Labour have never really understood how to empower people and their community groups, although they do love to talk about it. Take this recent article by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, where they say “the right kind of state action is not a drain on individual empowerment; it can enhance it”.
Great, so why have they been party to a state that has taken ever more power away from people, replacing citizenship with shallow consumer rights? How do you get beyond slogans and soundbites to genuinely empower local people?
In a recent blog entry I wrote about the money side of the equation – how you can enable local people to directly invest in projects that will improve their neighbourhood, a topic Matt Sellwood has some interesting thoughts on. You could also use tools like participatory budgeting, made fun by the unsurpassably brilliant The People Speak, or really make the most of the Sustainable Communities Act. But what about the people themselves?
Labour have too often confused the voluntary sector with community groups. A lot of people depend on and benefit from the work of the voluntary sector – just look at the fantastic Peckham Voluntary Sector Forum, for example!
But what about those of us who would just like to be a little more involved in our neighbourhood, who would like to start a group to grow some food, or a knitting club, or a campaign to improve some cycle lanes? For us, the voluntary sector is too unweildy, slow and offputting. Who has the time to establish a constituted organisation to apply for funding and hire a venue for a public meeting? Who has all the right local contacts to hand?
Local hero Eileen Conn mentioned the idea of Community Development Officers to me recently. On reflection I think she’s spot on. You need people who can be visible at a very local level, running training events on basic organising skills, helping local people to lead rather than trying to lead them, signposting sources of support, getting them to build co-operative relationships, encouraging them to take risks, and linking them up with councillors who will make the council system work for them (as opposed to just “representing” them). London Citizens do this quite brilliantly with existing schools and religious groups.
The final piece of the puzzle is a community-run community centre. Eh? Well, a place that’s bit more like Access Space, the Rising Sun Arts Centre and CRISP than your typical council-run building with their rules, regulations and detached staff. Mix a settlement up with freecycle to provide rooms, computers & photocopiers and you’re half way there.
Real life, real local campaigns and clubs, are far more fluid than council bureaucracies. Rather than offering us false consumer choices in public services, whilst introducing timid reforms to open those bureaucracies up a little to citizens, why not do it the other way around? Give local people the skills and financial tools to make a difference their own way.