During the Labour leadership contest I was probably not the only Labour member who was a little bemused on hearing David Miliband’s promise to train 10,000 “community organisers” under the Movement for Change banner. It sounded nice – but what on earth did it mean?
A year and a bit on and I guess I am one of those community organisers myself.
So, what has happened in the intervening period to take me from friendly scepticism to active involvement? And what does community organising mean in practice?
It all began for me when Abby Jones, the Secretary of my CLP, Wimbledon, mentioned she had met someone from Movement for Change (M4C) in the course of her day job in Parliament. The message was that he was interested in “doing some work with us” as a different sort of constituency from the others he had been working in. For “different”, read Tory (Wimbledon was Labour between 1997 and 2005 though).
We discussed this on our Executive Committee and decided to give it a go. It sounded quite interesting and we had nothing to lose.
The next stage saw Stewart Owadally – our M4C organiser – meet up with senior members of Wimbledon CLP for one-on-one “conversations” in which we got to know each other and talked about what being Labour means for us. I found this quite a powerful experience, even more so for its simplicity. It is not every day that we explain ourselves to someone, and being properly listened to while we do is even rarer.
This aspect of listening well comes to the core of the M4C approach. The essence of community organising lies in the conversation itself and the relationships of trust that good talking and listening create.
What we have done
Since Stewart started working with us in Spring 2011, some of the more involved Wimbledon members have started conducting one-on-one meetings with other members, and our organiser and I have been meeting individually members from my own ward (where I am Secretary).
We have also gone out on a couple of what M4C calls “neighbourhood walks”, centred around the local business community. We have been calling in on small businesses in an area that is somewhat removed from main shopping areas and without the footfall they have.
Katy Neep, who came up with the small business walk idea, says: “It is really interesting to just go out and listen to how local businesses find operating in our local community, putting the emphasis on what it is like for them and what types of ideas they have. It is a really invigorating and inspiring way to spend a couple of hours.”
“Naturally we want to get more people on board with the party and voting for us, but once you remove this ‘sell’, it becomes clear that people are really interested in talking and sharing their experiences. Sometimes with door knocking you can go 10 houses without speaking to a soul or getting a conversation going. With the business walk, the majority of places I went into had someone who wanted to have a chat of some form. It really does help to show the local community in a different perspective and makes you think about the art of the possible – and the potential of the dream!”
The main subject that came up was parking – not enough of it, silly regulations governing it and over-zealous wardens – all having the effect of deterring customers. Empty shop fronts (and attempts to convert into residential property) were another concern. Businesses want clusters of commercial premises to attract more people to spend time in an area.
Christine Bickerstaff, a Wimbledon legend and surely one of the hardest-working Labour members anywhere, says: “I thought people would tell us to jump in the lake. There were some people, including me, who were very sceptical. But now I am totally sold on it as far as this sort of effort goes.”
“We were careful to avoid distracting customers and were surprised about how welcoming businesses were to us. We came unannounced, yet most of the business owners we spoke to had something thoughtful and relevant to say about what was happening in the area and their expectations for it.”
We are now at the stage of planning action on issues that were identified from conversations we have had. Also, after our last All-Member Meeting we came up with a plan to put into motion for small businesses in the area we have covered, including re-connecting with the owners (with whom we plan to maintain an ongoing relationship).
It is not all plain sailing though. So far our work has been carried out mostly by those who were already active in the local party – but we hope to change that. Some people have found difficulties in setting up one-on-one meetings with members; more generally, turning positive intentions into achievement is not always straightforward.
However the general consensus on our work with M4C is overwhelmingly positive. We are doing things we would not have done before, and we are working in a different way. We are enthused, and looking forward to help make positive changes happen.
Ben Cobley (@bencobley) – Member and Ward Secretary at Wimbledon CLP