How might we understand the extraordinary attention paid to London Citizens by the left and by leading Labour politicians? Both Ed Miliband and David Miliband incorporated community organising into their leadership campaigns. Speeches, commentary and articles about the future of the left invariably point to London Citizens as the one bright light in the dark firmament.
Answers to the question require a wider context to Labour's current predicament. The hegemony of liberal market capitalism, down but not out, demobilised the labour movement, and depoliticised the sites of conflict between capital and labour. An important vehicle for this depoliticisation was New Labour itself. Victory in 1997 required a careful distancing from all sites of potential conflict. In government its communitarian ethos fell by the wayside and it presided over the growth of a managerialist state and a utilitarian, Benthamite approach to policy. An empirical, pragmatic 'what works' view of the world did not challenge existing relations of power and tended to tip toward technocratic solutions to political problems. In a similar way to Hayek's liberalism it treated people as rational economic actors whose logic was to 'earn and own'.
The leadership contenders are products of this political culture and they have been its active agents. The contest has struggled to escape the policy language of the generation of '92. None have been able to embark on a convincing journey into the future.
London Citizens offers something very different. It is undefeated, vibrant, popular and apparently successful. Its emphasis on participation and relationships, and its unerring focus on conflict and identifying sources of power, offers a real alternative to Labour's dessicated politics. But the uncritical eulogising of it invites a more critical appraisal. The current interest in London Citizens offers a political opening for democratic and organisational reform within Labour. However I do not see the model of London Citizens as a solution to the historic problems facing the Labour Party.
In the May election, Labour won in Scotland and Wales but lost badly in England. In the South East it won only 16 per cent of the vote. Like other mass parties across Europe it has been in long term decline and is in need of radical reform. The last few years have turned decline into potential collapse. Trade union membership in the private sector is down to 15 per cent. In the...