Politics in the UK is at a crossroads. The government has presented its vision of a radical overhaul to public spending. A community-based movement involving unions and community organisations is building opposition to this agenda – we saw something of its strength in the estimated 500,000 who took part in last Saturday’s TUC-organised March for the Alternative.
The challenge is how a coalition like this can go from holding a one-off mobilisation into a sustained movement that builds an alternative vision for how the UK should be governed.
In my book Power in Coalition, I have identified a series of strategies for building strong coalitions between community organisations. These ideas are based on the experiences of three long-term coalitions in Canada, the US and Australia. Here, four useful lessons are identified for those keen to develop and achieve a people-centred vision for the UK.
1. Less is more
Against much conventional wisdom, smaller coalitions tend to be more powerful in the long term than larger ones. A smaller number of organisations who share a greater commonality of values or interest in an issue, and have a higher degree of commitment to engage their membership and resources, are better placed to work together for the long term than a very broad, diverse network that only has a lowest common denominator of shared interests and commitment.
The campaign against the cuts, up until now, has followed the “bigger is better” model of coalition-building. This broad-based strategy was designed to coordinate a diversity of voices. It makes sense that its first public demonstration is about expressing that diverse unity of purpose.
But, if it is to successfully develop new policy agendas, the campaign must identify new ways of bringing organisations together. Highly diverse coalitions find it very easy to identify what they are against, but frequently struggle to say precisely what they are for – let alone develop winnable, actionable issues on which they can seek to make change.
The “movement for alternatives” could begin to canvas concrete policy alternatives by coordinating smaller action coalitions working on specific issues. Building on the relationships already formed, a clearing house could be set up for pairing mutually interested groups on new policies (think unions and climate change groups working on a green jobs strategy).
The grassroots collaborative in Chicago, who waged a fight for a big-box living wage, gives us a guide for how to make this work. It brought together a relatively small network of organisations – just 10 – but each had power, in that they had an ability to turn out their membership base. They also had a commitment to building solid relationships, and actually spent considerable time at breakfast meetings getting to know each other relationally before developing a common agenda.
When it came to working on issues, the foundation of strong relationships and trust allowed this Chicago coalition to let a power analysis and scrutiny of strategic opportunities drive its priorities. Over time, the coalition moved from issues like an amnesty for undocumented workers to state budget issues to living wages – not just because these issues were always rigidly the number one for each organisation, but because they were the most strategically likely to be won at the time. There was a give and take – and a recognition that winning on one strategic issue, even if it wasn’t your issue, might make it easier for other organisations to win on their issues in the future.
2. Focus on building relationships as well as holding events
The campaign against the cuts could play a key role in cultivating stronger relationships across its diverse network at the same time as it works on issues.
Activists are always “crazy busy” with the latest campaign or issue. But there is a difference between working hard and smart. We sometimes need to sharpen our sword – and build more resources and power in our networks – as well as working with what we have.
Face-to-face relationships are vital. Lasting social change will require strong bonds of trust between people and community-based organisations. Only then can collective action be sustained and long-term strategies conceived.
Community-based organisations spend a lot of time asking people to do things, or planning how to do stuff together, rather than really knowing why we are all doing this in the first place. But knowing why we do what we do, and lifting that up to be central in how we work together, can help stimulate our long-term dedication.
Bridge-builder staff and activists help build stronger relationships. The staff employed by coalitions like the Chicago Grassroots Collaborative and the Ontario Health Coalition (which I discuss later) actively built this relational culture. They helped organisations that had very distinctive ways of working to build an understanding across their differences. They negotiated to work through tensions.
3. Pursuing agenda-setting demands rather than just saying no
When attacked by shrinking budgets, unemployment and reactionary racism, it is often easiest to mount campaigns that “say no”: no to war, no to public sector cuts, no to education cuts.
But we need to be conscious of the limits of “no” campaigns. These campaigns still dance on the terrain of the person we are saying no to. They rarely are able to set an agenda for the kind of economy or society that works for us.
Saturday’s March for the Alternative has inspired much debate around the need for government growth and investment as a strategy to deal with budgetary challenges. However, developing a concrete winnable alternative vision is the real challenge. It not only takes a commitment to a positive agenda around growth and investment, but the identification of specific, winnable policy alternatives that can be suggested and won. Only then will a coalition successfully shift the political climate in the UK.
4. Make coalitions work locally, regionally and across the country
To build and move an agenda, successful coalitions need to take action at multiple scales – across the nation, our cities and in our suburbs.
For example, in 2001-2 the Ontario Health Coalition built a multi-scaled coalition around health care. A set of provincial organisations came together in Toronto, and then supported the building of dozens of local health care coalitions in regional cities like Kingston, Niagara and Thunder Bay. The health care movement was able to reach across the diverse geography of the province because activists, organisations and leaders located in different towns and cities anchored the coalition.
The coalition was most successful when local town-based coalitions had some autonomy to determine “how” they ran the campaign – and could structure activity based on their local idiosyncrasies and strengths. They were weaker when they were told what to do by leaders in Toronto. The coalition as a whole was at its best when the local groups had enough control to mix local campaigns, such as a campaign around a specific hospital privatisation, with a broader provincial agenda around health care.
The anti-cuts campaign is already working with different regional centres and groups across the UK. But how can this coalition build and sustain a national movement over the coming years through linking local and national activity?
One possibility is that the campaign develops a broad umbrella narrative about policy alternatives that are connected to local issue-based campaigns and actions. This was the basic strategy of the 2005-7 Your Rights at Work campaign in Australia. The campaign built itself around industrial relations, leading up to the 2007 Federal Election. Individual union contract or organising campaigns were defined as being about “Your Rights at Work.” This fed bottom-up energy into a nationally consistent agenda because Your Rights at Work became tied to specific and meaningful local struggles, as well as a broader national political agenda. Of course, the national campaign still had key national demands and messages, but they became concrete when linked to specific local campaigns. In the UK, this is already happening, such as with campaigns around local cuts to libraries or health clinics. Sustaining the local by linking it to a national narrative may help to counter a risk, which is that the “Campaign against the Cuts” remains just a slogan, rather than being used to build a consensus around common public policy goals.
Successful multi-scaled coalitions also provide space for local city and state-based coalitions to feed-up strategies to the national scale. The Ontario Health Coalition managed this by providing the local groups with a seat at the table. The coalition’s Administrative Committee not only included province-wide organisations but many of the most active local groups – so they could have their discrete needs and ideas voiced as part of the broader strategy.
These strategies may help the campaign against the cuts think through how it can provide meaningful voices for regional groups, and ensure that it isn’t a conversation from the top down.
Learning the lessons
It is the time for coalitions and collaboration in the UK. Most importantly, these formations need to be powerful. It is hoped that these experiences from outside of Britain may be provide some helpful lessons in sustaining powerful coalitions and building a new progressive economic and social agenda.
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