Martin Bright has written well today about some of the problems associated with London Citizens and Citizens UK, two bodies that have appointed themselves as the UK's premier 'community organisers'. There is much to admire about both bodies and, especially, their grassroots members, with many of whom I would have much in common. However, ever since hearing that David Miliband planned to rejuvenate the Labour Party by turning Labour hacks into community organisers, I have been wondering what I think about the whole approach.
The whole idea of community organisers has little to do with community politics, of which I remain a convinced advocate, not least because community politics, in contrast to 'community organisers', is openly about getting people elected and revolves around representative democracy. There is nothing representative about community organisers. No, not everybody needs to be elected, but I loathe self-appointed leaders and how bossy things like this can be. So, after decades of failed American social policies, some Americans are now picking up the pieces with things like community organisers; that most assuredly does not mean that we need to follow them down the same path, as frankly our problems, of 'broken Britain' and an underclass, pale into insignificance compared to theirs.
The Americans are expert at dealing with these social problems because successive US governments have allowed such problems to become so massive - hardly the most positive of backgrounds to the expertise concerned. I say that as someone who is possibly more pro-American than any other Liberal Democrat of my acquaintance; I adore the US Democrats and am keen for British politicians to absorb the best ideas from over there. But not slavishly, as we and they are two different cultures, and there are things that work really well over there, but are then drained of all vitality by the boring Brits who try them over here. Perhaps in an American context community organisers have been something exciting, but over here, it could easily become bossy, party-political and potentially bureaucratic. Yes, I know that Barack Obama, whom I admire as much as anyone does, worked as a community organiser, but that was in a very specific context, and he most certainly wasn't doing it on behalf of a political party, which is surely what David Miliband had in mind.
I'm an English liberal, and for the same reason that I would instinctively never want to carry an identity card, so I instinctively don't want my local community 'organised' by - who, exactly? I understand that not everything involving Citizens UK, etc, is bad news - far from it, and I know that Nick Clegg spoke (as did Brown and Cameron) to great effect at their event during last year's General Election campaign, strongly expressing why liberals can so deeply embrace the idea of citizens being empowered to improve their communities. Amen to that, and to the other things that he said about fairness in the same speech. So I don't condemn these groups or the grassroots citizens who join them. Quite the contrary.
What I am doing here is acknowledging the important points that Martin Bright has raised in his articles. Also, when I hear about groups (be they religious or be they secular) that believe that they know best, I instinctively - as a liberal - want to say: "Yes, but..." That's just the way I am. It's why I am a liberal. I don't like bossiness, even when it's benevolent bossiness and even when it's unintentional. Is bossiness perhaps too strong a word?
I've previously been a community campaigner; I might even still count as one today. I fought to save my local arts centre, I gave what for to First Capital Connect and I petitioned Gordon Brown against Territorial Army cuts. Who, you might ask, died and made me boss? Nobody. I am effectively self-appointed, for all that, when I was a candidate, I did have to get democratically selected before mounting my soapbox. So I urge caution when it comes to community organisers, especially in light of what Martin Bright has written today.
By the way, on the separate issue (covered in the same articles by Martin Bright) of the UK Border Agency using "community sponsors" to offer "pastoral care" to people who are seeking asylum, I don't see a problem - that could be a good idea. It's the more general issues surrounding community organisers that I'm drawing attention to here.
This community organiser stuff all seems to tie in with with Blue Labour, whose approach can surely be summed up as "higher taxes and more morris dancing". I'm really not sure that I like it.