building from below: the case for working in residents’ groups

by Dave Spencer

The public sector will be in for a kicking no matter who wins the 2010 General Election – New Labour or the Tories. The new government will plan for jobs to be lost and services to be cut – to a greater extent than we have ever known in Britain. It will not be “decimation” of the sector, because the talk is of 15% to 20% cuts – that is one in five, not one in ten! This is to pay for the £1.3 trillion bail-out of the banks (according to Robert Peston and he seems to know!).

In the 1980s the Thatcher government attacked the working class by destroying much of Britain’s manufacturing base and of course by breaking the power of the miners. Now is the turn of the public sector. The key lessons from the bad experience of the Thatcher years are the lack of preparation by the working class for the battle and a complete lack of political nous by the trade unions and the left. Militancy is not enough – you have to have some basic political strategy other than saving your own skin or building your own sect.

Building from below means preparation at rank and file level in the workplace and across Unions in localities — in the form of Public Sector Trade Union Alliances. In local communities organisations such as  Northampton Save Our Public Services (mentioned in the last edition of  The Commune) need to be built to defend public services against government cuts and attempts to privatise services with PFIs or sub-contracting work out to private agencies.

National networks of these organisations should be established.

We have to recognise that cuts in public services have already occurred year after year since Denis Healey’s budget of 1976 so that working class communities are already demoralised and fatalistic. At the same time District and County Councils have far less power than they used to have and much less than the general public think they have. It is vital for comrades to find out how local government and the providers of public services operate. It’s an eye-opener!

In this situation residents’ groups can play a vital role in raising the morale of local communities and developing consciousness – both by demanding change from the authorities and by taking matters into their own hands. In our residents’ group we had the usual claptrap from the local Labour councillor and Council officers that we could not have a play area for the under 7s in our local park because the Council has no money. Everything went quiet until one elderly woman spoke up: “What you mean is – you’ve got money for them, the bankers, but you haven’t got any money for the likes of us!” There was a chorus of, “She’s right!” and we have not had that argument since. We managed to persuade the Council officers to lend us some skips on the cheap for a clean up campaign of our back entries. A giant of a man came out with his chain saw and had soon cut down all the overhanging branches. We cleaned the area up instead of moaning about it in our meetings. It’s surprising what an uplifting effect that had on the community. It is not revolutionary activity. It is not even reformist. But this is where new “soviets” will be born in my opinion – in the course of struggle. And there is going to be a severe struggle within working class communities when the next government starts the chopping of public services. Resistance has to come from below and existing organisations like Residents’ Groups will be used to fight back. This is already happening. Our local paper is full of articles and photographs of residents protesting about some outrage or other. And not a Leftie in sight – which is probably a good thing!

4 thoughts on “building from below: the case for working in residents’ groups

  1. i think this is a good article but i have major reservations about residents associations and organising on the basis of community/locality. i think that these sorts of organisations can be useful vehicles for getting people organised, if that’s what the people involved view their struggle as being, but the concept that we have a common unity in our community (as in the place where we live) is fundamentally flawed. community organising may overlap with class struggles but does not necessarily have anything to do with class struggle whatsoever or represent working class interests. personally, i have no consciousness of myself or my class interests in terms of the locality i live in, and doubt many other people do. also, as a generalisation i think these organisations are run by and for wet middle class liberals, and therefore are alientating to working class people and do serve their interests. i think there exists a bit of a fetishisation of ‘community’ across the left and right. what do others think?


  2. the second line from the bottom is meant to say ‘do NOT serve their interests’. and i’ve just realised that i sound a bit like the ICC.


  3. Depends, doesn’t it … A North Oxford Residents’ Association would have bugger all to do with the working class even if it was set up by supporters of ‘the Commune’. A Blackbird Leys Residents’ Association would be in practice an organisation of the working class whatever the politics of its creators.

    Dave is unambiguously right that this sort of work is a necessary element of any strategy for a fight-back. But only one element. Once Labour is out of office they will start doing it this sort of community activist work again in order to try to recover their base … and then ‘just doing it’ at this level will be a road only to a new new Labour or Coalition government to the right of Blair-Brown, though such a government will still look nice once we’ve lived through 10-15 years of Cameron & Co.


  4. Carolina is correct about the problem of ambiguities, a community group can sometimes be as vague as ‘public opinion’. Marxists need to be concrete,some campaign are working class in their content, some claim to speak for the working class i.e a load of students who move into a working class area then claim to be its voice. There are some great examples of campaign outside of work such as the Glasgow Rent Strike which fed into the industrial unrest and anti-war movement in the FIrst World War. Most of all the Anti-Poll Tax movement – with riots all over the place and millions mobilising the old Revolutionary Communist Party denounced it as ‘middle class’. As if at somepoints the working class and middle class cannot act as allied against the ruling class.


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