Since the general election, the "community union" Acorn has been growing.
On 22 December the Guardian reported on Acorn’s “glut of applications” after the 13 December exit poll. Acorn UK national organiser Nick Ballard was quoted saying “We’ve had hundreds of new members join.”
Acorn has branches in Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, and Brighton, and is best known as a renters’ union. The organisation has been able to turn out pickets of a hundred people to block evictions and has pressured Santander, TSB and NatWest to get rid of rent increase and “no DSS” clauses in buy-to-let mortgage agreements.
In Sheffield the campaign has won selective landlord licensing in parts of the city with poorly maintained housing.
Acorn in Bristol halted the council’s plans to remove council tax discounts for 16,000 of the city’s poorest households. In Bristol and Sheffield campaigns are underway to bring buses under a franchise system like Transport for London.
Acorn’s organising model is based on the ideas of Wade Rathke, founder of the original Acorn organisation in the United States. In the US Acorn ran minimum and living wage campaigns in over a dozen cities, did voter registration drives, and launched many single-issue community campaigns, most notably in New Orleans, supporting residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
At its height, around 2009, the organisation had 500,000 members with 1200 neighbourhood chapters in over 100 US cities.
Rathke outlined an organising method in his 1973 “Acorn Community Organizing Model”. The short document was released on his blog, chieforganizer.org, in 2011, and notes that “there have been many developments and advancements over the last 35 years… but the organising model still provides a useful guide”.
The model offers a tight guide to setting up a community campaign as an individual, external activist, with details down to model agendas for initial meetings. The model expresses some anxious competitiveness about other organisations active in communities. “You need to know what the competition is – to avoid them, freeze them out, and not tread on 'their' issues until after you have built your base.”
Nick Ballard, quoted again in the Guardian, explained his thoughts on the need for Acorn. He argued that communities “need to be organised and, we would say, outside of political parties.”
There is a risk that refusing to build links between community organisation and political organisation will make it hard to win larger-scale reforms. A serious Acorn intervention into the Labour Party could win major ground on housing policy and a range of other issues. If Acorn is able to build a network of working-class community organisations, then bringing those people in to the Labour Party to confront the bureaucrats and careerists who run it and are most of its councillors and MPs would be part of a project to transform Labour.
Callum Cant, writing for Notes from Below in 2017, offers a perspective for Acorn in the UK. He argues that the “model shares a lot of superficial similarities with de-politicised third-sector ‘community organising’. However, the fundamental difference of community syndicalism comes from its orientation towards a political method. Acorn prioritises confrontational and direct tactics which put power into the hands of members on the streets”.
But the confrontational tactics do not automatically make Acorn more political. Organising and being confrontational are not political ends.
In practice Acorn branches are variable, and some not good, as regards space for political discussion. At worst Acorn can narrow down to small groups of better-off people carrying out "confrontations" on behalf of the worse-off, and that activity crowding out political discussion and maybe crowding out self-organisation of the worse-off.
The actions Acorn takes do have an anti-capitalist political theory underpinning them. Pushing for landlord licensing, and standing up to letting agents and the police who defend them, all assume a problem with landlordism in general. Formally the landlords have the right to do what they want with their property, but we correctly do not recognise that right. Fighting for increased public ownership of transport assumes a problem with private ownership.
Acorn offers an important alternative to the world of Labour Party electoralism. It is not enough to mobilise activists to get left-of-centre MPs and councillors elected.
An important lesson of the election is that if Labour is not active in communities, then radical policies will come across as unconvincing and will fall flat with voters. Activists should try to get Labour Party branches to do more things with Acorn and more things like Acorn.
Alongside community and workplace organising, we need a political perspective that can put it in the context of fighting against capitalism and for socialism.