Teaching the art of politics in action

Neil Jameson

At the beginning of a meeting in London’s East End on 8 November last year, a thousand people stood to remember the terrible events of September 11. A minute of silence was requested as a ‘mark of respect for all who suffer when politics fails’. For TELCO (The East London Communities Organization), politics does not mean just voting. Politics is the way you get things done in public life. The main business of the TELCO Assembly was the campaign for a living wage for London.

TELCO is a broad-based alliance of community-based associations. The Assembly platform that evening included local bishops, MPs, trade union leaders, a government minister and a group of hospital cleaners.

A Living Wage for London

At the end of a long shift cleaning one of East London’s hard-pressed hospitals, Verna Irish and eight other women hung up their overalls and travelled the half hour from the hospital to a hall in Bethnal Green in the heart of the East End.

As they entered the room they paused, struck by the light, energy and vibrancy which met them, contrasting with the drizzle of the dark streets outside and the monotony of the shift they had just finished. Their shift had made them late for the fifth birthday assembly of TELCO – now the UK’s largest and most diverse civic alliance of congregations, trade unions, schools and local associations. The organizers had been looking out for Verna and her colleagues and gave them little time to draw breath before they were called to join the others on the platform.

The cleaners from Whipps Cross Hospital approached the stage nervously and as they did so the TELCO Assembly spontaneously rose to give them a standing ovation. Their role in maintaining and servicing public services in East London was recognized and honoured that night. But there was more to it than this.

Verna and her colleagues had been invited to tell their story of commitment to their job, while barely managing to raise a family on the minimum wage. One had worked as a hospital cleaner for 30 years and never been paid more than the minimum wage (now set at £4.10 an hour throughout the UK). They added their voice and experience to support TELCO’s campaign for a new ‘Living Wage for London’, which aims to persuade both business and the public sector to increase the basic wage of the lowest paid to £6.30 an hour minimum. Equally significantly, they had persuaded their union branch to join TELCO and add its power to this unique alliance of nearly 40 unions, mosques, churches, schools, tenants’ groups and community associations that give TELCO its muscle and talented leadership.

The London Mayor has recently agreed to TELCO’s aim for his own Council and introduced the first ‘Living Wage’ statute in the UK. His example has been followed by a few courageous businesses – but TELCO’s leaders know there is much to be done before everyone in London benefits.

The meeting also saw delegations from TELCO member groups – school children, college students and imams alongside low-waged workers, clergy, union activists and pensioners – sign a pledge of respect for diversity. The overall theme for the Assembly was ‘Solidarity in Action’.

Achieving power through politics

TELCO is one of five similar broad-based alliances in the UK supported and tutored by the Citizen Organizing Foundation (COF). These groups have developed over the last ten years in response to the powerlessness felt by millions of people. The aim is for these groups to have power in order to achieve change in public life. And the best way of creating this change, democratically and non-violently, is through politics. COF thus aims to develop thousands of leaders, to strengthen those civic institutions which support family and community, and so to influence public life.

TELCO itself has an impressive record of winning many of the targets of the multi-issue agenda of concerns and campaigns agreed by the leadership each year. A whole generation of new and effective leaders have been nurtured and supported by TELCO and its small team of professional organizers since its launch in 1996.

A central tenet of COF’s philosophy is that the way to achieve power is by organizing large numbers of diverse people and their institutions. Since the human condition is complex and different, this inevitably leads to a multi-issue agenda of concerns. It is COF’s experience that single-issue campaigns encourage people to stay within their separate groups rather than coming together to pursue common aims – though such groups often join together to form a campaigning network. However, people are less likely initially to join together in this way around a diverse agenda, so an external catalyst may be needed. This is what COF and its trained organizers provide.

Training the organizers

The COF Institute runs regular training sessions for the leaders of local unions and congregations. It also recruits and trains organizers, as teachers of this pragmatic, non-partisan politics.

Another important COF principle relates to financial independence. The most effective and powerful groups are those that raise their own money and are thus independent of government handouts and policy directives. TELCO and the other COF affiliates have to raise at least 25 per cent of their costs from their local membership. They also seek support from sympathetic foundations which recognize the importance of teaching real and practical citizenship for an increasingly healthy and vibrant civil society.[1]

The importance of politics

The violence of September 11 and that which has followed are examples of what can happen when politics breaks down. Those responsible for the atrocities in New York and Washington that day rejected the possibility of politics and the tools of debate, pressure, argument and compromise. They turned to violence to make their point and all sides suffered the consequences.

