Movement for Change: Developing responses to the challenges we face

Movement for Change will be reconstituted in the spring as a permanent home for community organising within the Labour movement, writes National Director Blair McDougall.

Blair McDougall is the National Director of Movement for Change

Yesterday we announced that Movement for Change, an experiment launched during David Miliband’s leadership campaign which trained party activists in community organising skills, will be reconstituted in the spring as a permanent home for community organising within the Labour movement. The response from activists has been inspiring – emails from have been flying in from people wanting to get involved.

Of course, there have also been some reservations and questions about the plans as they develop, including one understated critic predicting that we will be a “total, unmitigated catastrophe” for the party.

So what are we planning? On a practical level, Movement for Change organisers will work in partnership with Labour to provide training for local parties and members. We will also work in specific areas to support campaigns for change in local communities; to identify and nurture talent; and to develop new responses to the challenges that people face.

This won’t be traditional election organising, but it can, I believe, play a role in helping Labour to win local and national elections.

Community organising typically attempts to organise neighbourhoods but can also focus on groups such as parents, patients or tenants. During the experiment last year, those trained by Movement for Change ran campaigns on issues as varied as holding retailers to account for selling alcohol to teenagers, repairing security doors in estates and holding developers to account for road safety plans.

While social change will always be brought about through grassroots campaigns directed at state or private institutions, supporting people to develop their own methods like cooperatives or social enterprises has an exciting role to play as well.

Movement for Change will be a genuinely bottom-up organisation which aims to ally the party more closely with communities. It won’t make national policy but will be free to engage in campaigns which represent the authentic voice of local communities. We want to root this in Labour’s traditions and, if the NEC is willing, we will aim to formally affiliate to the party as a socialist society – autonomous but democratically controlled by a committee of lay activists.

This isn’t Year Zero. Labour already has a rich and historic tradition of organising. CLPs like Birmingham Edgbaston, Oxford East or East Renfrewshire (where I once worked as an election organiser) have reinvented incumbency campaigning and overturned national trends. Our central campaign machine has over-achieved on ever-diminishing resources.

The cooperative movement seeks to reorganise the economy for communities, the trade union movement to win power for workers within it. Hope not Hate have been so successful in uniting communities that people now dare to ask if the BNP is finished as a political force. Our organising approach won’t seek to replace these traditions, rather Movement for Change will learn from, compliment and add to them. Community Organising is not the single answer but it can be part of the solution to some of the challenges Labour faces.

Labour grew out of movements which organised for social change by bringing people together. We subsequently established a party to address a lack of central political power. We have become a party which, even at our lowest ebb, is professional at seeking elected political power. But by neglecting community power we may have made it harder to win elections.

The tens of thousands of new party members offer a great opportunity to rebuild. But we need to offer them something more than working to make other party members powerful; we need to give them opportunities to make themselves powerful within their communities. Party activists campaigning for the election of Labour councillors and MPs will always be the central political purpose of our party. But electoral victory is not the exclusive means of social change available to us. It never has been: just as unions offer workers power through strength of numbers, community organising can bring people together in communities to achieve social change.

By developing new bottom-up approaches to local issues, community organising can offer substance in response to the troubled ‘Big Society’. It can help shake the notion that we are possessed only with statist instincts. And it can help us develop a new and more authentic language of engagement with voters.

We have too often asked ourselves whether Labour is still a party for the powerless and spent too little time asking if we are still a party of the powerless. I hope that by organising in disadvantaged communities we can help bring people from non-traditional backgrounds into our party. Those of us who were adopted by political mentors or went through the training grounds of student or union politics often forget that the skills of political organisation are learned. Far from being an arcane discipline, community organising can open up the esoteric secrets of activism to those who never enjoyed such schooling.

I am keen to have a debate on these issues in the weeks before we launch. They are big issues and we will start as a small organisation. I am realistic about the impact Movement for Change can have, but I am ambitious about what people can achieve when they come together.

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