Participating in London Renters Union has been a life-changing experience for me. It has been a major presence in much of the last five years of my life. It was an organisation I loved as soon as I understood what it would be, and I still love it. For the last three years I have been doing a PhD about LRU, continuing my learning journey. Like anyone who participates in an organisation for long enough, I’ve always wondered how LRU can be even better than it is. This curiosity and learning process has continued through the PhD, and I’m writing this post because I now have a clearer picture of a useful change that LRU could make in how it thinks about what it does. The point of this isn’t to blame LRU for anything. The thing that isn’t happening in LRU isn’t happening in a lot of organisations and social movements. What a lot of movements don’t know is that they need to consciously learn more about the people who don’t join them, or about the people who hover on their periphery and struggle to get involved.
Why does this matter? Many reasons, but partly because most people in London still haven’t heard of LRU. Their neighbours don’t tell them about it. Their work colleagues don’t gossip about it. I want everyone to have the chance to join LRU, or to have a chance to reject us at least. One way to make that happen is very attention-grabbing protests like the Gilet jaunes in France. Everyone in France has heard of them because they took over the streets and forced people to listen. Another way to get known, and I think this will work better for LRU, is for the organisation to spread by word of mouth. People will be so excited about what we’re doing, and think it makes so much sense, that they’ll invite everyone they know to join. But LRU doesn’t know how to get lots of people that excited yet, even though it can get a few people excited. Joining LRU doesn’t yet look like common sense to enough people.
As I studied LRU I gradually came to understand the significance of the fact that LRU (including myself) wasn’t spending a lot of time listening to potential recruits who don’t join, or even to members on the edge of the union. To state that more clearly, the ‘core’ members who do a lot of the legwork of running the union often struggle to listen to renters on the edge of the organisation who find it more difficult to be involved, or for whom the benefits of being involved aren’t obvious. In general those core members (like me), often young, white ‘middle class’ (but not always) don’t spend enough time truly listening to people who are different from them, despite the best of intentions to do so. LRU outreach trainings sometimes talk about the importance of listening, but if we’re being honest it’s not often deep listening, it’s just a way of getting to the next part of the outreach conversation (‘If you feel like that about housing, you’re going to love what you can achieve with collective action!’). Real listening assumes that you, the listener, might be wrong about something, and might have something to learn. It assumes that you might need to compromise. Does that sound like a dirty word? Compromise with power is dirty, compromise with ordinary people is often necessary for a movement to grow.
A lot of movements have this problem of finding it hard to listen, but they don’t necessarily know that they have this problem. Jonathan Smucker wrote a book called ‘Hegemony how-to: a roadmap for radicals’ (do read this even if you never read anything else by me!) about one big reason it is difficult to listen properly. He said that a lot of people in left wing movements are breathing a sigh of relief that they have finally found their people. They feel under siege by a mainstream culture that hardens people to injustice, and they want to hang around with the people who still care. So they spend a lot of time talking to each other, excitedly forming new groups in which they feel at home. It’s all very understandable. But over time they often become bad at talking to other people. They say things and put out press releases that signal who they are to other people like them, but don’t mean a lot to other people.
LRU is not the worst at this at all. Most of our press releases are very readable, for example (thanks Comms Officer). But consider this question, which I asked to a few people in the union: “Can you talk to coworkers or ‘non-political’ friends or relatives about what you do in the union?” A few people could, but most admitted that they could only talk about their LRU work to other ‘leftie’ people. It’s a difficult problem and I’m not immune from it, but I believe it has to be cracked. If you want your movement to become widespread, you need to be able to talk to everyone about it. Part of what you need to be doing is normalising your own movement. If you can only talk to selected people about it, that normalisation isn’t happening. That difficulty in talking about it, if we’re being honest, comes from knowing that what we do, as political organisers, is a bit unusual. People who do what we do are pretty niche and we know it.
But here’s where the listening comes in. If you want to be able to talk to anyone and invite them in to your somewhat offbeat activity, you have to understand their position, their beliefs, their experiences. You can’t understand that perfectly for everyone of course, but with enough listening you can gradually get a sense of how people interpret what you are telling them, or what you are asking them to do. This is what social movements need to learn that they often don’t know they need to learn. They need to learn about other people they haven’t met yet. They need to learn about their own fringes. They need to know the social and economic landscape they are working in, through listening to ordinary people. Learning from members hovering on the edge of the movement is a logical first step in doing that, since those people are at least interested enough in LRU to want to talk.
