Another politics is possible

The mayoral elections were last month's London story but there's another kind of politics growing in the communities, schools and workplaces of the capital - one that's shown itself to have the power to achieve practical results from business and government alike. Deborah Littman reports

July 5, 2008
12 min read

Looking out over the crowd at the London Citizens ‘mayoral accountability assembly’ on the evening of 9 April, it was clear that an extraordinary event was taking place. Westminster Central Hall was packed to the rafters – 2,500 people in all, throbbing with energy and self-confidence as the roll of over a hundred organisations that make up the membership of London Citizens was called out. People of all ages and backgrounds, from faith communities, schools, union branches, residents’ associations, voluntary groups and ethnic organisations stood and cheered as their organisations’ names were called out.

The event had been billed by many in the press as a hustings but it was quite the opposite of a traditional hustings at which it is the candidates and their parties that set the agenda. At the accountability assembly, London Citizens demanded that the candidates respond to their priorities. ‘If the mayoral candidates want our votes on 1 May, they have to prove their worth by signing up to our agenda and implementing it when in office,’ said Sarfraz Jeraj, one of the assembly co-chairs and a community leader from south London.

A different kind of democracy

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at London Citizens is that it has only a veneer of democracy. ‘I’ve noticed,’ says Jane Holgate, a long-time observer of the organisation, ‘that trade unionists who have attended London Citizens assemblies for the first time – and who are not members -are alarmed that there is no debate, no motions, no amendments and no speeches from the floor, so they conclude that it is undemocratic.’

The assemblies are indeed staged, but that is because they are not decision-making bodies. Assemblies are showcases of work done and planned and an opportunity to present a united front to public figures who are being called to account on behalf of the communities in the room. The real voting and democratic decision making takes place at dozens of smaller meetings, in borough caucuses, action teams, strategy groups, delegate assemblies, trustees and within the communities that make up London Citizens.

The mayoral assembly is a case in point. For six months, London Citizens members had been engaged in a ‘listening campaign’, holding meetings in school canteens, church halls and neighbours’ front rooms to discuss the issues that mattered most to them. Member institutions were asked to find ways to encourage as many people as possible to answer the simple question, ‘What would you like the next mayor of London to do for you and your family and neighbourhood?’

London Citizens provided workshops, questionnaires and a DVD to help the groups organise their discussions, but communities were given a free hand to run their listening campaigns as they felt best. At St Margaret’s church in Canning Town, for example, a team of ten women each pledged to speak to ten other parishioners, as well as going round to all the small gatherings where church members normally came together.

To build their confidence, people at St Margaret’s were asked what changes they wanted to see in the parish, as well as the wider city. They understood that all of the issues raised would be pursued at one level or another, even if they did not get prioritised for the mayoral assembly. So besides engaging people in the wider political process, the listening campaign created openings for people to participate more actively in their own communities.

Around 50,000 people ultimately took part in the listening campaign. Hundreds of ideas came from the grassroots, with the most popular proposals being debated and voted on by a city-wide delegates’ assembly. Out of that process came the Citizens Agenda, which candidates were asked to sign up to, including measures to make London a safer, fairer, better-housed and more welcoming city.

And sign up they did. With some minor caveats on detail, the candidates agreed to all of London Citizens’ proposals – including support for the regularisation of migrant workers, which is not the party policy of either the Tories or Labour. Perhaps London Citizens’ ability to push candidates beyond the usual party policies was a reflection of the power gathered in the room that night, and the growing influence of London Citizens generally. It is a power that derives from their very different way of doing politics.

Another way of organising

London Citizens does not fit easily into any of the familiar political models. As Jane Wills, whose university department is a member of the east London branch of the organisation, says, ‘It is not a political party, not an advocacy organisation, not a social provider, not a single issue campaign group, not a social movement, not even a community group in the conventional sense.’ Instead London Citizens describes itself as a broad based alliance, made up of diverse, grass-roots community organisations, working together for the common good.

Their model of organising is in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, the pioneering Chicago community organiser who set up the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an umbrella body of community alliances. Alinsky believed that the only antidote to widespread poverty was active, widespread participation in the political process.

London Citizens’ philosophy begins from the premise that citizen self organisation, civil society, ‘the third sector’ has been undervalued in favour of the market and the state. Moreover, they see civil society as in danger of disintegrating.

This concern for the parlous state of civil society is backed up by recent research. In a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published in April, 3,500 people expressed their concerns about changes shaping British society (What are today’s social evils? by Beth Watts and Charlie Lloyd, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Alice Mowlam and Chris Creegan, of the National Centre for Social Research, available online at

Top of the list of their concerns was ‘decline of the community’. ‘Participants felt that neighbours no longer knew or looked out for one another, which left people feeling lonely and fearful … people also spoke about a lack of public spiritedness and social responsibility,’ wrote the authors. It seems that people have a real longing for face-to-face relationships.

So, rather than organising around issues, London Citizens builds relationships, both between individuals and among institutions. It believes that, by investing energy in getting to know one another, trust and solidarity is developed between disparate communities.

Meetings between London Citizens delegations and political or business leaders are often amusingly dissonant. Instead of arriving with a few professional staff, they will bring ten or 15 people from various backgrounds -clergy, workers, students and organisers. After more chairs are found and everyone is settled, those present will shock their hosts again by starting the meeting with a personal question. When they met with then TUC general secretary John Monks for the first time, their opening question wasn’t ‘What are you doing about low pay?’ but ‘How did you get involved in union work?’

