London Citizens has crossed line

This is the third week that the JC has run a story about the activities of London Citizens, and its parent organisation Citizens UK. Respected figures within the Jewish community have questioned why we have chosen to target an organisation which, on the face of it, has been responsible for a number of admirable initiatives.

Campaigns on the living wage and child detention have received huge publicity thanks to London Citizens. "Community organising", made famous by Barack Obama, has been embraced by the political class in this country, and mass meetings organised by Citizens UK have been addressed by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.

Here's the problem. Community organising has its origins in the philosophy of Saul Alinsky, a Jewish intellectual from Chicago, who believed that churches, faith groups and community activists could effect grassroots change outside government, without depending on the traditional political establishment.

Citizens UK, as our story on its collaboration with the UK Border Agency shows, is at serious risk of turning these principles on their head - and becoming an arm of government. It has been all too happy to bathe in the glow of political patronage. It must now accept full scrutiny of its work.

Groups working with asylum seekers on the ground are unhappy about the way Citizens UK piggybacked on their campaigning over the issue of child detainees. As they see it, the community organisers were looking for an "easy win" to report back to their member organisation in order to justify the quite considerable fees they pay. They believed an ethical line had been crossed when a pilot scheme for "community sponsors" was approved by government. There is now growing evidence that Citizens UK has over-reached itself in its desire to control the agenda of local activism.

A number of people who have contacted the JC to voice their concerns have used the word "cultish" to describe the way Citizens UK operates.

Jewish organisations should be suspicious of large stage-managed rallies, designed to give the impression of consensus. And so should serious intellectuals and politicians.

Citizens UK and London Citizens can claim with some justification to have influenced the way people do politics in the 21st century. However, as we have reported, they have attracted some unfortunate fellow-travellers, including supporters of totalitarian terror movements such as Hamas.

Citizens UK did not have to make such a close alliance with the Islamists of East London Mosque and Islamic Forum Europe. It could have sought out genuine liberal voices within the Muslim communities of east London and beyond. It can still do so.

New organisations should do their own due diligence before they sign up for membership of Citizens UK. I am not questioning the motivation of those who choose to sign up, but they should not leave their critical faculties at the door.

My own small employment charity has provided funding for someone working on the London Citizens "Money Mentors" scheme, which provides financial advice for young people. This strikes me as an admirable scheme. But my support for this does not mean that I believe it is a good idea for Citizens UK to have a Hamas supporter on its board of trustees or that is a good idea for them to work directly with the Home Office on its asylum removals policy. Indeed, it is my duty to speak out.

    Last updated: 2:05pm, June 10 2011