Confessions of a Community Organiser

August 22, 2010 at 8:16 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments
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From The Labour Party

Just weeks after my endorsement, I knew there was more to be done. As someone with a zeal for Progressive Politics – I voted Lib Dem in ‘05 because of The War and in 2010 when they promised A New Politics – the time had come to become more involved. I wasn’t sure about that preppy prefect Nick Clegg, but it was still a huge disappointment when he fell into bed with the Conservatives. It was like watching Lois Lane fall for Lex Luthor all over again.

I did have reservations about joining the Labour Party. After all, it was Labour who had saddled me with this student debt, waged all those terribly terrible wars and made me smoke outside on winter nights instead in of the snug warmth of my sadly-departed local. Was Labour really the place for a Progressive like me?

Alas, the stakes are too high to worry about that. The next election will be important. Definitely more important than 2010 and probably as important as when we got Rage Against The Machine to Christmas Number One. As I told my friends, “it doesn’t matter if you hate the song; what matters is that we win.” That’s kinda how I felt about joining the Labour Party.

All that was left was to find the candidate who would lead us to victory. I researched diligently; I visited their websites, watched hustings online and read their essays for The Fabians. I was still none the wiser. Then one night I discovered a video that changed everything. His supporters posted this inspiring & professional promo, set to a tune by Boy Meets Girl (who doesn’t love Boy Meets Girl?!), packed with images of their man looking Dynamic! Leaderlike! and Sticking It To The Tories!

I soon made my endorsement public:

Image by WEF

I support David Miliband because he is a Progressive. I support him because he knows that we need to make cuts, just by a few billion less than those other guys. I support him because only he knows how to Cut Fairly. Cut Progressively. I support him because after 100 days of a ConDem government, Britain is crying out for change. And that change is a return to everything we wanted to change in the first place.

The endorsement was my Facebook status for three days. Within hours it had been ‘liked’ by three friends. I had to keep the momentum going. I shared links to speeches David made; his statements on the Big Issues. I tried to show his human side, too: his sense of humour, his sense of fun. The responses were hugely encouraging; only one ex-‘friend’ blocked my Facebook account, and he was a no-good Abbottite anyway.

But I knew this wasn’t enough, that there was more to do. After all, did Barack Obama get to the White House through people just squatting in their bedrooms, pasting YouTube clips on their friends’ walls? I knew that I had to step my game up; to become the change I wanted to see. Then I finally took the plunge; I decided to host a house meeting for David Miliband.

My mind danced with opportunities. I read Saul Alinsky and David Plouffe, downloaded PowerPoint slides about community organising and drew mind maps for how I could sell David to my friends and neighbours. Could David ride a wave of grassroots support all the way to the doors of Downing Street? Could we really build an Obamaesque movement for change? Yes, we can!

Or so I thought. Having never organised a community before, I wasn’t sure how to begin. Thankfully, David had already thought of this (he thinks of everything) and he uploaded a handy ‘how-to’ guide on his website. For a whole week before the meeting it became my Bible; the only thing standing between me and a disorganised community. I quickly began acting on its instructions:

Think of the people you want to invite

First start with the local Labour Party members who you know are active in your local area, this may include local councilors, the constituency MP and other activists. Then think about other people in your community that could make change locally. For example, friends, neighbours, the school head-teacher, faith leaders in your area. Try to invite people who already have a following of others. Remember, they don’t have to be members of the Party at the moment.

I was certainly relieved that invitees didn’t need to be members (yet!) – of all my friends, I knew of no one who was already a party member, and I didn’t fancy being alone at my own party! My first targets were those ‘who already have a following of others’. My best friend Andy was first, as he runs one of the most popular World of Warcraft blogs in the UK. If I impressed him, David’s name could soon spread like a contagion through the WoW universe. Maybe even Second Life.

Then there was Diane, a liberal art teacher who dressed like Woodstock was the point at which fashion had reached its apex. Diane might occasionally be prone to some ‘off message’ ideas (like that teenage delinquency is a result of Chernobyl), but her ability to speak with intense sincerity about the most banal subjects suggested she would make a fine canvasser.

