Thursday, 02 December 2010

Caution: is your community legal? This is fun. According to the LGiU, ‘The good folks at Eland House have a problem on their hands. The official line is that the Localism Bill has been delayed by “parliamentary congestion”. There’s also speculation, however, that the Bill is being delayed because some of its content is creating a headache for the civil servants. One of the most interesting sticking points is providing a legal definition of what a community is.’ While I was still rolling around on the floor helpless with laughter, visualising the desperate policing of various kinds of illegal communities ('excuse me sir, I have reason to believe you have nothing in common with the people at no.38'), my old mate Gabriel Chanan who has worked alongside these hapless officials and has perhaps more sympathy with their plight, saw a glimmer of an opportunity and fired-off the following snippet of wisdom to The Times: Sir, Civil servants preparing the Localism Bill for the government are said to be having difficulty defining what a community is so that it can be given legal powers. This is promising. A community cannot be given legal powers because it is not an entity. It is a description of a certain (or more often uncertain) state of relationships amongst the population of a locality or some other group with interests in common. The only population-based entity to which you can give legal powers in a locality is a community organisation of one sort or another. This ought to throw the spotlight onto the question of the relationship between such an organisaton and the rest of the local population. So when the government, in Big Society mode, says it will enable ‘communities’ to take over a public service, the question should immediately arise of what does that community organisation need to do to show that it is acting in the interests of the whole local population, and what responsibility necessarily remains with the relevant public authority to ensure this. Communities as a whole do not and cannot take over public services. Community organisations can collaborate with public authorities to deliver the services better. Gabriel Chanan, Who knows if they'll publish it, but I have.
How the government is helping young people to learn about community organising For a long time it puzzled me that my kids and most of their peers grew up a-political. Now I realise I was not being very bright about it. For a start, I needed to turn the reflection around: it was probably as much that politics was 'a-young-people'. And, as I suddenly realised while reading a marvellous, passionate article by Suzanne Moore in today's Guardian, for a long time they didn't have a cause of their own. For myself and my brothers and some friends, as we bemoaned our youngsters' apparent disinterest, it feels in retrospect like we expected them to take up other causes, which is not necessarily an easy route to early political awareness. Moore writes of excitement and energy in the current student protests. No surprise that, as she says, 'these kids are able to quickly organise new kinds of creative chaos'. And as we'd expect, the learning they are going through is invaluable: 'These people have discovered the politics of self-organisation quickly. Some of what was going on was the painfully slow but necessary business of process. How does such a diverse group make rules for itself?' What interests me even more is the sophistication of their disquiet: it does not seem to be raw anger or outrage - the kind of last-ditch, backs-to-the-wall desperation that characterised the miners' strike for instance. What seems to be happening is a calculated rejection of the kind of political attitude - imitated across the country by the embarrassing complacency of the Haves - that has no qualms in dumping ordinary people perceived to be incapable of organising their own resistance. In some ways the students' resistance is perverse, in that there is nothing anarchic about it: 'their main contention is wanting access to state institutions.' We are being governed by two political leaders who exude contempt for anyone not swimming in the mainstream, and seem ignorant of the risks of their lofty disdain. If Moore is right and young people make the clearest demonstration that this politics is morally unacceptable, I for one will find it very inspiring. And it would be pleasing if in a few years' time we can look back at today's learning about the organisation of resistance as providing the platform for a revitalisation of community politics. That would resonate sweetly with the rhetoric of big society.

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