Bristol In the aftermath of the devastating loss experienced by the Labour Party in the United Kingdom recently, everything is up for grabs as politicians, parliamentarians, activists, and others sort through the rubble to rebuild. Jeremy Corbyn, who had led a resurgence in the party’s membership and pushed away from the “new” labor program of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown towards a more progressive platform, has resigned and there’s a new contest for leader to pick up the pieces going forward. One of the signature efforts of Corbyn’s time was the creation of a community organizing program of sorts, so I was most interested in trying to sort out what was to become of it.
The program in theory was not overtly electoral, though certainly political. Twenty community organizers were hired along with ten digital organizers to activate the party base, recruit new members, and increase civic participation through local campaigns and actions. The priority was to run the program in swing districts that party strategists thought they could move over to Labour in future electoral contests. The program was somewhat slow in coming together and some party leaders at the local level wanted no part of it, throwing a wrench in the overall strategy, but it still got off the ground.
Before the election organizers of the program touted its results. At the party conference there was a claim that 18,000 people had been engaged, 3500 leaders had been trained in 70 different leadership sessions, and that the digital program had built a bridge for many party members. A small organizing campaign in a social housing block in London called A2Dominion in the Wandsworth Council trying to win improvements was widely touted in favorable, published reports as signally a new direction on the local level by the party. Corbyn visited the project to showcase the work, putting more pressure on the Conservative MP in the area.
Of course, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson succeeded in calling the snap election, as expected, it was all hands-on deck for the election. The results swept away those districts thought to have been swing areas as well as generational strongholds for the party in traditional firewalls in the northern part of the country. From all reports and speculation while I’ve been talking to organizers and others around the country, the community organizing program is also twisting in the wind, partially dependent on the leadership election of course, but also facing some final battles of the Alamo in local and mayoral elections that are still upcoming and could help save the program or sound its final bugle call.
All of which is a shame. Cynics, and I was among the skeptics, always wondered if the program was simply about creating a ground and air war weapon for the inevitable elections dressed in sheep’s clothing, so to speak. The idea was right. We see its success as a multi-year commitment in the Netherlands for example in deepening the base using local issues and actions to build organization. Community organizing is about deep base organizing and involvement, necessitating an ongoing commitment to changing the culture and practice of an institute, including a party, if they are serious about the effort and want to remake a role for membership from the bottom up. A short-term program is simply a temporary fix and more about mobilization and canvassing, than anything that could be called community organizing. Perhaps that is the best it can ever be within established party institutions, which is why independent organization not subject to the back and forth of elections is critical. Still, real community organizing can play a more important role in the future of a party if given the opportunity, so I hope it has the chance in the UK to prove its case.