in the art of persuasive conversations. The unit operated in only 30 key seats for a short time, but without it we may well have lost even more. In Yorkshire, the swing away from Labour in seats where community organisers operated was 3% compared to a regional swing of over 10%. An assessment of all community organising events in the round indicates a similar pattern of reduced swing.    

Of course, more detailed analysis of our systems is needed and calculating the impact of particular initiatives will always be an inexact science. But the contribution of community organisers is undeniable when looking at the full picture. For instance, the popular narrative around our solitary win in Putney is that it was driven solely by middle-class professionals deserting the Conservatives over Brexit. But this ignores our Community Organising team, which spent extensive time organising with working-class residents in Roehampton around housing conditions in one of Europe’s biggest estates.

To win elections we need to look beyond just the elections themselves. Ideas and leadership are vital to rebuilding trust, but so are real connections. In an age where it is harder to map how voters make decisions and they are bombarded with information from different sources, the human element is critical. Labour has to show people, not just tell them, that it is on their side.

We can do that by using our time in opposition to create real change in people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, and put Labour at the heart of community life. Organising can amplify the work of Labour councillors and their ability to reach, engage and help people. They can aid people and unions to achieve concrete wins against Tory cuts, bad bosses, and dodgy landlords. They can support mutual aid projects and the important work of local charities, while organising people to change the conditions that make charity necessary. They can build power.

Over the last year, Labour’s community organisers have worked with organisations and people at the sharp end of fighting austerity, developing grassroots leadership and building people-led campaigns whether supporting tenants to take on rogue landlords or football fans in Newcastle to challenge billionaire owner Mike Ashley. Many of our manifesto policies were developed through conversations with people from all walks of life telling us what needed to change in their lives.

One of the problems we had at the election was that people did not believe another way of life was possible. Thatcher and her heirs attacked public services and also introduced the cold logic of profiteering into every element of our communities, stripping decency out of public life. People heard us talk of a society built around the common good and could not imagine what it looked like and how we would get there.

Strong community organising can start to change those perceptions by giving concrete examples of how we can work together for change now and how much more we could achieve with a Labour government. In future we should not need a unit – community, industrial, digital and doorstep organising should be conducted simultaneously by networks of staff and volunteers. But we are not there yet.

Our current model is imperfect. But we should not abandon new inventions because some of our ideas are in the prototype stage – just as we should not abandon Labour’s much needed shift away from failed business-as-usual politics because our first attempt to break new ground failed.

I grew up in a community where people were close-knit, and talked about many things including politics – and when we needed to, we organised together. We didn’t support Labour because Labour “found the right way to reach us.” We were not “people who needed a Labour government,” we were the people who wanted to shape a Labour government. We supported Labour because we were Labour.

A far-reaching attempt to re-establish Labour in the places we need to win, in political, industrial and community spheres, has to be part of our strategy to rebuild trust and win the next election. The status quo is not enough.

About the Author

Ian Lavery is the Chair of the Labour Party. He is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wansbeck.

Cuts and Outsourcing Are Destroying Our Councils

Cuts and Outsourcing Are Destroying Our Councils

Cuts and Outsourcing Are Destroying Our Councils

– It’s Time to Fight Back

Years of funding cuts and a relentless drive to outsource have left councils across the country unable to serve their communities. It’s time for Labour to build a national campaign to fight back.

Local government really matters and the crisis it faces today means that the area must be a major priority for the Labour leadership. Many of the public’s day-to-day needs fall to councils, especially those things that tend to frustrate people most. From social care to public health, education to bins and the maintenance of much of our public space, if Labour politicians hope to be popular with the electorate then they need to deliver at a local level.

We know the reality of the cuts to local council budgets and the desparate impact they have had on communities, especially post-industrial towns like mine in Crewe. We also know that there are Labour councils, such as those near me in Preston, Salford and Trafford, which are delivering progressive solutions despite huge financial pressures.

But there is an obvious lack of a national strategy on the Left to confront the crisis facing local councils in the face of years of government cuts. Whether it’s the question of how to respond in policy terms, or a narrative explaining how the Tories have been responsible for the cuts which impact the services Labour councils provide, the bigger picture has been lacking.

Across the country there are countless councillors doing what they can to tackle the injustices that we see on a daily basis. We are the party’s first point of contact with the world outside of politics. The Labour Party needs to learn from those experiences and use the skills and expertise they provide. It’s time to build a campaign that can revive local government and its relationship with the communities it serves. 

Devolution Discontents

Let’s face it, the Tories have been rubbing their hands together with glee as they have devolved as much accountability as possible for cuts they have overseen. Under the current model of devolution, they maintain control with little responsibility – meaning that their prints are on every service provided, but they can hide in the shadows.

Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher pursued a ruthless policy of privatisation and outsourcing which forced local authorities to reward contracts through compulsory competitive tendering. More than 30 years later I think that we can agree that it has been a failed experiment. Public money has been wasted on shareholder profits and the cost of managing contracts, with neither the public nor the vast majority of councils now believing that outsourcing was a success.

