The Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman caused a ruckus last month when he accused the charity Locality of being "well-intentioned busybodies" and "toffs" who took a "paternalist" approach to helping deprived communities.
Glasman, who was put forward for his peerage by Labour leader Ed Miliband in the new year honours list and is seen as a key figure in setting out Labour’s response to the big society, received some strong criticism in response. Jess Steele, director of innovation at Locality, called him "obnoxious" and a "London-centric egotist", and accused him of insulting community groups.
Sitting on the terrace at the House of Lords, Glasman says he is not troubled by the spat. "I’ve been called much worse," he says. "But I really wasn’t looking for a fight. I was trying to make the point that there is a long-standing conflict between community organising and community development."
Glasman, an academic who specialises in political theory and has been closely involved with the community organising charity London Citizens for the past decade, says Locality represents a tradition of community development that stems from Victorian settlement houses such as Toynbee Hall, which he calls "a form of patrician charity to the poor".
He says the last Labour government followed this tradition. "New Labour’s community development work was all private-sector driven, consultation-tinged regeneration that was done to poor people rather than being controlled by them," he says. "I found it, on the whole, a massive waste of money.
"I don’t think Locality represents any significant change in this tradition. It remains an astonishing fact to me that it should claim to be community organisers. It is claiming to be something it’s not, and there’s going to be a battle about that."
Glasman is aggrieved because the government recently awarded Locality a £15m contract to recruit and train 5,000 community organisers and set up an institute for community organising – a contract for which London Citizens also bid.
He says the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his adviser, Steve Hilton, visited London Citizens and asked how they could help, to which the charity said the government should endow an institute for community organising. "When we saw a contract for just that, we decided to test whether it really believed in it," Glasman says. "We didn’t think so because we couldn’t imagine a Conservative government – or a Labour one – actually giving local communities the power to organise against it.
"But we put in a bid to see if it would and, sure enough, it didn’t. In fact, it was given to Locality, the very organisation opposed to that. It was a test, and the big society’s promise of people power failed it."
Glasman says another example of this failure can be found in the Cabinet Office’s support for public sector staff setting up mutuals to deliver services. "This is just a pathway to marketisation, because there are no asset locks to prevent the services from being privatised," he says. "I don’t see any anywhere. I can’t just let that ride."
Glasman is helping to formulate Labour’s response to the big society agenda – he is a member, alongside the shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell and the shadow civil society minister Roberta Blackman-Woods, of the party’s voluntary sector policy review team. But he has strong objections to the last Labour government’s approach to helping communities.
"Labour freed up enormous amounts of money for third sector initiatives, which was magnificent," he says. "But it also became too statist. Charities became very reliant on state funding to pursue their agendas, so charities became distant from local communities. Despite all the funding, there was no transformation of the lives of excluded poor people."
Glasman says he is optimistic about Labour’s potential to change. "The greatest gift of the big society will be the renewal of the Labour Party," he says. "If it takes civil society and people power seriously, and listens to people who have a following in their own communities, it will find that it has reconnected with its own political traditions."
But is the party capable of making that shift? "Yes, I think it is," he says. "It’s just a question of when, and that time might not be now."
Glasman thinks the distinction between community development and community organising should be the motif for the next election campaign. "Real organising lets local communities set an agenda and fight for it, but community development is top-down, driven by middle-class outsiders," he says. "If Labour was seen as the champion of communities and the coalition as the developer, the outsider – that would be a great campaign."
CV: Lord Glasman
2011 Appointed a Labour peer
2011 Reader in political theory, London Metropolitan University
2003 Leader, London Citizens