Fundamentalism and Organisation

On community organising, religion and getting things done

Citizens UK (formerly London Citizens) are pretty hot right now. During the election campaign they held a rally at which all 3 main party leaders spoke. No other organisation had the clout to achieve this. Their model of ‘community organising’ epitomises David Cameron’s dream of a ‘big society’ and now David Milliband has promised to use his campaign funds to train a thousand community organisers as part of his vision for Labour renewal. What is the secret of their success, and do they offer a model that can be widely followed? Are they the way forward or a dangerous retreat into communitarianism?

Founded in 1989, and gaining real prominence in the last 5 years or so, Citizens UK is a London dominated alliance of community organisers, modelled on Saul Alinsky’s ideas developed in Chicago in the 1930s. Community organising, a tradition well established in the US but less known in the UK, is an attempt to give power to the powerless by encourage them to organize (usually locally) and make demands, in their own self-interest.

Alinsky’s principles were confrontational and hard-nosed, realising that power would not be gained merely by asking for it:

A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in almost every generation. . . . War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play.

Citizens UK has stayed true to this confrontational approach. Its first, and most famous success was to force Banks and other city institutions to pay a ‘living wage’ to their cleaning and other menial staff. This was a higher amount than the national minimum wage, calculated to reflect the real cost of living in London. The campaign combined a variety of tactics including occupations of buildings, interventions at AGMs and public shaming of the Banks in order to force a change of policy. The Living Wage later became a key part of Ken Livingstone’s mayoral policy, has been continued by Boris Johnson and has now become a major part of national political discourse. Other campaigns include a call for an amnesty for illegal migrants (a version of which was proposed by the Liberal Democrats at the election) and for ‘community land trusts’, a sustainable approach to long-term, community owned housing. In these, and other areas, Citizens UK has punched above its weight, arguably influencing debate and policy far more than more traditional bodies such as think tanks and trade unionists. Its combination of wide membership, consensus building techniques and direct action are a powerful combination, and their approach seems immensely attractive to progressives and liberals.

One element, however, is less likely to warm liberal hearts. Citizens UK has no membership for individuals, only for organisations and is thus run on communitarian/collectivist lines rather than liberal ones. This reflects the fact that the majority of their member organisations are religious groups, a broad coalition of churches, mosques and synagogues (though Jewish involvement has been limited, perhaps because of the event at Bevis Marks Synagogue where a rabbi was sacked for allowing his synagogue to be used as part of a demonstration). London Citizens activist Maurice Glasman, at a meeting during a Compass conference, described this as central to the organisation’s success. He argued that if a trade union claimed they could get 100 people to a demonstration, only 10 would turn up. If however, a Mosque leader made the same claim, they could be sure of getting nearer to 90 participants. Given that numbers of committed activists are central to the success of campaigns, and given the decline in membership in political parties and trade unions, the galvanizing of activists through religious institutions is an exciting prospect. It raises, however some awkward questions.

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