openDemocracyUK

It’s not only our industrial heartlands that have hollowed out. It’s our progressive politics too.

A community organiser reports that progressive politics is shockingly out of touch with the communities whose interests they purport to represent.

Dan Firth
28 November 2016
We Can Win leaders taking action in their communities. Image courtesy of Small Axe. All rights reserved.

"We Can Win". Photo: Dan Firth. All rights reserved.I've organised with communities from London to Yorkshire to win on issues that matter to ordinary people: from good jobs to living wages to better housing. I've also trained Labour party politicians and activists in community organising. In the course of my work I’ve met hundreds of ordinary people hungry to make a change. Whether the mum at the local primary school afraid about the health of her child as air pollution rockets, or the cabbie worried about losing his job to the march of automation. They are potential leaders, and they have been locked out of progressive politics.

The problem is progressive parties haven’t got a clue how to find, nurture or develop talent. Most Labour Party meetings up and down the country are so dreary they would kill the passion of even the most ardent corbynista. Equally door knocking, and leafleting will only deliver fatigue, not win elections. Of course, being out of power is a problem - as Sadiq Khan reminded us 38 times in his speech to the Labour Party conference. But being in power is not enough.

Progressives have failed to grasp that more than anything, ordinary people share a sense of powerlessness. That’s why ‘take back control’ resonated with so many people.In fact, too often, progressives have been guilty of taking people’s power away.  From the bureaucratic Labour council ignoring thousands of complaints about damp housing; to a Prime Minister rushing the country to war, to policy wonks being parachuted into safe seats, progressives in power have too often treated people as a barrier to progress or simply as election fodder. And people feel it. That’s why community organising matters to the future of the progressive movement.

Of course, being out of power is a problem... But being in power is not enough.

Over the last 20 years the progressive movement has hollowed out. Support built on a network of workplace, trade unions and non-conformist churches has largely gone. Labour, and no doubt the Greens and Liberal Democrats, have increasingly recruited their stars from a cabal of think tanks and elite universities, further increasing the sense amongst ordinary people that politics is out of their reach.  And with that there has been a loss of authentic leaders whose demands for social justice and equality were forged in these communities.  

Despite all the talk of a gulf between cosmopolitan London and ‘monocultural’ former Industrial towns, from Dalston to Donny, ordinary people’s grievances are largely shared; a need for good jobs, affordable housing; rip off energy companies and a sense of hope for our children are what matters. These are issues that progressives should be winning.

The problem is progressives tend not to listen. Armed with a manifesto - drafted in party HQ - activists pound the streets, phonebank, leaflet and ask people to support this or that prospective councillor, attend a meeting on academies, join a demo on trident or decide which leader is best for the party.  Despite most of us viewing ourselves as open minded democrats - fighting for and with the people - progressives are in fact more comfortable being both transactional and ideological. How often do we have a proper conversation with with the people we push to turn out to vote. How often do we try and build a relationship that goes beyond an immediate political transaction? how often do we bring people together around issues that matter to them, not us. Activism and clicktivism might build your data but they won’t build relationships and they certainly won’t build trust.

Organising is about developing, nurturing and training leaders rooted in communities across the country to build people power. Power that can turn winning local issues into winning elections.  But crucially it is also about sparking political imagination. The Living Wage was not a gift of policy wonks, but was born out of the anger of low paid workers. The real solutions for progressives will not be thought up by a policy adviser in the Westminster bubble but should be forged in communities through real struggles.

That’s why progressives must now roll up their sleeves. Despite a rather smug view on the left that UKIP is now a spent force, if the regressive alliance of the Tories and UKIP can deliver on Brexit - the logic may follow - why not on jobs and better housing? If you throw in Trumps’ election and Arron Banks’ money - a resurgent right could be energised in former industrial towns like Doncaster. In this context progressives must reconnect and rebuild trust amongst communities.  If we can't then others will.

If we want to build a progressive force, ordinary must be at its heart. We must be bold, partisan and willing to back ordinary people all the way to the ballot box. That’s why we are building a movement in forgotten heartlands like Doncaster and Medway as well as the City of London. We can win, but until progressive parties get this - they will be bereft of leaders, trust, imagination and ultimately power.

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