The current situation for most UK community organisers is a difficult one. The programme was born out of a Conservative manifesto commitment to train 5,000 organisers in the lifetime of this Parliament. It has always had strong personal backing from Prime Minister David Cameron as a key part of his much maligned Big Society policy. The organisers were seen by the Tory leadership striding across poor communities urging cowed and uneasy residents to take action and so build a better and more participative culture from the grassroots up. When Locality won the bidding process, many saw them as a safe pair of hands, confident with the machinations of government and politically astute. Many Locality members remain fiercely committed to the transformation of local communities by those communities themselves and well able to accommodate the radical edge of organising. Some commentators however observed that Locality was likely to be accommodating to the agenda of the new coalition and able to navigate the choppy waters that such a politically charged programme would inevitably bring.
The other side of the coin for most organisers is that they are face-to-face with citizens who are losing much of their security and even more of their income under the Coalition ideology of austerity. Certainly as we begin to go out door-to-door in Southwark once more, we are confronted by numerous households who are barely holding things together. People are angry and hurt, resentful and hungry and the prospect of still greater cuts to benefits, services, transport, jobs and housing is crushing. This government presents them with still greater reasons to stay small, to be undemanding and to take what is handed out. Our oppressed communities are being shattered. People – able-bodied and disabled – are seeing their livelihoods utterly destroyed with little hope of a return to sanity. Young people – especially if you are male and black – face huge discrimination in the jobs and housing markets and have an easy ticket to prison or mental ill health or both. Women across the board are facing the greatest pressure, seeking to support their families and being given fewer chances than before to thrive and prosper.
So what is an organiser to do within a politically charged programme with their experience of collective anguish? The programme encourages them to do a power analysis of their situation and to look at root causes rather than at the superficial patina of symptom. Considering how concerns are related to root causes is central to the work organisers are invited to do with residents and community leaders. Exploring the way different forms of power are expressed in local affairs is central to the reflection that organisers undertake throughout their training. This is all intended to equip organisers and the community leaders as they arise with the ability to identify how best to take action to ‘shift power intelligently’. For many, it would be called raising consciousness, political education and the development of civic democracy in action.
A Conventional Convention?
This week I attended the Annual Convention of Locality, held at the Marriott Hotel in central Bristol. It was a sizable affair with over 600 delegates and two days of workshops, surgeries, plenaries, meals, panels and group discussions. I was invited – with all the other organisers from cohorts 1 to 4 – to help run a session on the first afternoon (pictured above left) aiming to give delegates an experience of organising in practice. It was of course shrunk to fit the session location and timeframe but covered first a listening with individuals, a house group where the meeting was intended to share their feelings about the community and lastly, a project meeting trying to tackle a specified issue. My experience of this relaxed session was positive and I hope the participants got out of the experience what they wanted.
I chose to stay on for a second day to allow me to catch up with the many people I know and respect in the movement (I worked for ten years for one of Locality’s predecessors bassac) and to learn more about what Locality are now doing. I enjoyed the main meal with 600 guests (pictured right) on Tuesday evening. I hoped to see some useful tools, approaches or people who could help us in Southwark do our job still better. I was also expecting to see reflected in the programme, the contributions and speakers a sense of fury and pain at what is happening to our people. I was hoping to come away with an renewed sense that as a network of neighbourhood activists, Locality was able to articulate the terror and anguish of ordinary citizens. I wanted to hear analysis of the place of neighbourhood action in campaigning to stop the vilification of people in poverty. Instead I heard a very muted disquiet.
Building the movement
The sessions were all excellently run in their own style. The platform speakers in the plenaries were well prepared and gave comprehensive accounts of their work. Most people were in the higher paid posts of their organisations, most were white and few were under 30 – with the notable exception of the organisers! The business was however dominated by a superficial ‘can do’ attitude, where the emphasis is on encouraging those with the skills and knowledge to lead the rest to success. Again the search for leadership – not dispersed and democratic but centralised and focused in individual (mostly) men – was repeatedly echoed. This was a convention of those who felt – or who wanted to feel – they had arrived, could do business with the powerful, could have influence and shape policy. Other voices were generally absent.
Values in print
My judgements of the conference were only later reinforced when I read the recent public letter dated 19 October to Sajid Javid MP the new Economic Secretary to the Treasury signed by eleven organisational leaders including Steve Wyler of Locality (pictured). In the letter, these leaders present their case for the voluntary sector to be the agents of government policy, of public service reform. They welcome the government moves to encourage more donations and ‘investment’ in the sector and ask the Treasury to extend tax relief to community interest companies. They go on to encourage the minister to use the voluntary sector to support the most vulnerable during ‘transition’ in welfare. Any underspends should be used in these leaders’ minds to boost employment and community initiatives. They oppose the reduction in charity tax relief by certain local authorities. The penultimate paragraph reads:
Voluntary organisations and social enterprises are not only important for their economic and social benefits. They are ultimately an expression of our society and values. They give form to the future that we want for ourselves and others. They are vehicles through which people can give time and money, serving causes beyond themselves, and through which people’s hopes and needs can be fulfilled.
Left waiting for analysis
In the end my jaw is left limp at the lack of any analysis of the current austerity agenda. The only note of opposition at the Locality Convention was sounded by Steve Clare Director of Campaigns (pictured) who criticised rising inequality in incomes and tax avoidance by multi-nationals using figures from Uncut UK and Occupy. Locality is a network of community-based organisations but increasingly seems to have abandoned its roots in marginal and excluded communities. Instead they seem to be courting power at the highest level and to encourage their members just to grow and expand. The search for justice is absent.
There is always a tension between the ‘voice function’ and the ‘service function’ for voluntary organisations but the absence of the former in both Steve Wyler’s letter and the Convention appears to confirm that Locality is failing to listen to its own frontline. The organisers are regularly meeting families in turmoil and crisis but this reality is not part of the dialogue within the movement or with government. Plenty of other voices are articulating the message that government – of whatever hue – should stick the course and see out the whiners; the role of a network of locally-rooted mission-driven agencies such as Locality is surely to call for the break to be applied, for a moral compass to be examined and for a less ideological approach to be adopted. The call for a change of course requires a power analysis and that seems to be lacking.