Back in 2008 Barack Obama made community organising famous, although that didn’t help anybody understand what it was. First of all the bad news: it’s definitely left-wing. The community organising approach does however have important lessons for political campaigning more generally – in particular in putting issues at the heart of our activity.
Community organising was founded by a man called Saul Alinsky in the 1930s in deprived parts of Chicago. Its purpose is to advance a fairly classic left-wing agenda: to secure greater resources from local government for housing, health and education in poorer areas and, to a lesser extent, to apply pressure on local businesses. It is based around what Alinsky called “people’s organisations.” These bring together the full range of social associations in a community – churches, sports clubs, social clubs, trade unions and so on. Yes, very big society.
In terms of approach the orgnisation will identify a problem, on which most people in an area will largely be agreed. Then they will identify a solution, which will be the “issue.” Not everyone will agree on this. This will create controversy and the basis for a campaign. A target organisation or leading individual is then campaigned against – and the community organisation will win support from other stakeholders to isolate the target, encouraging them to compromise or meet the organisation’s demands.
Alinsky’s books are an enjoyable read. He was a genuinely creative campaigner: his idea of a sit-in was en-masse on the toilets of Chicago airport, and his 13 rules contain good campaigning tips. He was also little given to posturing: he utterly loathed the nihilism of Sixties radicalism.
Community organising is not political campaigning. The organiser is a facilitator, not a figure-head like a candidate. There are also not the common values, or tribal attitudes, that keep parties together. Community organisations constantly need something clear and distinctive to fight for – the organisation has to be issues-based to maintain unity amongst the diverse groups.
Alinsky, with typical honest unscrupulousness, said that a community organisation should always have a “fight in the bank,” a pretext kept back for creating a conflict when one was needed to motivate supporters or demonstrate the organisation’s power. A wider philosophical point lay behind this. Alinksy believed that conflict was at the heart of democratic society.
Conservatives should be wary of the divisive elements of all this but the notion that elections are a choice is crucial to campaigning – and defining a choice depends on campaigning on issues, relentlessly. This is obvious but needs repeating. The public is disillusioned, uninterested in the tribal traditions of politics, sceptical of the ability of politicians to get results. Political parties need to constantly be presenting campaigns – problems, targets and solutions to the electorate. In both local and national elections this will require candidates to have a full arsenal of local issues.
Most campaigners will claim they are issues focused, but in my experience we wait for issues, occasionally go and find them. We should instead be creating them, through Freedom of Information requests, questions to Councils and so on. Candidates need to be personally associated with issues, and the other side clearly demonstrated as obstructionist. If you are tired of hearing “you are all the same” on the doorstep it is probably time to spend some time thinking about what exactly makes you different today right here, right now.