What followed in 2009 was legislation that originally saw the formation of unitary authorities like my own Cheshire East County Council. This was built on further through The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which provided the creation of combined authorities by groups of two or more local authorities. This Westminster brainwave sucked jobs away from towns and fed into the detached feeling that many communities have; politics was something done to them not by them, with little local accountability.

George Osborne sold this direction with promises of democratic accountability, but the reality was a further hollowing out of politics. The most high-profile change was the introduction of mayors – an Americanising of our politics which sought to channel local government decisions through personalities rather than policy. At their worst, a mayor can become a remote figure from the public while being easily accessible to private interests, and at best they become the face of managing service cuts through the devolution agenda.

We have seen how this can be manipulated recently when a group of Conservative MPs blamed Manchester mayor Andy Burnham for the Covid fiasco that their own government was responsible for. Right-wing tabloids duly splashed their attacks all over their pages and a central government failure was devolved to local government again. Mission accomplished.

Privatisation Myths

The reality is that, for many living in areas of high social need, having a Labour mayor or council promise fiscal autonomy has meant little more than permanent austerity and underfunding. That much is obvious in any ‘Red Wall’ seat. The Tories know that they can try to avoid blame by attacking local politicians, something they will no doubt ramp up as they try to dodge the public anger over their Covid-19 failures that will grow in the coming months.

If Labour representatives at local level look for solutions to tackle the bread and butter issues for ordinary people, maybe we stand a chance of turning the tide. But too often we are seen as the ones delivering the cuts – and, in many cases, people are right to feel frustrated. Few Labour councils have produced the kind of bold response that the crisis of local government requires, and even fewer still are seen to be fighting alongside the communities they represent against the cuts imposed by central government.

Recent years have seen numerous examples of Labour councils engaged in protracted battles against their own unionised workers who are trying to defend their jobs and local government services. This is not what our party was established to do – and, even beyond the point of principle, these decisions are remembered when we come to knock on doors. Council workers live in their communities, they serve them and they are seen by the vast majority of people as far more important than politicians.

So, why has the Labour Party not fought back more forcefully against this trap it often finds itself in? Sadly, in many cases, Labour councillors are themselves wedded to the privatisation agenda which has so badly damaged our local government. Sometimes they are ideological neoliberals, other times they simply have connections to local business interests – but whatever the reason, they make arguments that private providers are more efficient than their own councils at delivering services.

But this is simply not the case. A catalogue of failures have shown that private providers simply do not work at a local level. The pattern is familiar – a privateer takes over a service and, in order to try to generate profit, they cut workers’ wages and conditions, reduce services and leave poorer communities in the lurch. In many cases, this doesn’t even work on its own terms and they fail to make profits, meaning a wreckage is handed on to an even more disreputable provider and the race to the bottom accelerates.

Unison, the public services trade union estimates that every year, £4.6 billion is spent by central and local government on the procurement exercises required to award private contracts. Meanwhile, local residents will pay £217 billion in “user charges” for private finance initiative facilities between now and 2033 – while direct public ownership would be £3 billion per year cheaper. Privatisation is not cost effective, and we need to burst the myth that it is.

Common Goal

At this week’s party conference, Labour has talked about providing a new leadership. Nowhere is that needed more than in local government. It’s time for us to put our principles forward, fight for them and win people over to socialist values at a local level.

This starts with drawing a line in the sand over outsourcing. Councils across the country must use the example provided by the disastrous Serco and Sitel test and trace system, or the care home scandal that preceded it, to make the case that outsourcing is irresponsible, damaging to our communities and must be consigned to the past.

But outsourcing is not just bad for those who rely on services, it is bad for workers too. Outsourcing to private companies means workers enter a world of precarious work driven by corporate greed as staff lose their pay security. It means they can no longer get hired on full-time contracts with decent terms and conditions and that, when wage packets are wrong, they are harder to dispute.

Outsourced workers are often desperate for overtime or extra part-time jobs so that they can make ends meet, and many end up working gruelling hours with no hope of work life balance. I have spoken to countless workers, mainly women, who barely see their children as they cobble together enough work to pay the bills. The stress and worry impacts everyone and it doesn’t take much to imagine some of the long-term repercussions of this kind of daily battle.

It is time Labour councils stood with them. This means tackling head on the outsourcing scandal, which has seen private companies rip off the taxpayer, degrade our public services and put people at risk while remaining unaccountable to the people who rely upon and fund the services.

Millions of people work in local government. The power of this workforce must be used to rebuild our society after this pandemic. But to do that, we need to understand the weaknesses of the government’s devolution agenda in terms of democratic accountability, economic development and the financing of public services. And we need to not just understand it – but fight against it as a united party.