I agree with the reasons Jonathan Smucker claimed it is difficult to listen – we do enjoy talking to people who are ‘like-minded’ and bouncing our ideas off each other, sometimes to the exclusion of talking to others. But I think there’s another reason too. We underestimate how much other people’s life experiences are different to ours. We underestimate how different their lives are, and how this means they think differently. LRU is good at realising that it’s harder for some people to get involved, but not so good at realising that totally different experiences and different life prospects might make people see the world quite differently. We underestimate how hard it is to change your life in order to become an LRU member. And as a result we think things like ‘The most impacted renters must want to most radically transform the housing system’ when in fact what many of them want, when I have listened, is a secure home, by whatever means they can get it. This is not quite the same as transforming the housing system, though it’s possible to find some overlap with that goal – and we should find the overlap, but be aware of the differences. We might also think that ‘The most impacted renters must be the most motivated to sort out the housing problems’, when in fact many of our members in Temporary Accommodation, for example, will willingly say to anyone who listens that they don’t have the time or energy to become highly involved in the union. That statement about who is most motivated can be true for some people, but for practical reasons it isn’t always true for everyone.
So I think we need to listen to each other as members. We should listen too to the people who don’t join us. They might have had perfectly good reasons for not joining us. In fact, within their world, they definitely had a good reason for not joining. That might be rooted in their economic position or their cultural position (or some combination of both). We should think hard about the economic differences between us, and how they make us think differently, and about how to bridge the gaps. And by bridging the gaps I don’t mean just changing what we say but changing what we do. As I mentioned, being a highly involved political activist is kind of a niche thing in our society. So can we really grow a big movement by trying to turn everyone into a highly involved activist? Is there something that we can change about union activity that could help us grow bigger? Don’t we need to negotiate about our activity with ‘non-activist’ type people to make sure they can join us?
And we should learn to talk and listen – about what we do in the union and what we believe – to colleagues at work, to family and friends who don’t normally do politics. All of these people matter. In some ways, if you want a really big movement, they matter more than your friends in the union who already believe the same as you do. Listening to people we don’t agree with is hard. Moving towards their position a little bit is even harder, because it might make us feel we are conceding to a ‘mainstream’ that we don’t like. But the alternative is often to be quite alien to the mainstream, and that doesn’t make for big organising. This might mean rewriting what we think of as ‘radicalism’, as I wrote about in another post, but it definitely doesn’t mean giving up radicalism.
Finally, the kind of deliberate listening I’m talking about is difficult because we’re just not very practiced at it. I think within the union we could listen to each other more with ‘active listening’ exercises like this one. While doing those exercises we need to keep in our minds how different people’s life experiences are, and how strange our way of thinking or doing might be to them. We then have to be willing to not just try and change them (though we can do that a bit), but also change ourselves – what we say, what we do, who we are. We don’t have time to do this type of listening all the time, but we could do it regularly, we could even have a bi-annual cycle of listening exercises that we run in branch meetings. I don’t think I’m suggesting anything that is boring or painful to do. In my experience it’s super interesting to hear about people’s lives and experiences of the union, and a great way to get to know each other. Over time, if we’re willing to make changes from what we learn, it could also turn us into a union that most people in London will have heard of, and that members invite their work colleagues or their neighbours to join without feeling self-conscious about it.
I’ve been saying ‘we’ this whole time, and I will probably think ‘we’ for a long time when I think of LRU. But sadly I am leaving London, and therefore the union. It won’t surprise you to learn that I’m being driven out mostly by the high cost of housing, and because I’ve seen too much to want to be in the private rented sector in London any more. So this blog post is something of a goodbye. I wish I could have stayed longer and tried harder to put into practice this ‘radical pedagogy’, or mutual learning, that I’ve been talking about. I also wish I could have had more energy to do it during my research period. But life intervened, and I know the union is going to go from strength to strength without me. I want to say thank you to everyone I’ve worked with and stood in solidarity with and hung out with over the last five years plus. Goodbye, and I look forward to hearing about the union’s future successes.