Back in the early 2010s, community organisation was all the rage. Now, you have to look quite hard for the traces.
On the Conservative side, the back of a fag packet promise by Cameron, five years ago today, of 5,000 full-time, professional organizers, quickly became 500 paid organizers and 4,500 volunteers. This month, the interim evaluation by the consultancy arm of New Economics Foundation and IPSOS-Mori quietly released what is probably one of the worst pieces of evaluation work I have ever seen*, suggesting strongly that they know no-one is going to take much notice of their findings now, and that they may as well just get a junior staff member to batter out some rubbish and send the invoice. I don’t imagine the full evaluation in June will be much better, given that all the primary data collection has been done.
On the Labour side too, it’s as though we’d never had Movement for Change. Over at Labourlist, the editor Mark Ferguson’s calls for a “return to – and full embrace of – the model pioneered by Arnie Graf”. That someone at the heart of the Labour party machine should be saying we’ve left community organising behind may come as something of an embarrassment to the directors and high profile national steering committee of Movement for Change Ltd, including one David Miliband, who according to their most recent accounts (to March 2014) spent getting on for £0.5 million on trying to organize change in communities.
So what went wrong?
As far as the Tory plans are concerned, it’s fairly straightforward. The whole project became null and void the moment, in 2011, that they passed the delivery contract to Locality rather than to Citizens UK (previously London Citizens). Locality, a merger of the Development Trust Association and the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, were seen as a safe pair of hands, who could be trusted to steer clear of anything that might vaguely resemble challenge to existing power structures.
Thus it has proved. Locality’s delivery programme has involved getting existing Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) second tier organisations (e.g. Councils for Voluntary Service) to host the appointed community organizers, and as a result organizers have tended to slip into the ‘facilitation’ model already used by these organisations, and the community organizer funding has largely simply replaced, or part replaced, streams of funding that have been cut since 2010 (notably from local authorities cutting their grant)**.
When it comes to Movement for Change, things have been better, but results are still disappointing. The model adopted eschews the formal structures of the VCS in favour of a more overt campaign & challenge focus, and there have been some isolated but very worthy successes, although the question of whether these local victories would have happened anyway in the absence of a support organisation is valid. £0.5m a year on the company infrastructure looks like a lot of deadweight, and arguably the money might have been better spent on other party activity.
For Movement for Change, the problem seems to be opposite one from the one faced by the Tories; while the Cameron model has failed because resources were simply sucked into existing, staus quo-preserving structures, Labour-style community organization is not taking off at scale because it doesn’t draw on or feed into existing structures in the Labour party, or more importantly, in the labour movement. This isn’t surprising when its key UK instigator is Arnie Graf, who promotes the power of enhanced consumerism within capitalism, rather than greater direct control over what is (co-)produced in the way of public services, and whose key role within the Labour party is to develop ‘community organisation’ as a clever marketing and voter ID add-on, rather than a good thing of itself.
As a result, there is no sense that the Movement for Change will ever punch bigger than its weight and begin to have anything other than occassional, isolated success driven by people would probably have driven it anyway.
So where from here for Labour?
For myself, I roundly reject Mark Ferguson’s call for a return top the Graf model of community organization. To do so is to ignore why its failed to date. Instead, the labour movement needs to start re-thinking what exactly its organising focus and power is – and that’s around delivery of services and products rather than their receipt – and then start to re-engage with existing party and union structures, especially Trades Councils but also through newer insitutions such as NHS Foundation Trusts, to ensure that the correct kind of change is pushed through at both local and wider level. Lots more of that coming up on this blog.
* There isn’t space here for a full review of how bad this evaluation is, but from the first wholly incorrect paragraph onwards it is almost laughably poorly written. My favourite laughable bit is the juxtaposition between page 3 and page 5. At page 3 we are told, a little surprisingly:
Community organisers have no agenda, and do not lead or do things on behalf of people.
By pages 4-5, we are told that ‘leading other people’ is a key skill of community organisation, and that evidence of the programme’s success lies in the fact that community organizers were 10% more confident of this skill after their residential course. (It is impossible to say what the “% Confident (8-10 out of 10 )” applied to the bar chart at fig 1.1 may mean).
** This is pretty well what I predicted five years ago today:
So it’s almost certain, if this programme were to ahead, that it would be calling to a great extent on funds already disbursed by central and local authorities to provide all the staff who already have a role very similar to the one now envisaged as utterly new and innovative by Cameron. Has he never heard of Councils for Voluntary Service, for example, or enquired as to what they might do?
