During the summer of 2010, Movement for Change trained 1,000 Labour members and supporters in community organising skills. While some used those skills immediately in their CLPs with great effect, others found the challenges they faced were more complex. What happened next? James Austin, a Labour activist from Yorkshire, describes the frustration he felt in a largely inactive rural Party… and the subsequent value of the training in his current political work.
In 1981 Shirley Williams wrote about the death of Old Politics and that it was ‘possible, just possible, that [new politics] will be a politics for people.’ Perhaps she was a wee bit premature in announcing the death of Old Politics but certainly that sentence encapsulates the hope I had for community organising after I completed an introductory training session run by Movement for Change in the summer of 2010. The Movement seemed to epitomise many of the beliefs I had about politics: that it is about communities working together, that it is possible to achieve change from bottom up and that the Labour party should be about solving people’s problems rather than being mainly inward looking.
I then promptly boarded the 20:52 train to Skipton and forgot all about it.
Actually that’s not true.
There were some attempts for those of us from Skipton and Ripon (a safe Tory, largely rural constituency) to meet up with each other. A campaign was proposed to deal with the need for a road barrier in Skipton where two youngsters had been killed last year. But confronted with the big challenges of clashing work schedules, the long distances and the poor public transport which are facts of life in the Dales any ideas we had eventually fizzled out. The culture of inactivity within our local party seemed so ingrained that attempts to organise felt pointless. Faced with those odds, along The culture of inactivity seemed so ingrained within our local Party that attempts to organise felt pointless. Faced with those odds, the initial Movement for Change training session did not lead me to change my local Labour Party fundamentally.
So, what was the point?
While I didn’t change my local Labour party fundamentally, I still found that the training was an important factor in giving me the confidence to become more politically active. Whether it was become an Oxfam organiser, chairing my university Labour Students club, working as a Rugby Coach or become involved in various community projects I found that I could use the skills which the training taught me to great effect. In each of these projects I tried to bring a ethos of inclusion and openness, involving anyone who wanted to involved and using community organising techniques to work with a wide variety of organisations. This month, that work has come full-circle as I’m now working with an MP who is committed to using community organising in the local Party and is working with Movement for Change to achieve that.
Like many of the other first Movement for Change trainees, the fact that I came across challenges within my own local Party has not stopped what I learned helping me to have a political impact. I am both active and more committed than ever to using the skills I learned to strengthen the Labour movement at a local level. If anything, my story shows there is great potential that, as Movement for Change develops and expands, it will be able to build a national network of Labour people working for change across their local communities.
James Austin, Skipton Labour Party activist