NEWSMAKER: Restoring power to the people - Neil Jameson, Executive director, Citizen Organising Foundation

Mathew Little

As you approach the offices of the Citizen Organising Foundation in Whitechapel, East London, the latest addition to the City of London skyline - a new temple of finance known locally as the 'erotic gherkin' - looms intimidatingly over the area.

It is an appropriate backdrop for an organisation dedicated to holding centres of economic and political power to account in the name of some of the poorest communities in the country.

The Citizen Organising Foundation was set up 14 years ago by Neil Jameson, a former director with Save the Children and the Children's Society, and Eric Adams, secretary of the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

It aims to revive a pre-war tradition of civic activism in Britain involving trade unions, churches and community groups.

Jameson, 55, worked as a social worker for 10 years but became convinced that, in that role, he could not solve the social ills he repeatedly encountered.

"In each post I went to I found myself face to face with the same thing," he says. "Most of the problems people had were concerning poverty and powerlessness. It applied particularly to women. I had a big case load of women who had mental health problems and almost all of them needed recognition as women who could make changes in their lives, rather than servile women looking after kids with a surly husband."

He switched to the voluntary sector, which "could go further than the state" but he felt it was still hamstrung in what it could achieve: "Save the Children in those days was able to look collectively at community problems, but they had royal patrons and they have fundraising problems if they get too controversial . They are part of the solution, I suppose, but ultimately they only go so far."

A Quaker, Jameson decided to follow the tradition's path of 'speaking truth to power' and set up the Citizen's Organising Foundation in 1989.

While the foundation has concentrated on training community leaders, its progeny, the East London Communities Organisation and the recently established London Citizens and Citizens in Birmingham, have set about putting its philosophy into practice as local 'power organisations' for their communities.

Campaigns have been launched and assemblies, attracting up 1,000 people, have been held. Banking giant HSBC was harassed into upping the hourly rate for cleaners at its Canary Wharf head office, developers were persuaded to earmark at least 20 per cent of jobs for local people and funeral directors agreed to introduce a price freeze.

But more often than not, the campaigns have been over the smallest details of life, such as litter. A rat infestation in Birmingham triggered an enquiry by local residents into the state of their neighbourhood, resulting in an assembly which grilled council leaders on the issue. "The bread and butter for us is the street, usually the dirty street," says Jameson.

It may be working in the gutter, but Citizen Organising Foundation's horizons are higher. This autumn, it launches its most ambitious campaign yet - a people's agenda. Mayoral candidates in London and European Parliament candidates in Birmingham will be asked to commit to it at assemblies of up to 2,500 people next spring, ahead of elections in June.

Member institutions such as trade union branches, faith congregations, student unions and schools will build the agenda, which could focus on issues such as a living wage and crime, and it will then be taken door to door for popular endorsement. It has the potential for millions to sign up to it, says Jameson.

Three mayoral candidates in London - the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes, Labour's Nicky Gavron and the Green's Darren Johnson - have said they will attend the assembly and adopt the agenda if they can. Mayor Ken Livingstone and Tory Steve Norris are more wary.

But Jameson believes that the agenda will help to revive democracy in an age when politics is perceived as increasingly irrelevant by ordinary people. "Our big problem with the Hutton Inquiry is that politics is being rubbished further," he says. "We think it will lead to even fewer people voting in 2004 because people are turned off politics. Electoral politics is increasingly just entertainment. Real politics historically has been about what happens in between elections. We want to call politicians back to the platform, which is what our assemblies are for. And also to come up with ideas in between elections."

Jameson is not the only one to posit civil society as the solution to Britain's growing democratic deficit: NCVO's Stuart Etherington has made similar claims. But Jameson distinguishes between real voluntary associations and the professional voluntary sector. "The delivery of services is where the voluntary sector excels," he says. "Teaching people to handle power and come up with their own agenda? Many would say that the professional voluntary sector is part of the problem because they have their own agenda." Jameson prefers to work with trade union branches, faith institutions and student groups "who are real voluntary associations because they don't have to be there".

Despite the potential of the people's agenda, Jameson says civil society in the UK is in crisis, with a civil society audit published by think tank Centris set to show the extremely low levels of participation in community life. COF and its offspring, says Jameson, are committed to "rebuilding institutions where they fail us, and ensuring that shopping malls do not replace our clubs, congregations and union branches."


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