What’s the Definition of Community Politics?

Matthew O’Callaghan

There’s a lot of debate within the Labour Party these days about the best way to engage voters and communities. As the traditional allegiances of paid-up members of all mainstream political parties becomes less defined, the challenge is to think of new ways to excite people about political issues.

Politically active citizen’s are now likely to take to social media to get their voices heard, and to hear its echo from the people that they follow and debate with online, rather than attending formal political meetings or joining branches or chapters of civic organisation.

There is less of a desire, it seems, for people to get together in the same room and to try to work through the grind of managing a traditional organisation or feeding a traditional political machine. Many constituencies have ageing members and struggle to bring in new-blood. It’s a problem across all parties, and Labour isn’t immune from its challenges.

The talk within the Labour Party is to ‘reconnect’ with communities and individuals by re-developing the tried and tested skills of community activism. This idea of community activism is given credence from its origins in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign strategy, derived from the work of Arnie Graf. But it is largely nothing new.

The Labour Party has been embedded in working communities for decades. In its new form it’s essentially being rediscovered by the centralised marketing and strategy teams that now dominate all political parties.

One person who is rooted in this sense of community activism is Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Loughborough, Matthew O’Callaghan. I’ve known Matthew for over ten years from my time in Melton Mowbray. Matthew transformed Labour Party politics in Melton, taking it from a solid Tory borough council, to one that ended-up with Labour in control following the rising tide of the 1997 general election.

Make no mistake, Melton is a tough place for Labour to get a voice, and against the odds Matthew was able to establish a base for Labour in the town by speaking up for the people who are so often forgotten. As the national fortunes for Labour fell, the task became harder in Melton, but Matthew never let go. Seeing off the Liberal Democrats and the British National Party, have been major achievements.

Matthew’s politics are firmly rooted in a strong sense of community. Although he is careful not to bring these things into his political activities, he deserves recognition for his work with the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie association, the East Midlands Food Festival and as the driving force behind the Artisan Cheese Fair. Each of these play a major role in supporting the economy of Melton Mowbray.

These are non-party political, and it is a testament to Matthew’s skills and forbearance that he has championed the needs of small producers and businesses while also working with major producers and government agencies who have the clout to export our local products internationally.

As a county councillor until 2009, Matthew was consistent in his commitment to running regular residents groups meetings. I’ve joined Matthew out on the stump, posting leaflets and canvasing from early in the morning until late at night. I always wondered where he got his energy from to be out and about with people in the town.

There was hardly an issue of the Melton Times when a quote from Matthew wasn’t published, and he can hardly walk through the town without someone stopping him to say hello or thank him for the work he has being doing.

Melton’s loss is certainly going to be Loughborough’s gain, as Matthew is aiming to regain the seat for Labour at the 2015 general election. The early signs are that Matthew will be doing this by embedding himself in the life of Loughborough, getting to know the shop keepers and businesses, the schools and the community groups, both in the town and in the surrounding villages.

It would be worth checking out Matthew’s blog to find out what he’s up to, and how he’s bringing his form of community politics to Loughborough, and how it can win for Labour.

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