Labour Neighbours - the plan
Labour Neighbours Pilot Project Paper
‘The Labour movement did not start as a vehicle for election. It started off as an association for change’ James Purnell, (New London Review, 26 April 2010)
‘We need to show that we want to serve people whether or not we are in power’ – Andy Flannagan (CSM Director)
This paper provides an insight into the context, aims and vision of the CSM ‘Labour Neighbours’ project, which will be developed through five pilot projects in CLPs. The paper aims to provide a context for the overall initiative and details on how the pilot projects could be developed. The aim is to build an inspiring, effective and transportable model that could be endorsed by CLPs throughout the country and enhance Labour’s connection at a local level.
We are seeking to remind us all of some of the key aspects of our Labour party roots – things such as the charabancs, homework clubs and community organising of workers. Present-day local members who become councillors feel very useful in their roles, with huge opportunities to serve a community. But the tougher question is, “What does an ordinary member do?” Are they merely there to make up the numbers and be willing door-knockers? Many branch secretaries and chairs report that ward meetings are dying on their feet, with few young people especially wanting to “meet for the sake of meeting”. Our previous paper (‘Mission not Meetings’) laid out some examples of the power of people coming together to engage in a common task of service or campaigning. Could we re-focus what it means to be local and Labour towards action and service, rather than only meeting and talking? There are so many twenty and thirty-somethings in the UK who are passionate about justice, but who often only have one night of the week free. Are they going to spend it 1) with a local Amnesty group, letter-writing, 2) doing hands on youth work with a local church, or 3) nominating branch treasurer and discussing Trotskyism with five people in a dusty hall somewhere? For most, there is no discussion.
This is not about stopping Labour being a political entity, but is about acknowledging the learning of CSM and many other local agencies in how people eventually engage in the political process. We need to provide more easily accessible “joining points”. There is a spectrum of engagement which we describe as moving from APATHY to CHARITY to JUSTICE SEEKING. There are many folks for whom the first step is simply to be involved in simple local service as a willing helper, as they have not had much involvement in anything thus far. Often once people are involved with others and seeing their needs up close, they start to ask the questions as to why these situations persist, leading to more political/campaigning activity or community organising.
This project is designed to provide those access points, for wherever people are on the spectrum.
We are seeking to develop a new gateway for Labour activism through serving and empowering local communities. This could re-invigorate Labour party activism and connect a new generation with the political process.
In essence, CSM is proposing the development of projects of social action and community service to harness people’s desire to serve their locality, providing new connect points with local communities. Labour Neighbours will seek to revive Labour’s tradition of ‘service’, providing a gateway from community activism into political campaigning. This is an idea that will be a ‘gift’ to the Labour Party, a CSM facilitated but not ‘owned’ initiative.
Context – ‘The need for integrity in politics’
It is abundantly clear that there is much done to restore trust between the electorate and the political process. We can rehearse the multiple reasons for this but we know it to be true. The public square preceding the last election was dominated by the fallout of the expenses debacle. This issue fed into an already marked disenchantment with politics. Whether it is caused by a consumer saturated culture, the effects of ‘spin’, the consequences of the Iraq war or the 24/7 news cycle there is a deep entrenched disaffection with politicians and the political process. In the United Kingdom.
Our vision is that in twenty years time, individuals relate to politics differently. How? When they hear the word ‘politician’ they think, that was the person who helped my community, who cleaned my park, washed graffiti from my local school. An ethic of service and relationship could subvert the disappointment, detachment and cynicism. As we build the relationships we work with people and help them to organise and be empowered. This is about being community not engaging with community, as if it were a different agent.
Whilst ‘Labour Neighbours’ does not purport to resolve this perceived malaise it might contain an approach that will help. The need to be community focused in our politics, to give and not expect back, to be relationally driven, to win hearts and minds and not just elections might not change politics overnight. However, it might serve to change the terms of the debate in which UK political discourse has got stuck.
