Stepping into Labour's gap

Observations on citizens' groups

Two political events, worlds apart. The first, on 22 September at Stratford Town Hall in London's East End, for the delegates' assembly to launch the ninth year of Telco - the East London Communities Organisation. The hall is buzzing with anticipation and energy. Delegates from churches, faith groups, trade unions, schools and community organisations sit around tables as a roll-call of 40-odd local institutions pay their dues in the form of a cheque placed on a collection plate (Telco is totally funded by the groups that join it). Four speakers outline the successes of the previous year's campaigns on winning a living wage, affordable housing, work schemes for the young, and safer, cleaner streets. As each speaker honours the success of the past and each institution pledges its commitment to the future, applause rings round the hall.

Switch to later that month and the conference centre in Brighton, for Labour's annual shindig by the sea. Here, the event is stage-managed to project the right image for the TV screens of a few swing voters in a handful of swing seats who will decide the outcome of the next general election. The sound of applause also rings round the hall and delegates dutifully get to their feet when the Prime Minister finishes speaking. Audience reaction comes largely from "activists", who know their place as the postmodern backdrop to finely tuned professional speeches. At best, they feel uneasy about Iraq and tuition fees, but they are still too traumatised by the long years in opposition to do anything about it. At worst, they feel utterly betrayed. For most, there is no sense of an alternative to new Labour's drift to the right.

Back in Stratford, the citizens of east London speak about their anger - about working all hours as cleaners, about never having time to see their children or enough money to live off. They are exercised, too, about Britain's 2012 Olympic bid, which proposes to house part of the games in their community. A "video letter" from local schoolchildren to Sebastian Coe, the leader of the bid committee, is shown; it makes Telco's case for a London Citizens' Charter to be built into the bid and calls among other things for the Olympic site to be a living-wage area. As one delegate puts it, "Will the Olympics bring more riches to east London, or just more rich people?" If Coe and his cohorts ignore Telco's demands, then the group will lobby the International Olympic Committee directly when it visits London next March - and for Coe, it will be a PR nightmare.

Unlike the delegates in Labour's hall, who feel impotent within their party's centralised machine, Telco members put people on the streets, get reports in the media and organise stunts at the AGMs of big banks to challenge the millionaire chairmen who refuse to pay their cleaners enough to live on. They understand that big business must be confronted by might - that concessions have to be won from a position of strength. They know they need agreements in writing before they ease off. This is raw politics at its best.

Telco is not a replacement for Labour. It faces a long march as it spreads slowly from east London into new communities in the capital and other British cities. Only Labour can synthesise a set of left-wing values and offer the prospect of radical national government. Yet Telco shows us a way forward in terms of structure and campaigning style. As such, it represents a return to the founding principles of the Labour movement. Like the mutuals, co-ops, friendly societies and trade unions, new bottom-up citizen-based groups such as Telco understand that vision and realism come together through the practice of self-help.

Telco exists because Labour has left a vacuum in the communities it used to represent, both ideologically and organisationally. In some ways that might be a good thing. The people at the hall in Stratford certainly looked liberated by their experience of self-help success.

Neal Lawson is chair of the democratic left pressure group Compass (www.compassonline.org.uk) and managing editor of the Labour journal Renewal (www.renewal.org.uk)