Active citizenship in the North: how does Citizens UK compare with developing country versions?

May 5, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

The South in the North?
Citizens UK
Grill the next Prime Minister

Assembly-Web-SlideOn Monday I attended an exemplary demonstration of active citizenship: a rally of 2,500 community organizers in central London, gathered to hear and interrogate the three main party leaders in tomorrow’s UK general election. It was organized by Citizens UK, an extension of the better known London Citizens organization, which itself grew out of an East London community network called Telco. Landing David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown three days before a general election is testament to its pulling power.

The leaders were given 10 minutes each and asked to respond to a six point manifesto drawn up by a mass grassroots consultation process across the UK. The six points are:

1. Recognize ‘civil society’ as an equal partner with good government and competitive markets
2. Adopt the Living Wage in the public sector and champion it across the country
3. Create a 20% interest rate cap on loans and improve access to credit for poor communities
4. End the detention of children in immigration centres (this aroused the most passion among the people in the hall – the campaign wants to get rid of the tarnished word ‘asylum’ and ‘restore pride in the tradition of offering sanctuary’)
5. Promote affordable housing by giving public land to ‘community land trusts’
6. Recognize the presence of (and create a pathway to legal status for) the estimated 700,000 long-term ‘irregular population’ (wonderful to see migration celebrated for once – in UK elections, it’s nearly always portrayed as a ‘problem’)

The leaders were politely but firmly interrogated against the six points, extracting promises for action, working parties, meetings etc should they win on Thursday. The candidates were also required to listen to harrowing personal testimony illustrating the manifesto asks – the most moving being Tiari Sanchez (right), a 14 year old girl who burst into tears while describing the poverty Tiari Sanchezof her mother and grandmother, both of whom work as cleaners in Gordon Brown’s former home at the Treasury.

All three leaders appeared to relish the resolutely non-partisan, optimistic and multicultural and multifaith nature of the rally – a ‘South in the North’ patchwork of modern urban Britain. Gordon Brown in particular gave what the Guardian called ‘one of the most extraordinary performances of his tenure’ (you can see it here, or watch highlights – sorry, couldn’t find the full speeches – of Nick Clegg and David Cameron). The event itself, like Citizens UK, was well organized, and heavily influenced by both American-style community organizing (it draws on the ideas of Saul Alinsky, the US guru behind Barack Obama’s early community organizing experience in Chicago) and Christian, Muslim and Jewish churches, which dominate its membership, provide a lot of its leaders, and shaped the tone of the event (lots of singing, and a distinctly revivalist feel).

The manifesto campaign already has several wins under its belt. According to its website ‘As a result of Citizens UK campaigns, the Labour Party committed to the Living Wage in their Manifesto, as [Conservative London Mayor] Boris Johnson did in 2008; both Labour and the Liberal-Democrats have pledged to curb excess interest rates and the Liberal-Democrats agreed in 2007 to a plan to regularise long-term undocumented migrants.’ All 3 candidates were obliged to promise to meet Citizens UK on a regular basis, whoever emerges victorious on Thursday. Smart work.

To my shame, I have seen much more of community organization in Latin America and other developing world regions than in my own backyard, so how does this homegrown version compare? It is church-based, like many Latin American social movements, but the churches are different. Whereas the Latin American movement traditionally draws mainly on the radical wing of the Catholic Church, in the UK, protestant churches (both traditional and evangelical) + Muslim and Jewish communities are central. That’s a source of strength – surveys show that churches are the institutions most trusted by poor people everywhere, but it risks excluding potential secular allies, whether individuals or organizations – there were no signs of trade unions on the platform.

Another similarity is the combination of what the Latin Americans call ‘revindicaciones’ – demands on the state – combined with bottom up empowerment (Citizens UK’s speciality is training community organisers, and it does local awareness raising and organizing on issues like street crime).

But one big issue jumped out at me. This felt like an authentically bottom-up organization, identifying and responding to the immediate needs of some of the poorest communities in the UK. That means essentially redistribution of power and wealth, backed by social and economic rights. But it does not seem to stretch to a critique of the system itself (apart from social exclusion). No mention of the big challenges posed by climate change or the environmental constraints on the current growth model, the argument for a ‘new consumerism’ or the need to shrink the size of the financial sector.

In Latin America, intellectuals sometimes bemoan the inability of social movements to move from protesta (protest) to propuesta (a proposal or overall programme), but in countries such as Brazil and Bolivia, social movements have founded new parties that have then come to power. For all its wonderful diversity, Citizens UK seems essentially to be working within the current political and economic system, at least for now. It will be fascinating to see how it evolves. What do you think? Is Citizens UK just a ‘South in the North’ version of social movements across the developing world, or is it breaking new ground?

May 5, 2010
Duncan Green