Organised Labour

UK Labour & Community Organising

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn the UK Labour party has launched a shiny new community organising unit. The organising buzz has spread to the UK’s largest political party – if you’re counting members they have over half a million. I interviewed two of Labour’s new organisers to find out more about their strategy and approach. This is a long read – if you’ve only got time for the headlines skip straight to the end for a summary…

Storytelling

Relationships and stories are at the heart of the unit’s work, as they are with any solid organising strategy. So it makes sense to start by telling the stories of the two women I interviewed.

India Thorogood grew up in a working class family in Essex “with a Palestinian flag on the wall and strong sense of justice”. Her dad was unemployed under Thatcher and from a young age she was aware that some people had everything while others had little, and was determined to do something about it. She started volunteering with 38 Degrees straight out of Uni and moved into several paid roles. From there she went to Greenpeace where she describes herself as an initially reluctant environmentalist, until she realised climate change will affect the poorest and people of colour first. When Jeremy Corbyn appeared on the leadership ballot she became involved with Labour, and started working for them in the run up to the 2017 election. She’s now one of two lead community organisers, responsible for distributed digital organising. 

Jo Hiley started her organising journey at University, where she encountered difficulty accessing crisis payments. She was sending money home to help support her family, and this wasn’t taken into account when reviewing her finances. Jo successfully changed the criteria to take this situation into account, helping many other students in the same boat. She went straight from University to working full time for the National Union of Students in Liverpool on a community organising pilot, and then onto the incredible Hope Not Hate organising team, before starting the Labour role as Yorkshire Community Organiser just a few months ago. She’s excited about the potential to change culture in the party to become more of a movement.

Who and where are they organising?

Labour party structures are organised into hubs in each of 11 regions and nations. The new organising unit follows this same pattern, with at least one community organiser and one digital organiser in each. Numbers scale up or down depending on the size of the area and the need there – for example, Scotland has more, as do the East and West Midlands. Constituencies they’re focusing on vary, but they include lots of old Labour heartlands, coastal towns and post industrial cities “in need of some love”. Jo Hiley has four constituencies as Yorkshire organiser.

The team is headed up by Dan Firth, who comes from organising start up We Can Win. Sotez Chowdhury and India Thorogood are lead community organisers, with India managing the digital side of the community operation. When it’s at full capacity the unit will have an impressive 40 staff. The party is clearly making a big investment – but what is it hoping this unit will achieve?

For the many, by the many – with the many?

As we might expect, the organising unit will be ready to flip activities if a snap election is called. But interestingly, electioneering isn’t it’s primary focus. Instead, the party wants to focus effort on deep listening, supporting locals to win campaigns on issues that matter to them. At the same time it’s finding ideas for new policies, and gathering local stories about how national policies play out and affect communities.

“By organising more effectively with communities across the country, not only can we build support to help Labour win elections… we can make real, practical differences to people’s lives, even while in opposition.”
Jeremy Corbyn

Big listening

Engagement begins with community mapping – speaking to teachers, faith leaders, community organisations and the local CLP (constituency Labour party) to decide who to approach. Then the organisers are reaching out, building relationships with people one on one, focusing on gaps in engagement rather than existing strengths of the local party. Jo has a target of 15 one to one meetings a week.

2-to-2 outwood
Jo Hiley (far left) and Rohan the Distributed/ Digital organiser (far right) talking to two vicars about community issues in Yorkshire

As Jo explained to me, the big listening vision involves conversational canvassing to look for issues, building up to get people to attend and host house meetings. These are properly relational spaces where people can get to know each other and talk (much more deeply than on the doorstep) about the issues affecting them. Organisers are tailoring their approach to what feels right locally, and to their own strengths. Jo does a lot of training as that’s her passion and skillset. 

“Barnstorming”

The idea is that all this will lay the ground work for a launch meeting attended by a senior speaker from the party – like Corbyn or McDonnell. In reality, a lot of these have started happening before local organisers would ideally have liked, as they’re very new in roles and want to try and build up as much momentum before these as possible. But it’s a learning process for the party. These meetings aren’t rallies of enthusiastic supporters – they’re attracting locals who ask challenging questions and care passionately about their communities. All this is feeding into the development of the Labour manifesto.

It’s early days – the project is only a few months old and not fully staffed yet. The ambition is not just to feed into national policy, but instead to focus on nurturing local leadership, supporting people to win their own campaigns on things that matter to them in their communities.

Distributed digital organising

Alongside the community organisers, India’s team are working to amplify stories and local campaign impact by bringing that organising online. Having worked in ‘clicktivisim’ in previous roles, India told me she’s excited about having digital campaigns that work both ways – telling the stories of the local effects of national policies and also supporting campaigning coming bottom up from communities themselves with some exciting tech. They’re also training local volunteers to empower them to do all this themselves.  

