The strange cross-party allure of Citizens UK

In recent months one of the lesser known charities in the nation has exerted a remarkable influence over politicians across the partisan divide. During the election campaign, aside from the BBC, ITV and Sky, only one organisation could persuade the three party leaders to come together and debate with each other – the civic activism charity Citizens UK.

In this or any of its other guises – London Citizens and the Citizen Organising Foundation  – the group is far from a household name. But the Con-Lib coalition government wants to replicate its model of working by training 5,000 community organisers across the country as the part of the ‘big society’ programme.

Labour is equally enamoured. Its manifesto promised a clampdown on interest rates charged by payday lenders, mirroring one of London Citizens’ campaigns. James Purnell resigned as work and pension secretary last year to train as a community organiser, while leadership contender Ed Miliband has said he wants the Labour party to become “more like London Citizens”.

In part, the interest in Citizens UK stems from the parties’ need to find some intellectual ballast in an age of political vacuity. The charity has a well-developed philosophy of community organising, based on the thinking of American activist Saul Alinsky, which seeks to bring together faith groups, schools and trade unions to unify civil society and make demands on government and the private sector.

But its strange allure across the political spectrum – it must be the only organisation in Britain to boast Iain Duncan Smith and socialist film director Ken Loach as supporters – merits explanation. For the parties, the source of the attraction is different. For Labour, London Citizens’ underdog campaigns for underpaid cleaners and immigrants represents a way of reconnecting with its roots as well as involving a more democratic, grassroots way of doing politics than New Labour “command and control”.

For the Conservatives, London Citizens and Citizens UK’s campaigns – for the living wage or to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants – don’t appear to make a natural fit. But aside from its political campaigns, the group also seeks to make communities more self-reliant, to solve their own problems rather than looking to the state for help, or, as its own mission statement puts it, “re-weaving the fabric of civil society”. According to London Citizens’ lead organiser Neil Jameson, one of its responsibilities is to make the streets safer. This is quite compatible with the Tories’ “small state, big society” rhetoric.

This is why the government is so interested in training the “neighbourhood army” of community organisers. It also indicates, as far as the big society is concerned, that the Tories’ eyes are probably more directed to the local, community level than they are to the large, service providing charities.