It’s a self-organised space—a community hub and an information point—run outside of the logics of the marketplace, primarily used for political organisation, community solidarity, and mutual aid, as well as a place to experiment with alternative ways of living and being together that challenge dominant and unjust social norms.
Social centres in the United Kingdom have provided an important backbone for the extra-parliamentary left in the recent decades. The roots of the UK’s social centre network (a name given to the national coordination of local social centres) can be traced to the early coordinating efforts between radical, self-organised spaces created by activists during the 1980s and early 1990s, such as 121 Centre, Centro Iberico, Wapping Autonomy Centre, Warzone and the still extant 1 in 12 Club in Bradford.
While many of these projects took inspiration from similar initiatives that existed in Europe, in particular Italy’s tradition of radical community centres, others drew their influence from the history of working men’s clubs that had once provided a significant role in the early life of the UK’s socialist societies and local Labour Party and trade union activity.
During the 1990s a wave of new squatted social centres sprung up across the country, centred around “social-movement” activism, which quickly became important community resources, providing meeting spaces for national campaigns against the Criminal Justice Bill, the Poll Tax, and the then government’s destructive road building scheme.
Social centres provided activists with a space to organise but also with a means to foster counter-cultures that were odds with the values of capitalist society, as well as places for local activists to congregate, socialise, and form new communities.
What linked these different social centres together was a shared belief in the anti-authoritarian principle of “self-management.” As such social centres were democratically organised and self-funding (not reliant on the state). While social centres are fewer in number nowadays, they continue to play an important role in activist organisation.
While there is no single type of social centre they all share common features: a bar, café, or community kitchen for socialising, an information point or “infoshop” where people can pick up campaign literature or get information about benefits, housing or workplace issues, health care, or union support.
Social centres provide a valuable meeting space for marginalised communities that are either priced out or made unwelcome in commercial settings.
As COVID-19 has for the foreseeable future cancelled physical experiences of community, we need to create useful, productive, and radical spaces online that can inculcate the best lessons of the social-centre tradition: the free exchange of useful information and the creation and coordination of campaigns.
As such, Labour Transformed has created this Virtual Social Centre as an online place to house information and bring together different groups and solidarity strategies emerging in response to the threats presented by the combination of COVID-19, the financial crisis, and principles of governance wedded to maintaining class inequality and the exploitation of financial capital.
It is hoped that by placing mutual aid initiatives, workplace, and community union information in one space, we can introduce different groups to unfamiliar ideas, inspiring new strategies and coalitions in order to strengthen solidarity between local and national campaigns today and looking forwards to the future.
The virtual social centre hosts regularly updated information regarding the latest public health and social security guidance, information about housing and workplace campaigns, union advice, and reports from self-organised initiatives alongside those from local Labour Party groups and the wider labour movement. We hope this space will provide pathways towards greater coordination across the movements emerging to combat COVID-19 from below.
We want to produce a non-sectarian and non-rivalrous space for the movement as a whole, and we welcome participation from across the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left, as well as from community and faith organisations.
We see the crisis confronting us as a humanitarian one, and one with origins in the present social order—capitalism.
We see the hope of a new world, one based on mutual aid, solidarity, and compassion in the current efforts of people to self-organise for our collective survival. Mutual aid and solidarity are the bedrock upon which socialist movements were historically made. They also hold the blueprint to a future society—one no longer based on competition and individualisation but on collective human flourishing and happiness.
We are still in the process of adding material and information and we expect this site to expand in the coming days and weeks, so please keep checking back. The Virtual Social Centre has been made possible through the collective efforts of a number of people, each contributing to and shaping what you see here. We invite you to join with us in expanding it further. You may submit suggestions and links to resources in this form below or submit a new FAQ in this form. Knowledge is power, and solidarity is strength.