Interview: Neighbourhood organising in Edinburgh

This piece is based on an interview by Mike Downham with Willie Black and Pete Cannell, who are active in community organising in Edinburgh.

Photo: Artivists at Work

We hope this will be the first in a series of pieces from people who have been organising in their neighbourhoods, or their workplaces, or in relation to the public transport they need to get from where they live to where they work. If you would like to contribute to this series, or would like some help in writing a piece about your experiences of organising, or would prefer to be interviewed as an alternative to writing a piece yourself, please contact the website editor at rs21editorial@gmail.com.

Save jobs, save lives, save the planet!

We are learning a lot from the coronavirus pandemic. The most crucial thing we’ve learned is that we cannot leave our safety to neoliberal governments. You might say that we’ve always known that, and perhaps some of us have. But the difference now is that all of us have lived for months in the presence of death, as it stalks each of us and our loved ones. At the same time, we’ve come to understand that many of the deaths we’ve witnessed could have been prevented had governments put our safety before their profit.

Learning from the pandemic that our governments are prepared to sacrifice us, especially if we are Black, or old, or poor, or disabled, or have underlying health conditions, is a wake-up call not only for how we organise in relation to the pandemic, which is highly likely to continue and to worsen, but also for how we organise to check the still greater threat of global warming.

As people come under increasing daily pressure from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic and its mismanagement, they will find new ways of organising. North Edinburgh like many other communities has a history of struggle, victories and defeats. We tell the story of neighbourhood organising in North Edinburgh not to present it as a model, but so that others can have the opportunity to take anything from our experience that they might see as relevant to their own neighbourhoods and workplaces.

What’s happening in North Edinburgh?

In response to the Covid-19 epidemic and lockdown, 15 community organisations across North Edinburgh got together quickly to form North Edinburgh Covid-19 Foodshare Group. Working collectively they sourced funding from no fewer than 33 organisations, with donations of food and other supplies from a further 16 sources. During lockdown the Foodshare Group delivered:

  • 49,636 hot food meals
  • 53,506 packed lunches
  • 16,683 food packs

They also set up a helpline and a free newsletter, The NEN (North Edinburgh News). The second issue of the newsletter, published 3 August 2020, makes good reading. The cover story is an interview with a single mum who has three school-age boys. She tells how before lockdown she had been going to LIFT group sessions about upskilling and job application. LIFT, one of the 15 organisations which came together to form the Foodshare Group, offers one-to-one emotional, benefits and employability support. By the time her monthly Universal Credit payment arrived the supermarket shelves were bare. Moreover, she would have had to increase the risk of infection to her family by taking the boys with her to the supermarket. She contacted her key worker at LIFT who arranged delivery of essential groceries, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Her main worry at this point is uncertainty about the risk of infection with the boys due to go back to school this week. She’s also very keen to get back to her group sessions with LIFT so that she can work towards a job.

Other items in the newsletter include a community map of contact points; a directory of community organisations; a piece by a volunteer describing her experience of working for Foodshare; and a piece about the opening of The Freshstart Local Pantry where for a weekly membership fee of £3.50 Members can choose 10 items of food stores, plus fresh food as available, plus any cleaning or toiletry items. The membership fee covers this weekly shop each Monday or Tuesday, saving Members an estimated £700 per year.  It allows them at the same time to:

build their social networks, and brings them into contact with people regularly. It frees local people from the constant isolation that financial poverty brings – which in turn allows them to start thinking, planning and looking up – Where do I want to go? What can I do? – and allows people to focus their energy elsewhere without worrying about where their next meal is coming from.

How did community organising in North Edinburgh grow?

The roots of community organising go back to the 1980s and 1990s and struggles over housing and local services:

and against racism:

Over the years, local activity has been sustained through the involvement of political activists, often with strong links to workplace activism.  North Edinburgh have been at the heart of successful campaigns over the ‘bedroom tax’, welfare cuts, privatisation and outsourcing of council services, and service cuts.

For example, in 2013 the UK Government limited Housing Benefit for working-age council or housing association tenants, by taxing those tenants who were deemed to be under-occupying their homes on the basis that they had one or more spare bedrooms. In Edinburgh, 4,500 people joined a march, mainly organised on Facebook by one woman from Livingstone. Along with others across Scotland, North Edinburgh activists picked up the campaign and the Scottish Government, fearing a rising of the scale of the Poll Tax rebellion, caved in and since February 2014 has been paying the bedroom tax on behalf of all tenants to whom it applies.

Again, in 2017 North Edinburgh was the catalyst that brought together anti-poverty activists from across the city under the slogan ‘We are all Daniel Blake’, showing Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake in more than 30 community settings and providing opportunities for more than 3000 people to meet, discuss and organise.  This campaign led to action by single parents in North Edinburgh who were being made homeless through the impact of the benefits cap.  The women forced the Edinburgh Council to drop the court action against one of their number for supposed rent arrears and to pay Housing Benefit to cover the back rent. The critical action which achieved this seminal win was the threat to demonstrate outside the Council Leader’s surgery. The LIFT group, which has played a big part in the community food programme during lockdown is one result of this campaigning.

