Wednesday, 31 March 2010

We need genuine community organisation, not political astroturfing

Over at Left Foot Forward, Will Straw says that "British political parties are finally waking up to the importance of community organisation," and the Tories "should be praised for their announcement today of 5,000 new community organisers, which suggests a consensus is emerging." The Tory announcement comes a week after a similar one by Labour. But neither represents a viable way to tackle genuine issues.

The major problem is that the form of organisation being trumpeted is top-down and managed from without. Essentially, it allows for "professional" organisers to be parachuted to take control of a community in the name of one or other party.

Both David Cameron and Liam Byrne, on behalf of their respective parties, are suggesting full-time organisers. These people will be trained and paid by the party which, as their employer, will have their loyalty. This may be fine as long as the needs of the people coincide with the agenda of the party. But when it doesn't people can expect either abandonment or betrayal.

In place of organisation controlled by apparatchiks (however noble their intentions may be) for party political purposes, the working class need to be organising themselves.This needs to be done within local communities by ordinary people, independent of an electoral system which works for the ruling class. Though they eventually succumbed to the fallacy of becoming a "workers' party" in 2001, the Independent working Class Association (IWCA) had some considerable success in this regard;
Once it became clear that New Labour intended to formally abandon a commitment to social equality and justice, and in anticipation of the anti-working class nature of any future New Labour administration, a variety of groups came together to discuss how the economic, social and political interests of the working class could be best protected.

The Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) was formed in October 1995 as a result of these discussions.

When New Labour was elected in May 1997, the IWCA responded by setting up a number of pilot schemes in selected places across the country. The emphasis at all times was on addressing the immediate interests of the working class in the locality in which the pilot scheme was based.

It was an approach that provided the IWCA with the opportunity to test its basic strategy on a range of issues. These included fighting council corruption in Hertfordshire, confronting a mugging epidemic in Birmingham, the privatisation of council housing in Islington, exposing the small print in the New Deal provisions in Hackney, highlighting the dangers of mobile phone masts in Manchester, sparking occupations against council closures in Glasgow, taking up the fight against antisocial crime in Havering, and confronting drug-dealing in Oxford.
Workers need to learn from and build upon this example within their own communities. If there is an issue that needs to be tackled, we need to recognise that appeals to authority solve very little, and even that after considerable wrangling with bureaucracy and red tape. By organising ourselves, we can effectively resist state and capitalist imposition upon our lives.

The idea is not without precedent.

In 1911, Liverpool ground to a standstill as all transport workers went on strike. Faced with wage reductions and price increases, 70,000 people took part in the greatest industrial action the city has ever seen. Despite violence and repression by police, three months of action saw enormous victories for workers on hours, pay, and conditions.

In the 1980s, the people of Britain stood together against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax. It was not votes or petitions that brought down this unjust tax, but a mass campaign of non-payment, backed by a general strike in the public sector. Liverpool was a leader in this fight, with literally thousands of people playing their part in making the Poll Tax uncollectable.

In April 2009, parents occupied Lewisham Bridge primary school to protest the local council’s closure plans. Despite court injunctions and eviction attempts, they held out until August. As a result, the council reversed its decision and announced that the school would stay open.

People will soon be receiving their polling cards. I received mine today, with a notice that "a General election will be held before 3rd June, and could be held on 6th May along with the Local Elections." Faced with this fact, our message should be a reminder to people that ordinary people have won great victories by organising themselves for direct action. Every great leap forward, from the end of child labour to the equal status of women, has been won without recourse to the vote.