Renewing the Labour Party
The debate about the role of service and local engagement goes to the heart of what the Labour Party is about. Certainly, it is an electoral machine that seeks to ‘colonise’ political structures; in Westminster, in the devolved institutions and at local government. Yet, in its inception Labour was, as the aforementioned James Purnell quote suggests, something with a transformative and vibrant purpose, composed of working people who covenanted to work together to effect change at a local level. Thus, existing solely as an electoral machine with a local architecture that solely processes local party business leaves Labour bereft of ‘soul’, its existential purpose. There is something sorely missing and if that foundational ethic can be restored, the Labour Party can find new energy and perhaps we can begin to address the ‘disconnect’ that mystifies and paralyses the political process.
Increasingly, key figures are beginning to articulate the need for a new passion and purpose within Labour. Many senior Labour figures have emerged from government realising that the Labour Party needs to be more than just an electoral machine – it needs to be a living, breathing movement that rediscovers the community organising tradition on which it was founded. It is recognised that the resources for transforming the Party into a movement or association for change are not found within the Party – hence the interest in London Citizens and CITIZENS UK, who are pioneering community organising in the UK. Two of the leadership candidates are openly drawing on CITIZENS UK’s experience of building movements for social change. Ed Miliband has adopted and expanded London Citizens’ Living Wage campaign, while David Miliband has hired three staff from the College of Community Organising to train 1,000 Future Leaders in community organising skills, and is encouraging them to run local campaigns that will engage people both inside and beyond the Labour Party in a movement for change. CSM’s ‘Labour Neighbours’ project would seek to weave together the traditional ethic of service and ‘new’ momentum of community organising to regenerate local Labour party engagement.
In the first instance CSM is seeking five CLPs to agree to undertake a ‘Labour Neighbours’ pilot project. These projects would last for two years. At the end of this period we would re-evaluate progress and seek to refine, re-shape and develop the model and then hopefully roll-out to other CLPs.
The projects may start on a small-scale and could indeed stay at the ‘micro-level’, however, we would hope that there will be scope for development. There would be differing models for projects, they are not prescriptive but designed to serve the needs of individual neighbourhoods and communities. However, the values and purpose are clear and this commonality will feature across the projects.
How will it work?
It is important to map out what would be required for a pilot-project to be established, what would be the guiding principles, what models can be used and how we see these progressing. The values of social action, local service and community organising are clearly foundational.
The projects would be run by a ‘Labour Neighbours’ co-ordinator, drawn from within the CLP, who will co-ordinate and empower willing volunteers. In all CLPs the involvement of local MPs and councillors as ‘champions’ of the project will be vitally important. Local political representatives are often in contact with a variety of community groups, and through their advocacy, campaigning and casework should have a rich knowledge of the local area, its needs and fabric.
In the first instance, a ‘Labour Neighbours’ project should start with some simple steps, drawing upon on a CLP’s existing strengths ie the expertise and local knowledge it already contains. Ideally, CLPs should survey their membership to find out what local groups they already belong to. If we could standardise such a survey we could map CLP member interests and involvement. This would provide a useful grid to guide the actions the local ‘Labour Neighbour’s group might pursue.
Following this survey and an analysis of its results, a ‘Labour Neighbours’ team should be assembled to work on specific social action projects in their community. This would be overseen by the project co-ordinator. We would suggest an initial meeting where the team discuss their ideas, skills and map on what they can do. In the first instance the team might want to commit to doing a small social action event as a ‘confidence builder’. This might be as simple as litter picking in the local park. The aim would be to make the group ‘action orientated’ as soon as possible.
Following that event, under the guidance of the project co-ordinator the team should meet and plan what they will do over the next year. This might be informed by conversations with local MPs, councillors or even voluntary service providers and groups. It clearly makes sense to be undertaking projects that are relevant to the area and don’t replicate existing service provision. We are after all looking to assist the locality.
The project co-ordinator will draw up a ‘Labour Neighbours’ action plan for six months, detailing:
- Name and members of ‘Labour Neighbours’
- Key Contacts
- Key Needs
- Potential Projects
- Resource needs (and how to address them)
The action plan will be shared with and presented to the local CLP. The key thing is to get started once you have had an initial meeting and decided what you are aiming to do.
What would it look like?