The tech

Nationbuilder is the big off the shelf organising platform lots of political parties (and some NGOs) have been using. But it doesn’t have all the functionality a big organising project might ideally like, and many on the left have simply written it off entirely after the role it played in the election of Donald Trump in the US. For these reasons and I’m sure many more Labour recruited a team of in house developers to build their own bespoke platform – Organise. It’s got some exciting features, like being able to tag volunteers with particular skills, and can track lists of volunteers from listening campaigns, storing data in a safe and usable way. 

They didn’t stop there with purpose builds – Labour have also made Chatter, a texting tool, and Dialogue, for phone banking. They used Dialogue for simple voter ID calling in the 2017 general election but are looking to explore using it for broad mobilisation in future, inspired by the phone banking of the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy campaign. Emails are sent with Blue State Digital, and they’re also using platforms like Whatsapp, Slack and Facebook.

Haven’t Labour always been organising? What’s different?

As people are quick to point out when talking about ‘organising’, this isn’t new to the Labour movement in the UK (or the party of the same name). Hopefully people know the history of the NHS and the role that coal miners from North Wales played in demanding it, to give one example. And for course, constituency Labour parties do respond to, and to differing extents organise around, local issues.

But a good example of the problem is illustrated by the failure of the Labour party to find a single person earning minimum wage at a campaign event, when Arnie Graf was supporting Ed Miliband’s election campaign. This was a clear warning sign – the formation of the Community organising unit signals the party’s acknowledgement of this failure and it’s re-orientation to build solid links with communities.

“If someone in a Constituency Labour Party wants to run campaign on saving local hospital, but its not winnable right now, and the community really want to campaign on something else – then the community organising training we’re doing across the country will come in to play. We need to be able to go back to strategy and remind people that we agreed to work on the issue that matters most to people locally. Mass engagement of local people will give authority to our campaign choices and tactics.”
India Thorogood

What about resisting the rise of the right?

I was curious about how this organising approach might be thinking about resisting or opposing the rise of the far right in the UK – especially since this is really taking root in many of the post industrial towns Labour is organising in. India told me that where she is from; Braintree in Essex, Labour just won a council seat back from UKIP. She puts this down to the fact that working class voters have seen Labour’s manifesto and policy, and they’re switching back. India says that people have genuine anger after their industries were destroyed, and that Labour are offering policies to transform people’s lives and to tell their stories, instead of shifting to incorporate xenophobia into their messaging. 

Diversity is beautiful

The organisers, and those they’re organising, are not the ‘usual suspects’. Although Jo has always worked as an organiser, and India has an NGO campaigning background, most of the other recruits to the new organising unit aren’t professionals. Many staff without this experience were selected over long term NGO campaigners because they have a strong connection to their local area and because they really care about what happens there.

India says her team is one of the most diverse in the party, with more people of colour and women than white men. Plus the grassroots swell in people joining has given the party a newly diverse membership. This signals some exciting potential to be empowering diverse communities and telling much richer stories about people’s lives.

A summary – the essence of the approach

1 – Listening, local relationships and storytelling
As it was explained to me, the strategy has human relationships at its heart. Organisers are already mapping their communities, arranging one to one conversations, building up to discussions in people’s living rooms, and all the while listening deeply. The idea is that people’s concerns and experiences will feed into local and national policy, and to them leading their own local campaigns. People’s stories are central to it all – making connections one to one, driving local campaigns, and explaining impacts of national policy locally.

2 – Online/offline symbiosis
It can be easy to think that ‘organising’ happens in the real world, while online campaigning means less engaged ‘clicktivist’ mass mobilisation. But online tools can be used to excellent effect to support on the ground organising. Labour have purpose built their own organising platform, texting and phone banking tools. And they’re making good use of other platforms like Slack, Whatsapp and Facebook. All this complements online mobilisation, with the ambition that campaigns and stories come up from the grassroots to be amplified online.

3 – Bottom up… and top down
The plan is not for the party to parachute into communities and engage people on campaigns around national policy. Instead they’re looking to build relationships with local people, support them to identify local issues they think they can win on, and to empower people to lead and run campaigns themselves. In turn, local concerns will feed into development of national policy. At the same time, they’ll be gathering local stories to explain impacts of Conservative policies at a local level. Come election time, the apparatus will flip to mobilise and organise people en masse around increasing the Labour vote.

4 – Not one neatly defined organising approach – instead a blend of many
In my last blog, exploring Which organising approach is right for your campaign?, I suggested three different categories to make sense of the different organising models out there. But I also said that these were just suggested as a guide and that each campaign / organisation should tailor their approach. Labour’s approach takes something from each of the categories I suggested. The listening and empowerment work is classic community organising, the smart digital distributed organising incorporates much of the networked change approach and some of the training for the team was delivered by Becky Bond, very much in the tradition of big organising.

Early days, but one to watch

It’s too early to say what the impact of all this work will be, and who knows how long they’ll have to really get going with the slow build that local organising needs to make headway, before they have to switch into general election mode. But I was inspired and intrigued by their plans and approach. Will they manage to transition the Labour party’s culture, so that it is embedded in and helping to drive a movement for social justice? I hope so! I guess we’ll find out in the months and years to come…

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