There is renewed confidence among local activists who have been involved in the response to Covid-19 and a sense that it is possible to win. But the stakes are very high. In addition to cuts in health and care that have already been voted through by the joint board that administers the interface between the services provided by the local authority and the NHS, Edinburgh City Council is looking to make £53 million cuts.  This follows a decade of repeated annual budget cuts that have pared down and removed essential services, outsourced many core responsibilities and reduced the council workforce by more than 2000.

All this is taking place as job losses spread across multiple sectors of employment. Each and every redundancy has to be resisted because, most fundamentally, each job carries a long history of struggle for improved conditions. Each worker has a responsibility to pass on their job to the next generation, complete with the pension and other conditions that have been won. The threat of redundancy, however, is profoundly disempowering. Individual workers can’t be expected to resist on their own – they can only persist in rejecting their redundancy with the collective support of both other workers and communities, who can for example come together with workers to help them to occupy their workplaces, now their strongest weapon of resistance.

While some jobs, like those in Higher Education or the NHS, can readily be seen as fundamental at this point for our future well-being, it’s equally important to fight redundancies in the Aviation and North Sea oil and gas industries. The fight is to save the jobs, while at the same time ensuring that these workers can, with retraining if necessary, transition into any of the many jobs which will be essential for the ‘new normal’, and which are at the same time carbon-saving or carbon-neutral.

Jobs for young people are particularly urgent. Unemployment rates for 16-24 year-olds in Scotland, having in recent years been among the best in Europe, are spiralling upwards, with the likelihood that by Christmas one in three young Scots will be without a job. As the Fraser of Allander Institute reminds us in a recent article about youth unemployment:

any period of unemployment at a young age can have long-term scarring effects, with implications for economic, health and social outcomes.

Some people are asking a key question. How is it that, despite winning campaigns on issues like the bedroom tax and wholesale privatisation of council services, it has not been possible to halt the relentless budget cuts?  In part, this is because the wins have been limited to mitigation of high-profile single-issue concerns. Systemic change hasn’t been on the agenda.  So, every year the council announces cuts across the spectrum of services and continues to outsource core functions.  Every year, hard-hit groups campaign and anti-cuts campaigners petition and lobby. On occasion, specific cuts are deferred or deflected – but the axe still falls elsewhere.  Disparate communities are left to struggle on their own against a hegemonic ideology, which is based on an economic system specifically designed to impact negatively on workers and their communities. This ideology has been reinforced by a slide over a long time in local government democracy – a slide that has reached its nadir in the Covid-19 epidemic, with all the decisions affecting the people of Edinburgh being made by an emergency executive of only 17 of the 63 elected Councillors.

The workplace unions have concentrated on negotiating to prevent compulsory redundancies.  Yet year on year the workforce has shrunk through ‘voluntary’ redundancy.  In the face of harsh neoliberal management and continual erosion of jobs and conditions, confidence and organisation is undermined.  There have been no strikes of council workers in Edinburgh in recent years.  All that’s left is some limited material support for local community campaigns and 11th hour support for community protests as councillors meet to rubberstamp the cuts.

Where next?

This is the question now emerging at the front of the minds of the people of North Edinburgh. Food was what they had to start with – to keep them alive. Now they feel they can move forward. It’s significant that in the space of one NEN issue the name of the group seems to have morphed to ‘The North Edinburgh Covid-19 Group’ without a specific reference to food.

One beneficiary puts it like this:

Its [Foodshare’s] success is an indication of the possibilities of future activity and working together.

The Chair of the Group, Willie Black, says in his Newsletter message, headed ‘Covid-19 is not over: What will the future bring to North Edinburgh and beyond?’ :

…Over the last 12 weeks through the work of local organisations and volunteers we have seen the possibilities of a different normal; one of kindness, compassion and practical support. We cannot lose this. As a community we will be demanding from the Westminster and Scottish Government dedicated funding to enable us to build across our diverse community the support required for all people as the storm of Covid-19 and its consequences continues. Poverty, unemployment and their well-known ill effects on people and society will require our community, in north Edinburgh and beyond, to unite as never before to resist and to demand that funding and resources are found and channelled directly into communities like north Edinburgh. The Council has called for another budget meeting with a predicted level of £53 million cuts for September 2020. Communities and those who have delivered at the grass roots across the city are already coming together with a new confidence, to challenge any cuts and to demand that they are reversed or stopped.

Rather than the dogged annual resistance to cuts and job losses, local campaigners are discussing how to take the spirit and resilience of local community campaigns back into a more generalised opposition to austerity and inequality.  The impact of Covid-19 has shone a harsh light on the tattered remnants of the local state.  The old ‘normal’ is exposed for a system that privileged the private sector – tourism, big hotels, big business and profit – over care, education and the public good.  The just recovery that we fight for will have to bring together community groups and tenants’ organisations, workers, anti-racist and climate activists.

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