Posts Tagged ‘social action’

Together we are stronger

19/11/2010, 04:42:56 PM

by Jessica Asato

Is social action ‘un-Labour’? On Twitter, I recently praised this Progress article by Tessa Jowell. In it she describes what fun she and her local party had during a day of volunteering in her constituency clearing flower beds, planting bulbs and launching a new tenants’ association. I suggested in my Tweet that this is the sort of grassroots community engagement local CLPs across the country should be emulating.

I wasn’t prepared for the reaction which came from two Labour councillors and campaigners whom I much admire – Antonia Bance and Luke Akehurst. “We’re not Tories; our social action is making the system work for ordinary people, not isolated acts of benevolence”, wrote Antonia. “I’m with Antonia on this”, wrote Luke, “I think it’s a bit tokenistic and a sticking plaster where we need a shield”.

I can see where they are both coming from. Labour people shouldn’t have any truck with the idea of noblesse oblige or that entrenched social and economic inequalities can be transformed by acts of charity. Or “the big society”, for that matter.

But if Labour members plant some bulbs with local residents, this can’t mean that they have capitulated to one nation Toryism? Our history should tell us otherwise. The strike by the Bryant and May factory girls in the late nineteenth century was an impressive display of the growing power of organised labour, but it was still supported by the soup kitchens of the salvation army. Early socialists did not just agitate for justice, they tried to build it through social activism. The two should not be mutually exclusive.

Matt Carter, in his fantastic, if dense, book on TH Green and the development of ethical socialism, writes that this strand of Labour’s early thinking places “individual moral development and character above simple state reforms”. According to Carter, ethical socialism recognises that “however beneficial state action is, it cannot simply force through social improvement”. If one lesson should be learnt from the last 13 years of Labour in power, it is that unless we take the public with us, our progressive reforms will be smashed to pieces the moment we are out of it. Too often, New Labour imposed change on our poorest communities, rather than taking them on a journey where citizens felt they owned that change.

Planting bulbs may seem a far cry from a discussion about the role of the state, but reconnecting with people, in a soggy trousers, dirty hands sort of a way, is essential if we want to engage in a wider debate about what the party should do in power. This is what David Miliband understood when he launched the movement for change as part of his leadership campaign. In his Keir Hardie lecture, Miliband spoke of how the Labour movement was “built on ethical relationships that were forged between people through common action”, and how Hardie embodied this: “Hardie was not a mechanical reformer who tried to bring about change through external control. He was a moral reformer who understood that you cannot create virtuous people by bureaucratic methods”.

Of course, it would be better if the system ran perfectly, with the state keeping flower beds neat and the new tenants’ association not needing Labour’s support to get it going. But there should be more to Labour’s aims than keeping the bureaucracy in check. Our mission should be to help build the conditions necessary for people to become the best they can be, in a society which is the best it can be. Robert Putnam’s seminal paper, Bowling Alone, developed the theory that the decline of situations in which people could interact socially had led to a decline in trust and political engagement. In its simplest form, when we get together with others we develop bonds which make it easier to trust one another and understand differences. We share knowledge, networks, news, jokes and cups of tea, which helps society to rub along better. Facilitating these opportunities should partly be Labour’s role. If we say we speak on behalf of deprived communities, that has to be real, otherwise we take these people’s names in vain.

No one is saying that members from local parties scrubbing off graffiti will solve the deficit or poverty. (Well, except for some Tories perhaps). But it helps to open up a conversation which is far better than “can I ask which political party you usually support at election time”? That has to be a step forward.

Jessica Asato is a social media consultant and Islington councillor.

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