More specifically in terms on what the community organizers will or won’t do, there is the question of just how combative and challenging to existing structures will they be permitted to be under their new contracts. The concept of hidden state power through the depoliticization of the notion of community will not, of course, be unfamiliar to most readers of this blog.
This is a matter for the government. Clarence House is disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld.
In the absence of any explanation as to what Prince Charles’ people mean by such a principle, let us assume this is some kind reference – perhaps only half conscious – to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the obligations of which pass to the UK under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), and which does indeed cover letters:
Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Arguably, the publication of the letters – and thus the qualification of Charles’ right to privacy – is justified on the grounds that publishing the letters is an act to protect of all our rights and freedoms; if we don’t know how someone who will have real constitutional power* in future is seeking to exert power currently, then we may not develop mechanisms to stop abuse of that power.
But what interests me more here is why Charles and his advisors should reach for the privacy defence at this point, laying claim to the same rights as all citizens enjoy, or at least are supposed to enjoy.
It interests me because to do so seems to undermine the whole idea of monarchy, which is founded on the concept of the king as a public person. As Habermas says, publicness is what, from feudal times through to the present day, has made a king a king:
There is no indication European society of the high middle ages possessed a public sphere as a unique realm distinct from the private sphere. Nevertheless, it was not coincidental that during that period symbols of sovereignty, for instance the princely seal, were deemed “public.” At that time there existed a public representation of power. The status of the feudal lord, at whatever level of the feudal pyramid, was oblivious to the categories “public” and “private,” but the holder of the position represented it publicly: he showed himself, presented himself as the embodiment of an ever present “higher” power. The concept of this representation has been maintained up to the most recent constitutional history. Regardless of the degree to which it has loosed itself from the old base, the authority of political power today still demands a representation at the highest level by a head of state (my emphasis),
That is, there’s a quid pro quo built into the legitimacy of the monarchy; the king gets all the trappings, as long as the people get to watch. That’s what lies behind the processional stuff, but it’s also what lies behind Charles having the chair folded down for him, or the toothpaste squeezed on to his brush by a servant, as public representations of monarchy.
Now, by actively denying that Charles is and must be a public person, Clarence House undermines the whole legitimacy of his succession, as someone who is incapable of fulfilling the basic function of monarchy.
* I think there is validity in the argument that we have have been lulled into a false sense of security by the current monarch’s relatively deft handling of her constitutional power, and that we would be unwise to think that will simply continue with new incumbents.
A quick follow up on this post on a BBC presenter apparently suggesting you can’t be an American and a Muslim, and my complaint.
The BBC have now replied as follows:
Thank you for getting in touch about the US media coverage of the Chapel Hill shootings, from the Phil Williams programme on 12 February 2015. Please accept our apologies for the delay replying whilst we looked into the matter for you.
We have discussed your concerns personally with the programme’s Editor who explains in response that Phil was trying to get to the heart of the social media controversy around the reporting of the event, which maintained that US media coverage would have been greater if this had been a shooting carried out by an American Muslim on white Americans. But in the pressure of the live broadcasting environment, the Editor accepts that Phil inadvertently used phrases that were not as clear as they should have been.
As you rightly point out, the victims were US citizens too, and it was not the intention to give any other impression.
Thank you for pointing this out.
About as close to an apology as I’m going to get, I think. Anyway, civic duty done.
The news that, as Universal Credit gets rolled out, people currently working 30 hours a week at the national minimum wage (NMW) stand to be sanctioned for nearly £30 a week if they can’t either get an 18% payrise of increase their hours to 35 per week, reminded me that one of the key drivers of underemployment remains pretty well unnoticed by the media or commentariat.
This key driver is the NI employer contribution threshold, which for the current tax year stands at £7,956. Below this employers don’t have to a pay contribution. This means that the best way to keep costs down if say, a business needs 10 FTE staff to run it, is to employ around 16 staff at the NMW (£6.50/hour*) on around 23.5 hours a week, meaning that the business gets the optimum mix of cost per employee outgoings (uniforms, training etc) and lack of NI cost.
This drive towards part-time employment as a percentage of overall labour is, of course, exacerbated by the shift towards more routine jobs, up 7% in the last 12 months as a percentage of all jobs. Routine jobs tend, by their nature, to be those where continuity of the person doing the job is less important because less skill is involved**
Now all this is pretty obvious to me, as I do my best to run a tax-paying social enterprise in a service sector where the largely female workforce is open to this kind of exploitation, and where the more rapacious firms keep a close eye on hours worked in order to minimise tax outgoings, even when the discontinuity of service offered can lead to poor service quality.