Politics has never just meant ‘voting’ – indeed, if that was all that it meant we should be even more worried about the declining voting pattern of the UK and USA. COF reminds all those it trains that:
‘“Politics” is from the Greek word “polis”, which means “the people state”, and “democracy” from two Greek words “demo” and “kratia”, which mean “people power”.’

We cannot give up on politics, nor allow the media to trivialize governance by focusing only on the politicians and the scandals and rarely on the other players and the process. Politics is the way you get things done in public life. COF’s organizers are teaching this in neighbourhoods that have traditionally felt excluded and disconnected.

COF’s ambitious strategy for the next ten years is to build strong, broad-based community organizations like TELCO in every major UK city – and for this idea to spread to the rest of Europe. It is our belief and experience that government works better, and that corporations are held in check and become more sensitive and accountable, if people ‘organize’. The vision is that strong government, working with an effective business community, both supported and agitated by powerful, diverse and accountable civic organizations like TELCO, should offer the necessary checks and balances for a healthy society and successful economy.

This vision for the UK is not just a dream. In the USA there is already 50 years of such work to build on led by COF’s sister training institute, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).[2] IAF supports over 60 vast alliances of congregations and unions in most of the key urban and rural areas of the US. They campaign together on issues like a ‘Living Wage’, decent affordable housing for families, schools that succeed and better health care.

‘You have to be here to feel the vibrancy, optimism and passion of this organization – a bringing together of diverse groups of people to pursue the common good. This has to be the future for politics.’ This is how BBC political editor Andrew Marr, reporting on national news, described a recent TELCO Assembly.

1 See Bob Johnson (1988) Why Philanthropy Must Make Democracy The First Charity Santa Ana, California: Seven Locks Press.
2 For more information about the Industrial Areas Foundation, please visit the website at http://www.tresser.com/IAF.htm

Neil Jameson is Executive Director, Citizen Organizing Foundation Institute, London. He can be contacted at njameson@cof.org.uk
Citizen Organizing Foundation
COF was founded in 1989 with the help of Eric Adams and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, who were concerned at the way the voluntary sector was developing in the UK. The groups COF planned to work with were faith groups (mosques, parishes, temples), tenants’ groups, labour unions and other community-based associations – local, civic grassroots institutions. The first step was to find community leaders who wanted some power for their institutions and who also recognized that their people shared problems with their neighbours – whatever their faith or ideology. One of the biggest challenges in the UK at the end of the 1990s was deteriorating wages and conditions for people on low incomes.

TELCO and the other four community organizations supported by COF now consist of over 150 local groups, with 100,000 people altogether, who meet regularly to tackle their common problems, develop their leaders and improve their lives.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s Citizens and Governance programme
TELCO in the UK (see opposite) is one of 14 citizens’ organizations currently receiving support under the Commonwealth Foundation’s Citizens and Governance Programme. The idea is to link up some 25 such organizations across the globe. Other countries with funded projects include Belize, Uganda, New Zealand, Jamaica, Canada, New Guinea, Zimbabwe and Vanuatu. Over the next two years, these organizations will contribute to a programme of learning that involves monitoring and evaluating their individual work and pooling this to learn from each other. Experiences will be written up in such a way as to be usable by other citizens’ organizations and fed into the policy processes of the 54 Commonwealth member governments.

The Citizens and Governance Programme aims to implement the findings of an earlier Commonwealth Foundation project called ‘Civil Society in the New Millennium’. A book based on this project called Reviving Democracy [1] called for citizens to be placed at the heart of governance.

The group met for the first time for a week in Brisbane towards the end of last year. Having shared their experiences, they put together a learning framework based on what they could learn about their own individual work, what they could learn about others, and what lessons they could transmit to Commonwealth governments. Results will be made available to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2003.

1 Barry Knight, Hope Chigudu and Rajesh Tandon (2002) Reviving Democracy London: Earthscan.

Further information about the programme can be gained from the Commonwealth Foundation’s website at http://www.commonwealthfoundation.com or from Andrew Milner at milnerwhitaker@netscapeonline.co.uk


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