Therefore, the party must have a clear and consistent strategy across the country to address the crisis local government finds itself in. Years of government cutbacks have savaged our councils – but they can be revived, if we build a campaign that unites communities, unions and the party behind a common goal.

About the Author

Laura Smith is a Tribune columnist. She is a Labour councillor for Crewe South ward and the former member of parliament for Crewe and Nantwich.

Remembering the Putney Debates

Remembering the Putney Debates

Remembering the Putney Debates

On this day in 1647, in the midst of civil war, the Putney Debates sought a new constitution for Britain – their arguments over the nature of freedom and democracy still resonate today.

Imagine! It’s October 28th today. In England, parliament is held in the lowest esteem ever. The political class is directionless having led the country to the verge of ruin after the recent crisis. The head of state is held under house arrest. The people are locked out of politics, too; not able to vote.

The only true power in the land is the British Army. But they are divided as to how to move the country forward. On the one hand there are the Grandees, the leading elements in the army.  On the other hand, there are the elected representatives of the various battalions. We’ll call them the Agitators.

They decide to meet in a church hall outside of London to thrash out their differences. But in less than a year the most senior Agitator, Tom, is dead – assassinated – and the leading Grandee, Olly, is well on his way to becoming a dictator.

It’s rumoured that it was Olly who had arranged for Tom to be killed. Whether or not this is accurate, it’s clearly true that he eventually moves decisively to use military force to put down dissent within the army.

For the moment, though, the debates which continue for some days in Putney Church reveal profound differences of view within the army as to which direction the country should take. But the talks come to an abrupt end when the legal Head of the Government escapes – and, it is thought, prepares to muster an army.

Is this all a turbulent fantasy? The product of a fevered imagination? Not at all. It really happened. On this day in 1647. And it leaves unfinished business.

In an echo of today’s debates, there’s a lot of talk about ‘levelling up’ at Putney. So much so that many of the Agitators become known as the Levellers. They want to do away with the current Parliament and elect a completely new one. Every person in the country should have the right to elect the new House of Commons.

The Grandees are not too sure. They came up with an idea. Let every man vote – but only if they own property. Only those who own a part of the realm should have their voice heard.

Let’s listen to the debates for a moment. We have the transcripts. Here is Edward Sexby, rejecting the idea that only men of property should decide the future of the country.

“There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in this kingdom as to our estates, yet we had a birthright. But it seems now except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived.”

Here is the central argument of the Levellers: that everyone is born free and their birthright is to have a voice in the governance of our country. The soldiers had fought against the tyranny but the civilian population too had suffered through the civil war. All should have a vote.

The Grandees had a different idea. Henry Ireton is an example. No person, he argues, should have a say who does not have a ‘permanent fixed interest’ in the country, i.e. an estate.

He goes on to argue what might happen to the people of property, the wealthy, if those without property had a vote. This group – which is larger than the wealthy – might well decide to tackle wealth directly.

Universal suffrage – although, of course, we are only talking about men at this time – is ‘destructive of property.’ The right to wealth and property, he says, is a law of nature which no man-made constitution can overthrow.


These contending ideas of democracy have endured throughout our history. Although centuries later universal suffrage was achieved, it did not realise the ambition of these debates – a society of genuine equality.

Indeed, it is not possible to think about the Putney Debates without reflecting on the so-called war against the current pandemic. If any group in our country was entitled to demand a new settlement, it is the key workers, just as the New Model Army did in the Civil War.

This recent debates about the need for poor children to be fed while the schools are closed highlights the problem. But the underlying question is why so many millions of working families are living in poverty in the first place.

Although Putney is today a relatively affluent area, there are still huge inequalities. Over 6,000 Putney children are living in poverty – that’s almost a third of those living in the constituency. The local authority, Wandsworth, has seen funding cut by over £41 million since 2015. And the present crisis has doubled unemployment levels in the area.

Without truly radical political change, economic and social justice will not happen. Why is this? It is because, despite universal suffrage, wealth continues to hold its sway – the right to vote has, in fact, not been destructive of the power of property.

Wealth has such social, political and economic power over the British State that it seems unimaginable today that we could achieve a new settlement which would give reality to the dreams of the Agitators all those centuries ago. There has undoubtedly been progress, but how many of the same questions confront us?

And so we see the key workers, who have held our country together through the present crisis, subject to conditions of low pay, precarious employment, and lack of access to the essential services. Much the same conditions as prevailed before the pandemic arrived.

The tenacious grip of big corporations, the privileged and the wealthy will need to be ripped away from the levers of power in Britain. Our political institutions and culture need to be subject to change as radical in our time as the Levellers proposed in theirs.

This is a topic I intend to explore in the coming weeks, in articles that make the argument for a democratic revolution in Britain today – and explore what this might mean.

(Note that Olly is Oliver Cromwell and Tom is Thomas Rainsborough, the highest ranked Leveller at the debates, who was assassinated in Doncaster near where Primark now stands.)