The most thrilling carnival of democracy in Britain takes place in the capital tomorrow night. London Citizens, the largest alliance of community groups in the country, are hosting their mayoral hustings in Methodist Central Hall. Anyone anywhere who thinks our democracy or civic activism are having a bad time of it should read reports of the evening, or better still, watch the video and then re-evaluate.
Community organising is massive in America and contributed the politically defining years of a Kenyan scholar's son who now lives in the White House. In Britain, it is taking off in the most inspirational way, delivering policy changes that improve the lives of the poorest people in our cities and re-weaving the fabric of our country. That is why ahead of the last election David Cameron told London Citizens' members (themselves a subsidiary of Citizens UK): "I talk about the Big Society; you are the Big Society."
At these hustings, community groups together agree on policies that will benefit their most vulnerable members. Then they ask each candidate to account for how they will deliver it – or not, as the case may be.
Yesterday's London Evening Standard published a poll suggesting Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are almost tied. This is a huge year for London, which will have the eyes of the world upon it during the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics.
Intriguingly, the policy advantage may lie with Johnson, who will have Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones for company on stage too. He is accused of being a defender of rich London only; but the fact is he has delivered on the agenda for the poor he promised London Citizens' members in 2008. He has championed the Living Wage; argued for an amnesty for illegal immigrants; and delivered a Community Land Trust when Livingstone said it couldn't be done.
The most exciting idea floating around this year involves turning whole communities into job centres. The idea is you find community hubs and institutions, train volunteers to get young people job-ready, and then bring employers there to meet them. Already there have been 1,500 young people placed into jobs on the Olympic Park by this method. Johnson is hooked on the idea. The other candidates will be competing against each other to appear its champion.
Community organising is one viable future for democratic politics in Britain. As support for traditional parties declines, it will grow in influence. I suspect, when our own Obama comes to occupy No 10 Downing Street, future historians will consider tomorrow evening a candidate for the moment of breakthrough.Reuse content