From the TUC

Community organisers should work for their communities

21 Feb 2011, by in Politics

I’m a little bemused by the fashion for community organisers among both the Conservative and Labour Parties.

That’s not because I’m against community organisers. Indeed I would argue that this is what good trade unionists do – most workplaces are in some sense communities and union reps are often active in much wider ways within their local communities.

What worries me is the idea that community organisers can have an agenda that is something other than accountability to their communities. If they are sponsored by the state or political parties then that introduces all kinds of complications.

At present any real community organiser would have spending cuts pretty near the top of their agenda. Service cuts and the marketisation of public services are the biggest threat to communities throughout the country. It would however be surprising if that is the intent of the government’s programme – although some perfectly proper organisations seem to be involved in it as well as Conservative linked think-tanks.

On the other hand I can see why parties of the left may want to see powerful community organisation. We  live in a time when political apathy and cynicism aid the small-state right and those who think markets rather than democratic decision making should resolve issues. Involving more people in campaigning and collective work is therefore a good thing in itself.

But there is still endless potential for conflict between any particular community organisation and a political party. Different communities are not always in agreement, and may have their own priorities rather than share the tribal loyalties and discipline of a political party that wants them to be a transmission belt.

I’m no purist about any of this. National and local government can have a role in capacity building and supporting community initiatives. Taking help in this way does not automatically lead to capture, even if vigilance is needed (Adam Ramsay has a good post on this.).

On the other hand genuine community organisations can still end up with reactionary positions – often against other communities. Not all progressive demands can always be met simultaneously. Wider democratic bodies have to decide priorities and can legitimately say that particular community interests do not serve the common good.

So let a thousand community groups and organisers bloom, but recognise their autonomy and independence.

2 Responses to Community organisers should work for their communities

  1. Charlie Hislop
    Feb 21st 2011, 7:03 pm

    I’m with you. There was a debate about 30 years ago in the world of Community Development about precisely that. There have been initiatives about offering training for local people to take on community organiser roles, but it hasn’t made a lot of difference. The questions are who pays for them, who are they accountable to, and who can get rid of them? – to quote Tony Benn a bit. Most community work done by charities and local councils has been about managing the council’s relations with local communities, or helping groups to flounder around without any real resources – anything as long as it doesn’t actually make a difference. If you look back to the CDPs of the 70s, as soon as they started to argue for real change and real resources, the Home Office? closed them down.

  2. elli pang
    Feb 24th 2011, 12:25 am

    the problem is not only the question who pays for them – or all the third sector and voluntary organisations who will be commissioned to do previously statutory work, paid with public funds, but who are exempt from FOI and covered by ‘business confidentiality’ – in other words, outside transparency and accountability to the public. Despite the mantra of full accountability and transparency …. localism and all that … if we don’t know what the contract specification is, if we cannot check on whether these third sector organisations, social enterprises or charities are supposed to be doing we will never know whether they are delivering ….