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Citizens are made not born; putting democracy into action

Neil Jameson CBE; former Executive Director and Founder of Citizens UK recently gave a speech for the Allen Lane Memorial Lecture 2018 on the vision, history of UK community organising and contemporary experience. Extracts of his speech are below and you can read his full speech here 

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’.

Thanks so much to the Trustees of the Allen Lane Foundation for inviting me to give this year’s lecture – and congratulations on your 52 years of grant making. Your courageous focus on supporting ‘unpopular causes’ and ‘actions that make a lasting difference, reduce isolation, stigma and discrimination, as well as encourage ‘unpopular groups to participate’ in public life is outstanding as is your more recent decision to focus on promoting ‘social cohesion’.

In 1988, working with Eric Adams, and a small group of founding Trustees and with start up funding from Barrow Cadbury Trust I was privileged to be in a position to try and tackle these challenges and volunteered to be Citizens UK’s first Community Organiser. I took on the specific brief of organising primarily with these crucial institutions of civil society and persuading them to work together for the common good and by so doing learn the tools of democracy – or the craft of politics in action.

Citizens UK’s charitable objective is to ‘develop the capacity of the (disadvantaged) people of the UK to participate in public life and to strengthen their institutions in the process’.

My job, which quickly became my vocation, was to revive the tradition of community organising initially in Bristol, by building a diverse dues paying alliance of institutions - with a multi issue agenda of concerns that had one primary objective – which was to be more powerful!

Power was, and still is, vital to this process so that the members stay and grow in relationship together, learn and develop their politicalness and recognise, through their experience of public life, that the determining factor in winning or losing an issue and thus strengthening the membership, is having the power to be noticed and ultimately taken seriously.

The first broad based Citizens Alliance was launched in Bristol in 1990 made up of 27 local civic groups – mostly Churches but one school and one Hindu Temple.

In 1994 I was invited to move to London and build a similar alliance in East London – in 1996 The East London Citizens Alliance (TELCO) was launched with 49 more diverse member groups including Mosques, Sikh Temples, union branches, Schools, Churches and a University Department. The organising work in East London has grown into Citizens largest and most diverse Alliance- London Citizens - made up of 228 member institutions drawn from 22 London Boroughs and able to turn out hundreds and thousands of engaged citizens at critical times and opportunities like – Elections; Vigils; Celebrations and Accountability.

There are now eleven Citizens affiliate Alliances across England and Wales covering many of our major cities and another seven being built; 47 professional Citizens Community Organisers learning through a Citizens Guild for Organisers plus several sister Projects which have grown out of the Organising work like the London Community Land Trusts (which has recently won 11 sites for nearly a thousands CLT homes) and the Living Wage Foundation which has 4,500 accredited Living Wage employers lifting thousands of low waged workers out of poverty.

This Lecture is proposing that Civil Society needs a sophisticated and on going strategy to develop and support an involved citizenry who can give informed consent to the political decisions that affect them but also learn the tools and have the power to initiate change and challenge injustices when and wherever they take place.

For this to happen I believe that Civil Society needs to recognise and support its core institutions (political philosophers call these mediating institutions) – families, schools; voluntary associations; faith groups; almost wherever people gather in an organised association to seek the common good.

We need to develop a new generation of civic leadership who have learned and will continue to learn the tools and practices of democracy. We need to invest in and support the people and the institutions that they honour and respect and if some fail us by being too narrow or extreme we do not give up on them but simply build new institutions or reform the old.

You can read Neil's full speech here 

Posted on 31 Oct, 2018