The Curious Contradictions of Community Organizing and the United Kingdom – Part I

New Ostudent-riots-chrisjohnbeckett-360x270-300x225rleans Another day of rioting in the United Kingdom finds more police on the street, more protestations from conservative Prime Minister David Cameron about “criminality,” and little relief or recognition of the crises stripped bare by the mess and mayhem.  Given the rise of community organizing in the UK and the reported government efforts to enlist “community organizers” as a legitimizing force behind their position in quelling the riots, it is important to understand the backstory that community organizing is playing the UK political and social situation.

Certainly the discussion starts squarely with the growth and ambition of London Citizens, its chief organizer, Neil Jameson, and the strong work and record it has assembled over the last dozen years in London and other cities as it has expanded.  Over the years I have been an admirer of their work and have met and collaborated with Jameson as we have compared our experiences on Living Wage campaigns in the USA and Canada versus their work in London.  (More detail on Citizens UK is included in an essay by Kirk Noden on starting Birmingham Citizens and my discussions with Jameson in the recently published Global Grassroots:  Perspectives on International Organizing available now at www.socialpolicy.org).

Over the last year the national profile of the organization has changed dramatically.  Their ambition to begin a national training institute for organizers drew the major party candidates in the British elections to a large 2500 person gathering solicited a much heralded commitment of support to move forward in this direction from David Cameron, who emerged as the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, who was dealt in as Deputy Prime Minister in making creating the government.

From this point on it becomes very, very tricky to follow, particularly from over here across the pond.

Cameron’s government has driven a major austerity and social services cutback program, part of which is being harvested now in riots in the streets of lower income communities spreading around the UK.  At the same time perhaps shrewdly and contradictorily he trumpeted a so-called “Big Society” program that was claiming to focus on reducing poverty.  In the catch-22 of modern politics it is bizarrely ironic that one can deliberately increase poverty while simultaneously claiming to be committed to programs to reduce poverty.  Fortunately for many of the politicians since they are mainly just screwing the poor there is often little downside payback for the contradiction, which Cameron is no doubt no ruing while whining about “criminality” and the consequences of his government’s actions.

A centerpiece of the “Big Society” and a seeming tribute to the decades of developing relationships and growing love affairs between political figures and Citizens was the announcement that 5000 so-called “community organizers” would  be hired, trained, and dispatched to communities throughout the country so that they would enable more participation in the radically downsizing government and ostensibly more accountability.  The universal assumption was that the huge contract being tendered for bid was being designed and written as a shoo-in for Citizens UK (Guardian, 2.14.11).  Citizens UK was cited in the “request for proposal” as was Saul Alinksy, which continues the ironic and embarrassing bear hug from the right of his work and principles. Despite the obvious philosophical conflicts between the rightwing government and its programs and community organizing’s core commitment to empowerment, Citizens UK continued to rationalize and legitimize this effort as an important step in realizing its vision of a national training institute in the UK.

Meanwhile in the throes of budget cutbacks the “promise” of 5000 “community organizers” was whittled down to a three year program to develop 500 such people.  There were additional curiosities like the problem of sorting through how these “community organizers” would be essentially government employees, yet also be involved in pushing on local governments for accountability.  There was speculation that rather than being about power, accountability, or whatever, these “organizers” were a Cameron stink bomb being planted in local communities as problems for local mayors and officials.

There was remarkably little discussion about what organizations would be built and how they would operate.  Importantly, the entire program seemed a lot like the old Texas Rangers slogan, “one riot, one ranger,” which takes on even more meaning given the events of these days in the United Kingdom.

And, tomorrow in Part II we will discuss that issue and look at the surprising development of this Big Society program when the announcement of the contract winner was made earlier this year.

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