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Introducing Leo!

Leo Plumb – February 3rd, 2022

This week Leo Plumb joined the Common Weal Staff team as our new Networks Coordinator. Make sure to read to the bottom for suggestions of how to get more involved with Common Weal Work. 

It’s been an encouraging week. While I’ve been in the process of telling friends I’m jumping on board at Common Weal, I’ve been discovering that many pals have been subscribing to Common Weal’s big ideas for years. I’m not surprised to realise this. This think and do tank has been a generator in many ways, shaping discussion in different circles. Now I am starting the post as Networks Coordinator, I’m keen to speak with as many supporters as possible to ask you how you benefit from Common Weal? And how do you want to see these big ideas succeed? You will no doubt hear from me soon or you can email me sooner. 

It might be fair to say that Scots in general are drawn to big ideas. After all, during how many small exchanges with a stranger have you heard a genuinely smart solution to any of the structural problems of the day? Uttered often in frustration or anger at some of systems which govern us or the inoperative services that are meant to help us. These ideas can be communicated to you by a stranger in the time it takes to fill your tyres with air or before you have stuck the stamp on the envelope at the counter.

This begs a well-worn duo of questions for 2022:

  • If our own networks of friends and colleagues are to some extent with us, and we want to reach out to wider groups how do we do that?
  • And secondly How can we redirect some of that anger to encourage people that there is another way to get things done?

One of the major reasons I came into contact with Common Weal research was a personal interest in collective struggle for housing and renters’ rights. As I age well into my 30s, it impacts so many people around me (still probably will do throughout my 40s and 50s too). What a relief it is when policy research is finally published which aims to illustrate the chronic problems of housing quality and availability! However, in addition to reading, I’ve found solidarity as an activist organising with tenants’ groups in Glasgow who trying to end the trends in spiralling rents and bring a wider public to the call for social housing. 

Always drawn to the on-the-ground work, I took to chapping doors in different parts of the city for campaigns organised by Living Rent: Scotlands’ Tenants Union. An integral part of the approach is to achieve a certain number of conversations with residents in each block to connect individuals together and build the strength of union. At each doorway the question to ask the tenant is: have you noticed anything wrong with the flat? Are you waiting on any repairs? Each occupant will give you a detailed list of issues, awaiting resolution from the landlord or housing provider. These range from the typical to the harrowing. Sometimes they will invite you in to show life-threatening conditions or pending repairs.  Once our conversation arrives at the point where the tenant agrees: “this isn’t right, I deserve better and my landlord should be acting immediately to resolve this issue!”, the final question we ask them is often the most transformative one: ‘What would you be willing to do to escalate the situation?

I have found this question captures the imagination of local people, by showing a commitment to  build relationships with people, then advancing to: ‘What are you willing to do about it?’. In my opinion this question in itself, can articulate a broader vision for where society must go in 2022. In short, it aims to break the misconception that volunteer organisations are there to perform services for us in times of need, rather that the vision and action required is collective. 

To continue the example: ensuring safe, affordable housing for all requires that we hold accommodation providers to account. In order to realise the necessary policy development for this, we must also be willing to hold the politicians to account. Organising around these ideas is the same principle. Change has to come from the bottom, big ideas have to be driven upwards.

This outlook might best be described as a ‘Community Organising’ approach: the capacity of community residents to identify and solve problems themselves. In order for the political sphere to catch up with the ideas being passed across tenement corridors or over neighbourhood fences, we also need to communicate optimistic policy agendas which will be discussed in the corridors and chambers of parliament. We are at the point where a significant number of activists (myself included) believe that to strengthen relationships between individuals and community groups is to ready the channels by which we win real immediate, concrete improvements in peoples lives. Common Weal and its distributed network of supporters is exactly one of these vital channels. 

I have seen community organising put into action across the UK. Reflecting on my recent stint working in the Community Organising Unit launched under the Corbyn years of the Labour Party, I’ve also encountered many of the criticisms of this approach. Brought to wider attention in the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 onwards, campaign groups concentrated resources at the grass-roots level, creating opportunities for entry level supporters to take higher levels of responsibility and drive aspects of the campaign. Here in the UK, the very fact that campaigners were more widely discussing and applying organising methods developed by American activists was a concern to some. Building relationships, giving people a sense of their own power in order to alter the relations of power. You can imagine mainstream political voices from across UK parties perhaps feel that the inherent positive rhetoric comes straight out of a middle-class organising theory manual but doesn’t apply itself to our systems. 

The truth is over in the last 6 years, I have seen in the Labour Party and importantly beyond it, community organising approaches bringing successes. From packed town hall meetings, training sessions delivered on every street of an entire neighbourhood, to phonebanks packed literally to the rafters with activists sitting up ladders to make calls. Despite the backdrop of years of austerity erasing the crucial services in our communities and workplaces, activist networks organising together have been able to prevent the evictions of communities or in some cases the demolition of entire estates. The exposure to this type of activism has instilled a new layer of organisers across Scotland many of whom have been tutored by those who cut their teeth in the lead up to the 2014 referendum.

Importantly, this type of direct action organising can and should also be fun. My two year old son was quite delighted to see people heaping rubbish bags which had been collected across Glasgow onto the street outside the City Chambers during COP 26. As Living Rent activists teamed up with GMB Union cleansing workers on strike, over pay terms and conditions. My son especially enjoyed the giant inflatable rat in George Square touring the city that month to illustrate the cuts to cleansing departments and the squalor this was causing. 

Community organising has a place amongst a toolkit of change but public stunts are not the sole approach to influence policy. Returning to the question of how do we reach beyond our networks? How do we redirect those who are angry toward policy change? Well, you will have understood that Common Weal reports and publications aim to create a vision of change at different levels. There is growing appetite for policy papers aimed not only at decision makers but which can simultaneously prepare ordinary people for how their own material situations could be improved. We are going to need multiple approaches, to use another axiom: It is not only the quantity of pressure we exert, but the quality of pressure that will deliver a transformative agenda. 

Common Weal clearly sees a great potential in the networks of supporters like yourselves to relay the fundamental policy ideas. We now have an opportunity to  use these ideas to develop the resources within communities and in the process build and organise our networks. There are some exciting developments in the pipeline, we will be asking for supporters to coalesce around the launches of new policy reports. We will likely be tasking volunteers with taking publications to key networks and forums. We may well be asking you to write to local elected representatives too. That’s a good start: next can you help us devise a series of concrete steps to bring the work of Common Weal to wider audiences?  

I’m going to make some asks of you: 

  1. Sign up as a supporter in our Campaign Centre.
  2. Join in with our Monthly Zoom meetings.
  3. In the coming weeks, help set up concrete-actions that other new supporters can follow to build support for upcoming policy paper launches.
  4. If you speak to someone who is angry and wants to see change the same way you do, ask them: ‘What would you be willing to do to escalate the situation toward change?

This week these spheres of discontent are easy to spot, as Westminster makes a routine early morning jog unable to restore faith with the public. 

To turn anger into determination is one challenge, but to build the structures that can channel it toward transformation is just as urgent. Keep in touch, get involved, help us make it happen.

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