Back in 2012 the Labour Party looked like it was heading in a new, innovative, and fresh direction with the introduction of a community organising model courtesy of Arnie Graf. After the 2010 defeat it was decided that we had become complacent and entrenched in old campaigning methods – sitting on our laurels then harvesting the vote four weeks before polling day. Unfortunately there was an early poll in 2013 that put Labour ahead and instead of embracing change we retracted, abandoned community organising and went back to Voter ID.
This was the same story for much of the country, but not in Dagenham & Rainham.
People were disillusioned by 2015; from the 2012 mayoral campaign in London, to the 2014 Local Elections all the way through for three years people were being asked the same basic stagnant questions on the doors. The Party will tell you we had over 4 million conversations when in actual fact we barked 12 million questions at voters alongside all the other party activists, leading to a lack of differentiation and the inevitable – “you’re all the same.”.
Again; this was the story for much of the country, but not in Dagenham & Rainham.
Data is all well and good but we have become reliant on the numbers and have neglected the method. Community organising is where our roots are and we need to rediscover those foundations. We need to be having the discussions, we need to be working with local communities – not dictating what we think will benefit them. Community organising isn’t just turning up at a charity or a children’s centre three weeks before polling day and asking for support in return for a photograph with the manager. And it isn’t ringing round the members that you haven’t spoken to in five years when the short campaign kicks in. It is a long haul project.
In Dagenham & Rainham we campaign all year, every year, involving residents at every level of the political process. We built a model that works, a model based in the community. The Labour Party is an active part of peoples’ lives in our area – but the interesting thing is that we don’t push a party political agenda. The surveys, opinion polls, focus groups, campaigns and newsletters are all from either Jon Cruddas, our local councillors or organisations that we are helping, and when we run campaigns it is always from the ground up. Every month we send out surveys asking if anyone has any issues to report which are drafted, printed, folded, stuffed and delivered by volunteers. The issues are then picked up and campaigns are formed, empowering residents, giving them the platform to solve their own problems. In a roundabout way people attribute the positive change in their lives to the Labour Party.
We now have over 1,200 local residents that have indicated they would like to help in the community in some way. Over 400 of these are active. Since the project started in 2012 we have made sure that there is a constant rolling engagement; we send out a weekly text message, a quarterly e-newsletter, a campaign email every month to over 5,000 email contacts and have regular call round sessions to check in with people. This is in addition to our monthly survey and any campaigns that we may be running on behalf of residents.
This level of constant community engagement paid dividends in the 2014 Local Election and this year’s General Election. Instead of the standard ‘we only see you when there is an election!’, when we asked for help people were more than happy to get involved, and people on the doors were more receptive because the Party had been a constant in the community.
In Dagenham and Rainham people don’t necessarily come out to support Labour – people come out to support the councillors that help them and have worked tirelessly to improve the area, and the MP that gives them a voice on issues that are important to them. However now that the election is over, a large portion of the community volunteers have become Labour Party members; because in Dagenham and Rainham they have seen what a difference an active party can make to their everyday lives.
If you are in any doubt of the impact community organising can have, look no further than our election results in Dagenham & Rainham. In 2014 all of the council candidates that stood received some of the highest turnout figures outside of a General Election year, with 87.9% of our promises coming out to vote (and voting for us). Then in the General Election Jon Cruddas was up against it with UKIP but we increased the Labour majority from 2,630 to 4,980 – granted, the turnout was slightly lower but the vote share went up and the UKIP candidate was quoted as saying he was “up against an army”.
I’ll finish by saying that the future looks bright; the likely leadership and deputy leadership candidates seem to be advocating a return to community organising and I sincerely hope that it is picked up this time. If in five years’ any constituent is able to utter those immortal lines; “I only ever see you when there’s an election.” Then we have failed, and we deserve defeat. I hope that this is not the case.
Andrew Achilleos – Campaign Organiser for Dagenham & Rainham CLP