This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics

We all know people think politicians are out of touch with the public. Nothing has exemplified this more than the expenses scandal in 2009, which has recently reared its head once again. We have seen all manner of claims on the public purse, from moats around large country homes to porn movies and soundproofed bedrooms being put on the tab. Who said MPs don’t know how to have fun?

The fact of the matter is, had these MPs been fully engaged with their local communities, they’d have realised their residents would not have seen it as a moral way to behave, despite it being for the most part legal. Left-wing politicians often use this exact argument on issues such as tax avoidance, but those of us who use a moral argument will only have legitimacy if we engage with the public and bring them with us.

There’s been a growing level of disengagement with politics since the de-industrialisation of the workplace and the breakdown of traditional community units, including churches and political parties themselves. The Labour Party’s new-found enthusiasm for community organising is nothing new – after all, it was created through community organising by trade unions and socialist societies. We simply need to rediscover and modernise that.

Across the constituency I hope one day to represent, Norwich North, there are entire communities which used to be intrinsically linked to industrialised workplaces. Houses were specifically built for people to work in the shoe-making industry, which at its peak was producing eight million pairs of shoes per year. Now we have just one shoe factory, while the majority of people work in service-based industries. Previously the sense of community was not simply geographic; it was also linked to work.

Gone are the days of 2,000-strong workforces. Now many people work in businesses with fewer than 20 members of staff. This has left a gap in our political campaigning memory, as many Labour MPs came from a trade union background with a strong history of workplace and community organisation.

Political parties must now find inventive ways to engage with people on issues they care about. As a parliamentary candidate, I have only limited traction when I talk about national issues. I’m untried and untested in the eyes of the public, which tends to look towards senior party figures and the media for direction.

Where candidates can make a difference, however, is when we work with communities on issues they encounter every day at a local level. From the pothole down their road puncturing their tyre, to the streetlights which have been turned off at night – we need to forget Westminster and embrace local politics.

Take the woman I heard from last week: she said she’d been subjected to a campaign of people hurling eggs at her house. I expect she wouldn’t care whether Chloe Smith was hung out to dry on Newsnight by George Osborne and the posh boys in Westminster. She likely has little interest in the political intrigue and gossip from Downing Street. She simply wanted the people who egged her home to be brought to justice.

The modern concept of local mobilisation came to prominence with the election of Barack Obama, who in turn was influenced by the ideas of Saul Alinsky, a community activist in Chicago. Alinsky had no elected authority, but drew his authority and position to bargain with organisations from the faith and support the community had invested in him.

During his time, he encouraged tenants of slum landlords to picket their landlord’s house while carrying out a rent strike. When rubbish collection services were failing people in Chicago he dumped the uncollected waste on the doorstep of a local councillor who was defending the service. To protest against unfair foreclosures of homes, he organised groups of people to attend shareholder meetings to raise their concerns and effectively closed down banks with queues of investors exchanging 10,000 pennies for $100 notes and vice versa.

Now, I’m not saying that political activists should engage in all of the methods he used, particularly those which are illegal, but there are organisations today, such as Citizens UK, which use similar tactics. They have spent years building relations with church groups, trade unions and local community organisations. This has enabled them to gain real community support for a range of campaigns. The most notable is the Living Wage campaign, which marshalled low-paid workers to make their case directly to their employers through their own structures. For example, in 2003, night cleaner Abdul Durrant confronted HSBC’s chairman Sir John Bond at the bank’s annual meeting and asked whether the bank would be willing to pay a living wage. HSBC eventually caved in, as did many other companies in the glittering towers of Canary Wharf. By employing Alinsky’s tactic of purchasing one share in a company and using the AGM as a platform to disrupt the meeting with a personal story, Citizens UK has convinced more than 100 businesses, including KPMG and Aviva, to register as Living Wage employers.

This model is being championed by Ed Miliband and his US adviser Arnie Graf, who was also a mentor to Obama. Parliamentary candidates like myself are being asked to set aside our previous focus on simply identifying voters and to reconnect with them instead with inspiring grassroots campaigns. 

In Norwich North, many are still very disappointed by the treatment of their former Labour MP Ian Gibson, who resigned in protest, sparking a by-election in 2009. The only way to re-engage with people is to open a dialogue and prove to them that I can get things done in the here and now.

In Norwich, we’re championing a number of ways to engage with the community and build these links. The first stage has been to hold public meetings with local councillors and police officers. As ever, you find a wide range of personalities at events like these, and the key is to identify those who are already active in their community and work with them to deliver real change.

In these meetings, many issues are raised, from drug dealing in the parks to parking shortages on our Victorian terraced streets. But more bizarre issues also come up. During one meeting, an elderly gentleman complained about a neighbour who often had vocal sex sessions. I am just relieved that this particular issue was picked up by one of our Labour councillors rather than myself.

In the main, public meetings are a great way to determine issues that the majority of people care about. Once held, we can use the information we gather as a springboard to apply pressure on local authorities and organisations to achieve the change we wish to see. 

For example, in a recent public meeting, residents identified the danger, particularly to disabled people, of cyclists illegally riding on pavements. Local councillors and activists decided to campaign for several months with local residents and shop owners, asking people not to ride their bikes on the pavement. We combined it with press opportunities and asked the police to agree to attend and issue fines to people still cycling on the pavement. We’re now monitoring whether this has had an impact and meanwhile are campaigning for a two-way cycle contra-flow so that cyclists can cycle legally and safely. 

It may seem a small issue, but constituents felt very strongly about it, and we are able to show that we’ve taken action. Politics is about listening to people, demonstrating real change and keeping your promises. It’s also, as Miliband has said, about under-promising and over-delivering.

Another campaign which has been effective in Norwich South has been the introduction of a community discount card for local shops. Labour activists identified from their conversations on the doorstep that many residents were proud of their local independent shops, but worried that the big supermarkets were continuing to take over their shopping districts. By speaking with shop owners, Labour was able to convince them to offer a discount on the production of a Labour community discount card. After distributing thousands to local residents, shop owners have anecdotally said they have seen an increase in custom. Not only does this remind residents that they have to use local shops or they might lose them, it has also had a beneficial impact on the local economy in these difficult times for independent traders. 

I believe the only way to win the support of disillusioned voters is to show you’re willing to engage with them on issues they’re concerned about. Clearly we also need to work to win the levers of power if we are to be able to put our values into practice across the country. While candidates like me are in opposition, it’s important to remember that we can achieve the change we wish to see by inspiring the community and helping to build that better society today.

Jess Asato is Labour’s candidate for Norwich North and vice chair of the Fabian Society

Tags: Campaigns, Issue 54, Jessica Asato, Labour Party, Voter apathy