There was also Emily. Emily didn’t have any followers, wasn’t a member of the community I was organising and was of no importance whatsoever to mine & David’s Movement for Change. She was also a bit too left to be Progressive; I gathered from her Facebook updates that – when she wasn’t dribbling over the deadbeat ‘vegan’ boyfriend – she considered Ed Miliband to be ‘pretty cool for a Nu Lab’. Still, I’m told that these events thrive on lively discussion, and maybe her kooky, irresponsible leftism would serve to highlight David’s reassuring reasonableness. That’s the only reason she was invited.

I’m hosting a House Meeting as part of David’s leadership campaign to bring people together in the community to discuss how we can be part of the Movement for Change at a local level. It will be a chance to share stories, build relationships and discuss what we would like to change in this area and how we can help make David leader of the Labour Party to take this forward.

I copied the email and, just as David instructed, invited 30 people from all professions and walks of life – everything from doctors to decorators, rabbis to gym instructors. But the coup de grace, the one David and I really wanted, was Michael Knightley, head of the local secondary school. If I could get him to attend, then I would really land in the Big Leagues of Community Organising. What’s more, Basingstoke would be David’s for the taking!

With the invites sent and his campaign informed (David & his high-profile supporters sometimes ring up during the events!), I followed David’s advice and did some research. Soon I was loaded up on stories of his policy-making heroics; the work on social justice, his time as Labour’s Head of Policy, the sensitive, pragmatic way he handled those accusations of torture.

I realised then that the comparisons with the Obama campaign were grossly unfair. When Obama ran, he had nothing but the ‘Audacity of Hope’; compare that to David’s 13 years of turning Hopes into Realities. There really was no contest.

Finally, the big day arrived. This, of all days, was the time to follow David’s instruction manual to the letter:

Get in from work, give the place a quick vacuum and general tidy (or not, if you’re not that type). Put the oven on and get the nibbles in. If there are drinks, get them chilling. Pick some music. Get Labour party membership forms at the ready.

The spread was fit for a Prime Minister. Plates were stacked high with sandwiches, samosas and onion bhajis; there were sausage rolls, fruit bowls and ‘scotched Eds’ (take that, little brother!). I even concocted a cocktail, The Milibomb, out of strawberry schnapps. When the guests entered the  living room (dubbed ‘the Cabinet Office’ for the night), that same Boy Meets Girl song would be at the top of the playlist. Its title: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.

A good 10 minutes after my meeting was due to start, the first guest arrived. Andy apologised for being late, explaining that he’d just emerged victorious from a heated debate about the new World of Warcraft expansion pack. “Who’s this?” I ask of the stocky figure stood behind him. “Oh, I thought I’d bring a plus one. This is Gary. He works for a trade union.”

As he held out his hand, I looked at him with apprehension and mistrust. Having a trade unionist there didn’t just add pressure for everything going to plan, it also doubled the competition. I knew all about Labour’s problem with entryists and it wasn’t going to happen in my flat. This was my community, I would be organising it, and I would take the credit for making Basingstoke a hotbed of Milimania.. Besides, if David really cared about having Trade Unionists on board, he would have asked them!

I left them to the drinks and nibbles while I stood by the window, fiddling with the blinds and praying the passing cars carried guests in search of somewhere to park. Another 5 minutes passed before Diane turned up with a tray of gluten-free chocolate brownies. “Oh, well this is a nice size for a meeting”, she said sympathetically, “very exclusive, isn’t it?!”

I could just about cope with a low turnout. I bet even David Plouffe had his disappointments when he started out. No, it was what was still to come that brought an abrupt end to my Community Organising. I was helping myself to another Milibomb when the phone rang. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘someone who’s on their way and in need of directions. Soon we’ll have a proper gathering.’

“Hello?”

“Hiya, this is Cassie from the David Miliband campaign. I’m just ringing to ask how your House Meeting is going?”

“Oh, it’s going great,” I lied, before dreaming up an excuse for the poor showing. “There’s a bit of a snarl-up on the way into Basingstoke, so some guests are running a bit late. But we’ve still got a good crowd to start with. I turned to the guests and raised a feeble thumbs-up.

