Labour is Changing the Way Politics Works

Political parties these days are rarely in touch with ordinary voters except at election time. With its new community organizing program, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is starting to change that.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gestures as he leaves a rally after outlining plans for Labour's green industrial revolution in the North on July 26, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Darren Staples / Getty Images)

In the lobby of a new apartment block, built six years ago, the smell of fresh paint is stark, and both cleaning and maintenance staff rush past nervously. The tenants of this block smile wryly, pointing out that the cleaning staff don’t usually turn up on a Thursday, nor do they clean quite so thoroughly. The newfound focus on cleanliness and the sudden rush to complete a number of repairs that were requested long ago seem to have coincided with the building owners hearing that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is visiting.

The residential development in Wandsworth, southwest London, incorporated one block of social housing amid the surrounding luxury blocks in order to comply with British planning laws that require large projects to give back to the community somehow, through social flats, building public parks, or doctors surgeries. Too often, however, the social housing is built cheaply and maintained poorly — if at all. When tenants moved in, they were met with horrific damp, leaks pouring boiling water down walls, mold everywhere, and obvious fire hazards. One teenager I meet is reliant on an inhaler for damp-induced asthma and has panic attacks at night, fearing her family will be trapped in a fire. A plug in the cupboard next to her flat caught fire after a leak caused it to rust and short-circuit: the fire service told tenants the fire was put out only because of a stronger leak. Photos of the plug show both the blackened plastic and the rust.

Other accidents have luckily been avoided: two balconies have seen plate-glass panels fall onto the ground below, leaving no barrier several floors up, in flats with children as well as vulnerable people with learning difficulties.

Corbyn is visiting to see the work the tenants have been doing with Labour’s community organizing team: tenants were fed up with their conditions, but they felt powerless. Hearing of the problems, the organizers were able to advise them on action that could hopefully gain results, and they used their resources to document the problems in the block with cameras, compiling photographs and video so the landlords could not deny the scale of the problem. Their first meeting with a senior executive of the management company A2Dominion, the local council, and the local Conservative MP Justine Greening didn’t go well: rather than meet in the block, they insisted tenants meet them on the second floor of a bar nearby that had no lift. A number of tenants had physical disabilities or were uncomfortable going into premises selling alcohol, but the executive was belligerent and the MP unhelpful.

“Two of the women told me they met in a lift and started talking about how angry they felt about the condition of their flat, and this spread into an association across the whole block — the community organizing team have been the facilitator of this,” Corbyn tells me after a private meeting with some tenants followed by a larger public meeting in one of the flats plagued by faults. “From that, demands will be put on A2Dominion, on Wandsworth Council, but on a wider level, it’s demands that they put on us, the Labour Party, as to how we’ll react to this in the future. I was asked about that earlier, and said I’d be interested to hear their views on details of policy, but essentially it is about democratic accountability of housing associations and rights of tenants.”

The work of the community organizers will feed into Labour’s policy and manifesto planning — problems encountered in Labour target areas and communities that have been hit by austerity will help prioritize certain approaches to social issues. A focus on community organizing was a commitment by Corbyn in both the 2015 and 2016 leadership campaigns, “and took rather longer than I’d hoped,” but now comprises ten digital organizers creating video and social content for campaigns, and twenty organizers on the ground in communities hosting thousands of one-on-one conversations with local people encountering problems with housing, education, welfare, health, and employment.

“In London, it’s part of a far wider problem of social cleansing: housing policy is driven by property value and that means that a great deal of money can be made on property in central London, therefore you can build more, cheaper, somewhere else. That means that too many housing associations are selling off property and land or developing it for private sale in central areas of the city, which means working-class communities get shifted out of the city, and they have to commute in for jobs. It’s not right,” says Corbyn.

The community organizing teams naturally work to increase the Labour vote in local areas: by working with the community, they’re able to hone in on the issues that locals care about, that parliamentary candidates should fight for and become involved in. In Wandsworth, the local candidate Fleur Anderson accompanies Corbyn on the visit and speaks separately to the tenants. The community organizing team has also worked to increase candidates’ digital presence, as well as working on social issues. “I wanted to set up community organizing teams after I was elected leader of the party, and it took rather longer than I wanted to get them set up and going. But we’ve now got community organizing teams in most parts of the country, and their job is to be responsible within the community to organize on social issues on a whole range of things,” Corbyn says. “Universal credit, housing, educational accountability in schools are all issues, and also building political support within communities.”

Rather than simply leafleting prospective voters and door-knocking, the team is working within the community to address and identify problems and hopefully solve them. The work attempts to properly embed local Labour parties in communities rather than simply calling on voters when election time comes. “At the end of it, they’ve empowered a community: from a block that was only built six years ago, most people have only been here a few years, we’ve got a really strong sense of community and a proper sense of unity,” Corbyn says. “This new tenants’ group have already been in contact with other tenants of A2Dominion, and they’ve started getting nervous and started responding more quickly: that shows the strength of acting as one voice. Well done, them.”