Our vision of what could be happening and achieved is clear. These are projects and services designed to build relationships with local communities and work with them on a long-term basis. They would be practical in nature, involve a pooling of skills/expertise and more long-term in nature eg working in an estate for a year. Whatever the specific aim they will be built on and shaped by some clear principles.
The core principles:
- Service and Social Action
- Transformative – being a positive empowering presence in the community
- Relevant – developed through listening to communities experience/needs
- Local and Ethical – operating at the neighbourhood level
- Social/environmental – Projects that reflect positive values
Types of project might fall into differing categories of engagement:
- Partnership project eg with CVS, BTCV, social entrepreneurs, youth clubs, faith groups
- Social action – clearing away graffiti, car washing, cleansing a canal footpath, tidying a park, basic gardening, debt advice clinics, shopping service, washing up, cleaning houses, removal of garden rubbish, moving furniture, welfare advice, establishing a credit union, visiting the elderly, helping single mums and migrants, baby sitting, five-a-side football, tag rugby, befriending, day trips to places of interest, marriage and relationship courses
- Community Organising – working with local communities along drawing on organising principles advocated by organisations such as the College of Community Organising
- Pro Bono Resource – collating skills and competencies within a CLP/community to be available to people
What will you need?
- Local Action – Labour Neighbours toolkit; explaining aim of project, how to get started, case studies, key contacts, potential ideas and models of service action
- Limited resource – CLP, Trade Union, Co-operative Party or legitimate/suitable sponsor to pay for equipment and resources.
- Endorsement of MP, PPC, senior Councillors
- Assemble a pool of volunteers and a team
How will it relate to the Labour Party?
Clearly, thought needs to be given as to how the ‘Labour Neighbours’ project fits within the existing architecture of local Labour Party organisation. While many attempts have been made to change the way parties operate, these often lose momentum. Local parties can be demanding on activists’ time. There is usually a conventional meeting cycle for a CLP that is galvanised around the desire and requirement to fight and win elections.
The Labour Neighbours project will be ‘CLP badged’ and draw from local resources but operate at a slightly ‘arms length’. We would aim for a relationship between the project and local Labour Party according to a principle of ‘high accountability and low control’.
The Labour Neighbours ‘philosophy’ clearly coheres with the ideas and concepts contained in ‘Let’s talk – New politics for new times’ produced by the Labour Party in 2006. The principles of refocusing CLPs to develop more outward focussing and agile structures, interfacing with the community and driving change locally all articulate a vision which provides a helpful foundation for this CSM initiative.
CSM has a number of practical suggestions as to how space can be created for ‘Labour Neighbours’ to operate effectively within local parties. As a first step, we could look at reforming the way parties meet. This might include the following reforms and suggestions:
- Branch and CLP meetings could include reporting on local community groups/activities.
- Some branch and CLP meetings should be replaced with other activities.
- Leaders of community groups could be asked to speak to CLPs.
- CLP officer positions could be reformed to include a ‘Vice Chair for Communities position’.
- One CLP meeting a year could be solely dedicated to a ‘Labour Neighbours’ activity/project
The next steps
CSM will set out a medium to long-term strategy for this project. The first two years will principally deal with the running of the pilot projects, facilitating and supporting them and reporting on the progress and lessons learned. The remaining three years will seek to roll-out the projects to CLP’s interested in adopting this model. CSM will be seeking to support and facilitate these projects and ‘market’ them at Labour Party Conference, Regional Conferences and to affiliate bodies within the Labour movement. CSM should attempt to hold a large ‘Labour Neighbours’ event at each Labour Party conference, having made careful preparations in the preceding nine months in partnership with local churches, agencies and voluntary groups.
CSM will offer to draft an evaluation report after the first two years of the pilot projects reflecting the innovative work undertaken, lessons learned and successes. CSM would aim to support each pilot project through its regional networks (buy-in is important) and visit the ‘Labour Neighbours’ co-ordinator once a year.
Proposed but not ‘owned’ by CSM per se ‘Labour Neighbours’ is intentionally modelled on church based, social action initiatives that have mobilised young people to serve in poor and disadvantaged areas in the UK. CSM is aware of a reservoir of church based community and political activism. Drawing on this model and learning from these groups, projects and those engaged in community organising is instructive for the Labour movement.