“Oh, that’s great. David was very impressed by the number of notables on your guest list. How many of those do you think are attending this evening? For instance, Will Mr Knightley be there?”

“Definitely,” I replied, voice starting to quiver under the weight of the lie. “Michael’s just stuck in traffic. He’ll be here any minute”.

“Excellent. In that case, you should expect to receive a phone call from David sometime between 8 and 9pm. He’d love to hear your ideas.”

It was then that Emily entered the room, ushered in by the uninvited (and possibly lecherous) Entryist who was clearly having no problem making himself at home. ‘I’ll show him’, I thought.

“That’s great news Cassie”. I turned to Emily: “guys, The Right Honourable David Miliband is calling us later so we can share our ideas. No pressure now!”

I said my goodbyes and hung up the phone. It was at once my greatest achievement and my biggest defeat. The future leader of the Labour Party – the future Prime Minister – was about to ring Me. At home. At an event in his honour. An event which had four attendees, one of whom wasn’t even invited! Should I dance or scream? And what would I say to Him if He calls?

I poured myself another Milibomb and retreated to the kitchen. ‘Four guests’ I repeated in disbelief. ‘Four fucking guests.’ Panic was setting in, and that would do me no good at all. This was a time for Cool Tempers and Clear Minds, so I turned again to the Miliband House Meeting Manual, returned to the Cabinet Office and, as per instruction, played David’s House Meeting intro on YouTube.

Just as David instructed, we went on to talk about the challenges in our areas. Everyone spoke about an issue close to their hearts: Andy got very exercised about broadband speeds; Diane found the new recycling system ‘terribly confusing’ and The Entryist, his plate bulging from all the food he’d helped himself to, found a way to fit ‘Tories’ and ‘Cuts’ into every other sentence. Emily started banging on about her Women’s Issues, mentioning some refuge that’d had its funding cut. As she spoke, I wondered quietly whether she might join my Movement for Change after all. I would have to ask her at the end of the night.

3. What frustrates you about the Labour Party and why? How can we change that during and after David’s leadership campaign?

“Oh, don’t mention the war!” joked The Entryist, his mouth full with Scotched Eds. I tossed him my most studied scowl and moved the discussion along . “Yes, well, we would all make better decisions if we had time machines, wouldn’t we?! Now what about…”

“I was never keen”, Diane interrupted, “on the way they seemed to like micromanaging our lives”.

“In what way?” I asked, fully expecting a well-meaning but endearingly daft response.

“Well, they did seem to spend an awful lot of time telling people how they should live. All those scary adverts about what we drink and what we eat, and all that time telling people where they can and can’t smoke. It all just got a bit silly, really. When Labour was in power, I bet house parties even had instruction manuals!”

“Hear hear!” Andy replied, “too much of this Nanny State!”

I slipped David’s instruction manual under the couch and hoped no one had seen me use it. This was clearly another one of Diane’s ‘off message’ ideas, but since the manual didn’t mention anything about crushing dissent, I let it stand and moved onto the next talking point.

What can you do to get David elected over the coming months?

A silence fell. The guests started fiddling with their food; gazing into the distance; checking their phones. I suppose this was to be expected. I mean, none of them had yet embarked on my own journey of community organising, so how were they meant to know how to elect a leader? They had to be directed, of course! I decided to get the ball rolling myself.

“Well, we’ve already taken the first big step by meeting here! But what I found helpful was…”

The phone rang. I stared at it, panic-stricken for the first three rings. Was that really Him? What would I say? Was it too informal to call him David?

“You gonna get that?” Emily enquired. I lifted the phone and turned on the speaker.

“Hello, David Miliband here, hope you’re all having a great evening.”

My guests’ expressions were a picture! I bet none of them believed I had The Clout to land a phone call from David, and here they were, listening to his polite, cerebral tones through the speakerphone. I had made it!

“Hi David, we’re having a fantastic time here! Some really good discussions about the challenges facing our community and lots of ideas about how our Movement for Change can make you leader of the Labour Party.”

