Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010 taught us that politics is too important to be left to the politicians

Power in Coalition

Across the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, 2010 exposed the limits of progressive politicians, and a growing cynicism about politics generally. Minority governments were elected in the UK and Australia. In the US the Democrats were routed in the mid-term elections and the Republicans were shaken up by the Tea Party.

It was only two years ago that Obama popularised a sense of “hope” and “belief” in politicians. Similarly in Australia in 2007, the “Kevin 07” election led media pundits to proclaim a new dawn for social democracy.

How times change.

They key lesson of 2010 is that we cannot rely on politicians to deliver us “the change we need.” If we want better outcomes on health care, public services or workplace justice, people need to be continuously present in the political process. Hope comes from our ability to set the agenda and place pressure on government to deliver what we need.

But it would also be disingenuous to suggest, “the people united will never be defeated”.

There are many ingredients for building a powerful people’s movement. One is building successful and strong coalitions between civil society organisations like unions and community organisations. There are many lessons about what it takes for community-based coalitions to be strong. Here are a couple of lessons drawn from the new book Power in Coalition.

1. A positive agenda
Successful community coalitions know what they want, not just what they are against.

London Citizens – a powerful broad based coalition of over 200 religious organisations and civil society organisations – did this in 2010 with their successful campaign around immigration detention centres. At a citizens’ assembly in May 2010 just before the National Elections, Citizens UK won commitments from all the prime ministerial candidates around a new immigration policy. Their success came from developing a specific and actionable policy around detention – that all children must be removed from immigration detention facilities by Christmas. The clarity of their demand was an essential part of their victory.

Cultivating a positive agenda is often very difficult for community-based coalitions. It is easier to build relationships around what we are against rather that what we are for: saying no to “Walmart”, resisting “cuts to services” or opposing privatisation.

Yet it is only when we proclaim an alternative agenda that we start to build a new political climate for social change that is consistent with out values. In Chicago between 2003-7, a coalition called the Grassroots Collaborative did exactly this when they turned a campaign against Walmart into a campaign for living wages for retail workers. By developing specific actionable policy alternatives, people can be active in the political process.

2. Less is more
Coalitions with handpicked strategic partnerships are more powerful than come-one, come all conglomerations.

Social movement organisers often have an instinct that “more is more” – the more people and organisations you have around a table, the more power you have. But anyone who has spent time trying to make decisions and develop social change strategies in such a space knows that this practice has limitations. The 2003 Walk against the War Coalition in Sydney was built in this way – 60 organisations who had so little in common that all they could agree on was to hold more rallies. And over time the tension between the groups grew, pulling the coalition apart after 6 months.

Smaller is better. Again in Sydney it was a coalition of only two organisations – school teachers and parents – that built an independent inquiry into public education that ran for 18 months that led to them winning a $250 million policy for reducing class sizes.

The lessons is that there is a trade off when it comes to building coalitions. If you want to be diverse – then slow and steady wins the race. You need to spend time building relationships, trust and leadership before taking action. Coalitions like London Citizens, the Sydney Alliance, the Grassroots Collaborative and coalitions that are part of the Industrial Areas Foundation follow this lesson. They have spent years building before working on issues.

If, however, you want to move straight to taking action on issues – then a smaller network of organisations is critical if you want to work together for any length of time.

Sure – you can call a diverse group of people to come to specific events or rallies – like the One Nation Working Together Coalition in Washington in October 2010 or the Coalition of Resistance rally in the UK in March 2011. But those coalitions will be fragile long term.

If 2010 was the year that we learnt that politicians aren’t the answer, lets make 2011 the year that people make waves by building successful coalitions that can take action for the common good.

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