Relationships within the organisation are built in regular two- and five-day training sessions at which leaders from member institutions are taken through the basics of community organising. The most important lesson is always the one that teaches participants how to do one-to-one meetings. This is the core of relational organising. The aim of such a meeting is not to ‘sell’ London Citizens, nor to recruit someone to a campaign, but to find out who they are and what moves them. London Citizens organisers are appointed by trustees from member organisations as part of a process of finding and developing community leaders.

Talent scouting

Jonathan Lange, a senior organiser with the IAF, London Citizens’ US mentor organisation, says ‘all action is really talent scouting’. The leadership attributes that organisers are looking for are not always the obvious ones. Leaders are people with passion and anger, who can see the world ‘as it should be’. They have a ‘following’, not necessarily because they hold any official position but because their neighbours, colleagues or workmates listen to them and respect their views. And they are prepared to act to bring about change. Leadership for London Citizens is a collective process, not reliant on charismatic individuals

Richard is a good example. A citizenship teacher at a multi- racial boys’ comprehensive in north east London, he might just have been lost in the day-to-day grind of the education system, had London Citizens organisers not spotted his ability to motivate his often angry and demotivated charges. As part of his job, Richard mentors black boys who are not reaching their full potential. His involvement in London Citizens has given him a way of engaging his students in activities where they can express themselves constructively and make a real difference.

Boys from the school have met with political leaders, negotiated with the Greater London Authority on affordable housing and the Olympics and taken leadership roles in the London Citizens youth assembly. For Richard it is a mutually beneficial relationship. He has gained an arena where he can express his talent and passion, and London Citizens has gained a powerful leader who brings many more people into the organisation.

While this all sounds laudable, it does not explain why this way of organising is so much more effective than the party or pressure group politics we are used to. The answer seems to be that London Citizens is bold, whereas many other organisations are timid. Member organisations are expected to take action on the issues that concern them. If a local group identifies a campaign it wants to pursue, it will set up an action team to drive the strategy through.

London Citizens has a reputation for creative actions that shame recalcitrant employers – and then reward them when demands are met. When members of South London Citizens discovered that cleaning and catering workers at Tate Modern were not being paid the London living wage, they initiated a campaign to get the museum to change its policy. Frustrated by the failure of repeated attempts to meet with Tate management, the action team decided to hold a high profile, symbolic event that would get the public’s interest.

A week before Christmas 2007, church choirs joined London Citizens groups in a carol concert outside the Tate. Meanwhile, around 200 activists milled about the Turbine Hall. At a signal, they lined up along the 167-metre

crack in the floor that was Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth 2007, an installation meant to stand for the world’s long legacy of racism and colonialism. Joining hands over the crack, the demonstrators highlighted the Tate’s hypocrisy in addressing social divisions through art while perpetuating them through the pay of its own workers. The following day Tate management offered London

Citizens a meeting and a promise to review their pay rates.

London Citizens has campaigned on issues that range from local problems like the lack of bins in Southwark and street lighting on Whitechapel Road to larger-scale issues such as the living wage for London or the treatment of migrants coming into the UK. These campaigns are not discreet. One segues into another, as campaigners discover that low paid workers need affordable housing and that irregular migrant workers struggle to earn a living wage. So taking part in action teaches both political skills and a wider social analysis. The diversity of the organisation is exceptional. This is especially important in a context where the BNP threatens to turn ethnic segregation into mutual suspicion and hostility. Go to a London Citizens event and you will find Catholics sitting and chatting with Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists. School and university students sit on action teams alongside academics, teachers, cleaners, nurses, factory workers, priests and nuns.

Spectacular victories

London Citizens has had some spectacular policy victories. Its living wage campaign has changed the industrial relations climate among private contractors and their clients. Once large employers washed their hands of employment matters; once they contracted out their cleaning and catering. But London Citizens has insisted that employers take responsibility for ensuring that all staff, whether employed directly or through private contractors, are paid a wage adequate to live on. Major firms in the City and Canary Wharf, as well as health trusts and universities, now require their contractors to pay a living wage.

Four years ago London Citizens asked Ken Livingstone to set up a living wage unit at City Hall. That unit has researched and set the London living wage, now standing at £7.20 per hour. Queen Mary University has recently estimated that nearly £20 million more has been paid to contract workers as a result of that policy.

Perhaps most surprising has been the success of Strangers Into Citizens, an audacious campaign to establish a route into citizenship for irregular migrant workers. When it began two years ago, even some in London Citizens had doubts that it could garner much support. Yet on 9 April all four mayoral candidates endorsed it. A more timid organisation would not have taken on something so controversial, but London Citizens has proved that it is worth pushing boundaries to bring about social change.

Not everyone is a fan of London Citizens. Some on the traditional left and in the trade unions have been wary, especially of the involvement of faith-based organisations. Trade unionists have sometimes been uncomfortable that it has strayed into their traditional industrial relations territory.

What they have failed to recognise is that many workers no longer have strong ties to traditional workplaces. As these links have declined, there are fewer opportunities for those without power to engage in public and political life. Community organisations, such as churches and ethnic associations, have come to fill this gap. Unless the labour movement reaches out to these organisations, they will miss the opportunity to shift from the passive, cynical politics of traditional parties to real grass-roots engagement.

Deborah Littman is a national officer of UNISON, a trustee of London

Citizens and co-chair of their living wage team

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