Participatory democracy, East London styleTagged as: campaigns
Neighbourhoods: bethnal_green east_london
First impressions of the Twelth Anniversary Assembly of The East London Communities Organisation, TELCO. (12/11/08)
A November evening in Bethnal Green. Around 1500 people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds, including a very large and lively contingent of young people from local schools, crammed into York Hall on Old Ford Road for the annual meeting of TELCO, the East London branch of London Citizens, in its own words ‘the biggest and most diverse community organisation in the capital'. To the sound of steel drums and enthusiastic cheers from the participants, the two-hour meeting heard representatives from individual member organisations pledge to advance TELCO's agenda over the next year. The meeting drew attention to some of the city-wide successes of London Citizens' campaigns. These include a campaign for affordable housing around the 2012 Olympic site; the Living Wage campaign to make employers across the capital pay all workers a decent wage, calculated to be £7.45 per hour; the CitySafe Campaign to reduce crime and drug and alcohol abuse in East London; and Strangers into Citizens, a campaign for a one-off amnesty and regularisation of undocumented workers.
Among these, the achievements of the Living Wage campaign stood out: an initiative which according to TELCO has helped to lift 5000 families out of working poverty and has put a further £20 million into the pockets of low paid workers. Tower Hamlets Council leader Lutfur Rahman stated his commitment that all workers employed by the borough will receive the Living Wage. Seeing TELCO's mode of doing politics put into practice was what was most interesting about the meeting. Representatives from the Mayor of London's office, the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Authority were hauled before the microphone and made to state publicly whether or not they would comply with the initiatives they had pledged to support. This strategy has been effective in the past: during the previous assembly Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a man not renowned for his solidarity with impoverished working people, was forced to pledge his support for the campaign. This time round, three schoolboys took to the microphone and demanded to know why the London Development Agency had not done more to create a Community Land Trust to guarantee affordable housing for the communities around the Olympic site.
Does TELCO represent a new form of grassroots politics in the UK? According to its own leaflets, TELCO ‘aims to strengthen civil society and grow grassroots power'. There was a definite buzz about the meeting, an excitement generated by ordinary people coming together with energy and humour in order to have some say over decisions that affect them. But while the organisation is novel in terms of the diversity of its membership, it is not in terms of its political conclusions. TELCO could not be equated, for example, with the many social movements that have emerged in regions of the global South, particularly South America in recent years, who advocate much stronger critiques of top-down politics and envision autonomous and explicitly anti-capitalist alternatives. One speaker, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain put forward a limited critique of the market-driven economic model that has led to the current financial crisis, arguing that ‘the greed and consumerism of a few over the many' should be replaced by an ‘ethical economy', although he did not elaborate on this. TELCO's approach has been one of building ‘respectful relationships with decision-makers' and puts emphasis on training the next generation of ‘community leaders', rather than advocating an altogether different political/economic model. This puts the organisation more on a par with initiatives in other UK cities such as Newcastle and Leeds, which have had similar projects of community involvement in decision-making. Further afield, the participatory planning and budgeting experiments of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre spring to mind, albeit in a wholly different social and political context.
Two factors stand out from the meeting. The first is what might be called the Obama effect. As one of the assembly' s opening speakers pointed out, TELCO's sister organisation in Chicago once counted the current US president-elect among its supporters, and the election of the first black president in the White House has clearly had an electrifying effect on grassroots political organising in the UK as well as the US. For school-aged black and Asian young people in particular, who formed an impressive and very vocal part of the meeting, engagement in politics may have taken on a new resonance and significance, perhaps guided by a belief that racial barriers to the levers of power can now be transcended. Throughout the meeting, near ecstatic cries of Obama's slogan of ‘YES WE CAN!' reverberated around the hall, becoming the binding motif of nearly all the speakers.
Secondly, trade unions and workers' organisations were largely absent (with a few exceptions, such as Unite's Justice for Cleaners campaign, a significant struggle for decent wages for the London Underground's cleaners, who are predominantly migrant workers). In their place was a very large number of faith organisations, mainly various Christian denominations and Islamic groups, who arguably have greater legitimacy among many of East London's communities than mainstream political parties. The language of class-based politics was entirely absent from the meeting. Instead, speakers focused on ‘strengthening communities' and on inclusive forms of citizenship.
While the potential for the expansion of the London Citizens' project is invigorating and hopeful in many ways, not least in terms of the active participation of so many young people, and I by no means wish to demean these efforts, this humble intervention by a first time participant ends on a cautious note. The predominance of faith organisations brings with it its own dangers: the possibility for reactionary elements gaining credibility,those which support patriarchy and oppose homosexuality and abortion, for example. Also, many of the speakers seemed to uncritically endorse many of New Labour's mantras such as an orientation towards business and an ‘anti-social behaviour' perspective on crime (although I would also qualify this by saying that fear of crime should be taken seriously). I would argue that community-based politics should have at heart a will to contest power rather than to merely placate it. A narrow focus on 'citizenship' is is some ways insufficient to fully understand issues like migration (what about UK government policy on the detention and deportation of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, or the UK military's role in creating refugees in the first place?) Maybe the involvement in initiatives such as TELCO of more
individuals and organisations from radical political positions would create an even stronger counterbalance to top-down decision-making processes.