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February 9, 2011

Enlisting the foot soldiers of social change

Politicians seem keen on the idea of recruiting and training ‘community organisers’. First David Cameron wanted an army of 5,000 to deliver his vision for Big Society and now the Miliband brothers have shaken hands on a plan for 10,000 community organisers to be trained as part of their Movement for Change to transform the Labour Party. But not everyone in the Labour Party thinks this is such a great idea

David and Ed Miliband are combining to create a 10,000-strong “army” of community organisers in the first formal rapprochement for the pair since Ed beat David to the Labour party leadership. The Movement for Change, set up by David during his leadership campaign, is to be relaunched in March and expanded, initially under the wing of the Labour party.

The brothers want to increase tenfold the 1,000 activists trained through that campaign to organise people, such as patients, parents and tenants, to resist change imposed by state or the private sector in their neighbourhoods. Lord Sainsbury of Turville is poised to donate £250,000 as the first stage of funding for the training. The move is significant because Sainsbury, a supporter of David Miliband who has bankrolled Labour with £13m in the last 10 years, is one of several big donors who have said they are not keen on continuing to back Labour with Ed in charge. Sainsbury’s donation will be registered to the Labour party, but it will not be interpreted by Ed Miliband as a gift to him.

A spokesman for the Labour leader said: “Ed thinks David has done a brilliant job with Movement for Change. It will play a key part in revitalising the Labour party and reconnecting it with parts of the electorate who feel we lost touch. He is delighted that David will be involved in Movement for Change, which underlines how he will remain an important voice in Labour politics.”

Blair McDougall, organiser of the scheme and a former Labour government adviser, said: “Movement for Change will organise within and across communities to increase the power of citizens to bridge the gap between traditional Punch and Judy politics and passionate concerns in communities about people’s lives.” 

“There are few things more important than that the Labour party rebuilds strong relationships with the people of Britain,” David said.

“Movement for Change is designed to take the best of the rich traditions of community organising from Britain and abroad, and apply them to the present day. [It] will, I hope, help communities across Britain defend themselves and help Labour on the road to government.”

The Milibands hope the cohort will prove a meaningful contrast to David Cameron’s “big society”.

Newly-trained activists will work in partnership with the Labour party to provide training for local parties and members to bring about change in communities.

The idea has ruffled some feathers within Labour ranks. Some are concerned that Labour activists trained in these methods could come into conflict with local Labour councils that might also be trying to impose unpopular policies.

The organisation will resemble a professional body, dispensing training, and not be a mass membership organisation. Ultimately it would be autonomous, controlled by its members, and affiliated to the Labour party as a socialist society.