Guest Blog: Community Organising – Why is it the answer?

| Laura Smith

I had written a blog a few weeks ago about the importance of community organising and since writing that piece which would have been published this week, we have been thrown as a globe into the Coronavirus Crisis. Up and down the UK, and indeed across the planet, we are all experiencing something that will more than likely change the way we think and act for the rest of our lives.

The word solidarity is now coming into practice across the UK as we all pull together to make sure the elderly, most vulnerable and our amazing NHS workers are supported in whatever way we can.  In my own hometown we are mucking in together to deliver supplies to those who can’t get out, phoning to make sure people don’t feel isolated and probably being more community conscious than we’ve been before.  Yes, we hear the stories of scrapping over loo rolls and arguing over pasta, but the reality is the situation is bringing out the good in the vast majority of people. It has also highlighted how fragile our system is and we are seeing people campaigning (whether they realise it or not) for things like better statutory sick pay, for support for renters and home owners and financial security whilst we wait to come out the other side of this.

So yes, the circumstances for me writing this blog have changed, but actually this pandemic has shone a light on organising and the power of it in the community. Not only that but it is now blatantly obvious that the glue holding this country together are the ordinary working people working in our NHS, our social care system, our schools. They are the people stacking the shelves and cleaning the floors. The very people who often get called low skilled are the most vital people we have right now, and as a country we must never ever take them for granted again.

Before this happened, it was already my opinion, that there has never been a more important time for community organising. Recent studies such as Divided Britain carried out by Kings College London and published in Sept 2019,  have shown that a growing number of people feel powerless and disconnected from the rule makers in this country.

During my time as a mainstream politician one thing that became very apparent, was that whatever political party you belong to, people’s opinions of you are pretty rock bottom as soon as you get the letters ‘MP’ after your name.  As a long time, grassroots campaigner, organiser and activist, when I was elected as MP for Crewe and Nantwich in 2017 I was transformed overnight into a figure that must have an ulterior motive and only be interested in a photo opportunity or self-preservation. 

Faith in politicians unsurprisingly hit an all-time low after the expenses scandal, something that happened years before I entered Parliament, but the long-term damage is still there.

Sadly, the result of this disconnect between public and politics means negative repercussions that impact our democracy. We are feeling some of those consequences right now as a nation. The more people switch off, the more they feel that politics is something that is done to them; and the common mantra ‘whoever you vote for nothing will change’ becomes engrained.

So why do I think community organising is the answer?

Change is of course a natural occurrence and the age of technology has accelerated this through the way we socialise, shop and work. As technology develops, our communities can feel left behind with the demise of the high street, and the undoubted impact austerity has had on our communities since the global financial crash. We cannot now avoid the fact that we are now facing far bleaker times economically than in 2008. The question is how we can make sure the poorest in society don’t pay the greatest price. We need to come out of it as stronger communities, because that in turn will mean we are a stronger and less divided nation.

Since the crash our world has faced huge political and economic challenges, the current crisis is the biggest we’ve faced in modern times. We now have to work to make sure the people feel empowered once again in the decision making process because what happens now will define a generation. I for one do not want to look back and say to my children “I’m sorry I didn’t do more.”

Community organising is at the heart of how we can start to heal from the challenges we have faced and importantly will help people feel that they do have power and that they can change things for the better.

So how do we do it?

In order to build powerful, community-led organisations we must find and develop leaders. We have to identify the people who hold power and respect locally and support them in building a movement for change. Natural leaders are stepping forward in my community right now-they are not necessarily the loudest or the most connected, but they have the strategic ability to organise and pull people along with them.  Alongside community leaders, we can then identify issues and gather support before ultimately taking action. We need to bring people together from different faith groups, trade unions, schools, workplaces and the voluntary and community sector. In my experience the most important resources in organising are the relationships that are developed within and between leaders, organisations and those in power.

In this current crisis I have fallen into my natural comfort zone of organising. I spend a lot of my time organising locally in the community with many different people, so I am using this network to make sure the community feels supported and importantly the things that need to be changed and identified are addressed and heard loudly by those in charge. People are organising and volunteering their time all over the place and it is heart-warming to see. We as a nation always step up when a crisis happens. The key to organising is that we see the long term necessary change happen. For instance, will enough people recognise that privatisation of our social care system has contributed to the inconsistencies that older people are experiencing from one facility to the next? Will we fight to change that and strive for a National Care Service? Our NHS doesn’t have the beds and the ventilators required. Will we campaign to stop cutbacks to vital resources and the fragmented privatisation that has put profit before health?  Right now we are making sure children who have school meals for free still access them. But will we organise to make sure households have enough basic income in the first place? We are collecting for the foodbanks so the poorest and most vulnerable have meals. This number will significantly grow in the upcoming weeks. Will we now campaign to make sure in 2020 people don’t have to rely on volunteers and donations to eat but the state will support them if necessary.

Out of this dreadful situation we must see fundamental positive changes. For years trust has been broken down and people don’t feel that their politicians really have their best interest at heart. As a politician I can honestly say who can blame them. Once these organic grassroots groups become powerful, communities can embark on a series of activities to try to get local issues on the agenda of those in power. Community organising is a patient labour of listening, investing in people and building lasting relationships, so let’s do more of it. Never must we be in a situation again where people are having to chose between health and work because they are fearful of not being able to pay their bills or of losing the job. That is not too much for people to ask.

Laura is a Councillor for Cheshire East Council and former MP. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraSmithCrewe

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