I can see very well what’s going on around me. But this simply begs the question is why the media, or the political class, has not picked up on what’s going on. Why are Labour, for example, not addressing this either by looking to introduce a more staggered NI employer and employee threshold, which at the same time protects part-time workers from the later shock of not having paid in enough to get the full state pension.
The reason, I suspect, is that Westminster Bubble thing. Small employers exploiting workers by keeping their hours low tend not to make a song and dance about doing so, and so only people close to the ground see the real impact on people’s lives. Meanwhile, the policymakers either wring their hands and wonder why people can’t work full-time, or – as with the latest Tory scheme- assume it’s that the part-timers are too lazy to go full-time.
* This is for over 21s. Employers can afford to employ 18-20years olds on a NMW of £5.13/hour for nearly 30 hours a week, which means they still stand to be sanctioned.
** This isn’t always the case. Just because someone’s on the NMW doesn’t mean that they’re not highly proficient and their hours easily replaceable via part-timification. As a childcare social enterprise, we much prefer to employ full-time and pay the NI costs, not just because paying tax is the right thing to do, but because continuity of care is important. We’re skinter than we might be, but we’re very good at pre-school education.
Iain Duncan Smith has come in for some criticism today for his proposals, apparently not yet agreed within the Tory ranks, to incentivise people into work by offering them their social housing if they take themselves off all benefits for a year. The key objection is that getting rid of social housing in this way will take social housing away from those who need it, and be the opposite of what we need.
For myself, I quite like the proposal.
Imagine, for a second, the lip-licking at the proposals in the offices of those rapacious equity release companies which prey on more vulnerable home-owners by offering a bit of an income in return for a lot or all of the house/flat. They’ll already be drawing up plans to approach people in social housing with attractive looking offers of money which will allow those at the sharp end of the benefits regime a year’s respite, in return for signing away the deeds to their accommodation the moment the year is up and it becomes theirs. For, say, £25,000 up front (to replace income support and housing benefit), plus the 35%-of-value tax payment due for early sale (some of which they may be able to load onto the poor renter via the small print) the company gets a property added to their portfolio, and a stable tenant now paying rent at inflated rates.
Imagine now, though, a housing stock local authority with aforethought about how to turn IDS’s daft plan to their and their tenant’s advantage. In this scenario, the local authority does exactly the same as the equity release scoundrels, offering cash up front to the tenant-soon-to-be-owner, relieving them of the ridiculous, life-mangling benefits regime for a year, in return for a the deeds at the end of the year. At this point, under the updated Right to Buy regulations (p.6), the local authority gets compensation from central government for “loss of income above what has been covered in the self-financing settlement“, allowing it the same amount of room to borrow, while remaining within the borrowing cap imposed under that same settlement.
The local authority then pays the 35% tax on the value on behalf of the renter, and resumes rental of the social housing to the same person at the same rent as previously, using its enhanced borrowing power to pay off that 35% quasi-capital investment at the current low rates over a long period.
Heh presto, everyone’s happy, especially the renter, who may also used her/his benefit regime-free year to good effect, perhaps even moving off benefit because of a genuine improvement in circumstance.
The real point here, of course, is that this roundabout way of capitalising on Iain Duncan-Smith’s utter daftness is possibly slightly less daft than the original, which must make the original very daft indeed.
Flicking on the radio about 1210hrs last night while I made coffee, I heard Radio Five Live presenter Phil Williams interviewing two people from the US about the Chapel Hill shootings. I was shocked enough to go back to the recording later and transcribe what he said.
At around 01:40:55 on the recording, he says to the first guest, a journalist from the town:
Talk to me just briefly, Lauren, about what the level of attention this story’s had in the United States, and certain suggestions that had this been a Muslim person who had killed three Americans, it might have played higher up the news bulletins there.
He puts seemingly deliberate emphasis on the word Americans, as though to make clear the juxtaposition with ‘Muslim person’.
Then at 01: 44: 35 he asks his second guest, the Legal & Policy Director of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee:
And what’s your view on the level of coverage, and how it would compare, if the same crime had been committed, and it’d been a Muslim charge with the murder of three Americans, rather than the other way round?
Both of these suggest strongly that Mr Williams believes, at least when under radio interview pressure, that being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive. (My understanding is that the three people killed were US citizens.)
I had a brief twitter exchange with Mr Williams during the programme, in which I sought an on-air correction, and he suggested my interpretation of what he had said was incorrect. No correction was provided.)
Given the importance of high quality public broadcasting, I think it’s now my public duty to lodge a complaint with the BBC, and will do this weekend. I am sure Mr Williams meant no harm, but this kind of ignorance needs to be challenged.