“That’s very good to hear, and obviously I’m delighted to have so many people in …err…”

“Basingstoke.”

“Yes, Basingstoke. It’s obviously nice to have the people of Basingstoke involved in the campaign. Now, I gather you have some significant community figures in attendance tonight. My staff tells me you even have a school headmaster.”

Could I lie to a former Foreign Secretary? A man who stared down some first rate deceivers and outwitted them all? A man who had a close working relationship with Hillary Clinton? Surely he would see through me.

“Oh yes, Michael’s here, just helping himself to a few nibbles.” I gestured over to where I imaged Mr Knightley would be standing and took another good swig of my Milibomb. Andy looked at me like I’d gone mad – a bit rich for a man who spends half his life thrashing around the internet under the alias of ‘sexy_goblin’.

“Great, do you think I could have a quick word?”

“Oh.”

“Is there a problem?”

The problem was that I hadn’t seen where all of this had been leading. I was so swept up in the tension of planning & the euphoria of the moment, that I never stopped to think about what this evening was really about. This wasn’t an evening for Little People like me to become important, but for David to find people who were already important. The doctors, lawyers, councillors & head teachers; people who ‘already have the following of others’. So what was I to do? Would I finally admit that my whole meeting had been a defeat, or would I try to make sure that David wasn’t disappointed in me?

“No, no problem at all. I’ll just pass him on for you.”

All the school nativities in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for the feat of acting I was about to attempt. I finished my drink, straightened my back and turned away from the guests. I lowered my voice by nearly an octave. If I pull this off, I thought, I’m going to sound a little like Patrick Stewart.

“Good evening, David! Michael Knightley here!”

The details of the conversation are a private matter between David and Mr Knightley, but I can tell you that the talks were very productive. David shared his outrage at the scrapping of his school building programme and congratulated him on the excellent exam results. For his part, Mr Knightley praised Mr Miliband’s speeches on education and pledged to become a party member ‘this very evening’. Quite how the real Mr Knightley would feel about this pledge would be another matter.

The conversation ended & I put down the telephone. My guests were all wearing the most indescribable expressions. They looked at me as if I’d done something terrible. Something like advocating the legalisation of drugs, scrapping trident or reinstating Clause 4.

I knew there was now no point carrying on with the event. I unfolded the House Meeting Manual and went straight to the closing remarks. I cleared my throat.

“I hope you have enjoyed this evening – it’s been really interesting hearing your stories tonight and it just shows the need for us to organise in our local community. Whatever our different perspectives on the issues discussed tonight, one thing is clear – that we can achieve more together than we can on our own.”

I glanced over at Emily; she stared down at her shoes. With the speech finished, the guests were dying to leave. Diane reminded me to return the tin that kept the gluten-free brownies;  Andy tapped me on the back with the suggestion that I “might want to go & get help”; The Entryist filled his plate and flashed a smug, bloated smile. Emily was last out of the door. I helped her with her coat and said “Y’know, if you ever wanted to meet up sometime to discuss how you could be a part of David’s Movement for Change, we could…”

“I’m still for Ed,” she interrupted, looking somewhere between apologetic and concerned. “Your guy will probably win, but I just think that if you’re going to give all your time and energy to something like this, it should at least be for something you can get excited about. Even after tonight, I still don’t know what your guy believes in.”

“For what it’s worth”, she said as she left the house, “I think you could’ve thrown a great party without the help of some instruction manual.”

I shut the door, removed the ‘Cabinet Office’ sign in the living room, turned on the stereo and poured another drink before slumping into an armchair. In just a few hours I’d won the respect of the next Leader of the Labour Party and the derision of my friends. I’d been a party host, a political aide and a secondary school head teacher, and all I’d really gained was a phone call with someone who didn’t want to talk to me, a tin full of gluten-free chocolate brownies and an apparent addiction to strawberry schnapps. I bet David Plouffe never had this trouble.

As the stereo cranked out an old tune from a fondly-remembered past, I concluded that it will all have been worth it if I played some small role in getting David elected. Things Can Only Get Better, the singer promised. I hope so, because right now things could hardly be worse.

Note: none of this actually happened.

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