One of the very few highlights of the 2010 general election campaign was Gordon Brown's speech to the Citizens UK Assembly in London three days before the vote. This speech was widely heralded as Brown's most impressive moment, perhaps the only time when he found a powerful voice as the representative of the Labour tradition, a tradition of social justice, social responsibility, and social organisation.
In the longer run, though, the setting of the speech will probably prove more important than the address itself. The Citizens UK Assembly welcomed all three of the major party leaders that day and asked them to pledge themselves to certain key policy commitments. It followed similar events hosted by London Citizens during the London mayoral elections in 2008 and 2004, and many local London Citizens assemblies since 1996.
The ability of Citizens UK and London Citizens to draw in the candidates in this way is testament to the astonishing success of these coalitions of community organisations. At the last general election in 2005, after all, very few had even heard of the idea of 'community organising'. Now, London Citizens is at the forefront of political debate. Since the election, it has drawn the attention of all of the candidates for the Labour Party leadership, with Ed Miliband launching a 'Living Wage' campaign along lines previously suggested by London Citizens, and David Miliband engaging in Citizens' style house meetings and one-to-one discussions.
The appeal of London Citizens, however, raises important questions for Labour and its own partisan identity. For although the organisation works in the same terrain as Labour, it is not at all clear that there is a natural affinity between the two. The contrast is immediately apparent when one considers London Citizens' structure. Organisers in London Citizens work primarily by building relationships with leaders and members of institutions in the community. They have notably steered clear of party politics and the traditional mechanisms of state and legislative action. Constituted of more than one hundred and fifty churches, mosques, schools, trade union branches, student unions, university departments, community groups, ethnic associations and charities, London Citizens develops the capacity of disadvantaged communities to identify and meet their own needs. In pursuit of this end, the organisation runs regular leadership training for its membership, where, in its own words, participants learn
leadership techniques; the role that power and self-interest
have in how the world works; how to connect faith and values
to action; about globalisation and its impact on families,
communities and civic life; and practical strategies for
rebuilding civil society institutions of faith, union, school
and local association. (1)
London Citizens represents an approach to politics that can seem, therefore, sharply at odds with that generally associated with the Labour Party. By placing its emphasis on cross-community relationships, on voluntarism, tradition, and faith, rather than on partisan campaigning and state-centered action, indeed, its approach to campaigning can often look closer to David Cameron's 'big society' than it does to conventionally understood Labour politics. Yet that connection also seems strained, especially in the light of the ever-deepening relationships between the Labour leadership candidates and the community organisers of London Citizens.
London Citizens presents us, therefore, with a conundrum. The implications of its success and its political approach are currently obscured by our lack of understanding of its precise methods and purposes. In order to resolve these issues and to ascertain the potential connections and disconnections between Labour and London Citizens more fully, one of us conducted a series of in-depth interviews with the leaders and community organisers of London Citizens over the last two years, asking what it is that is special about London Citizens' approach to political campaigning and how that relates to the Labour Party and the Labour tradition. …