Together we are stronger

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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4 Responses to “Together we are stronger”

  1. donpaskini says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Very interesting article.

    Is there a distinction to be made between “things which Labour activists should do” and “things which CLPs should do as part of a community engagement strategy”?

    Loads of Labour activists (including you, me, Antonia, Luke and many others) spend time being involved in social action, volunteering or working with community groups. And through this work, people help to build relations with others and help to generate all the social benefits that you describe. This helps build support for Labour, as people become friends with other people who they meet through their community group, find out that they are Labour supporters, listen to them and so on.

    But that is slightly different from Labour CLPs “officially” prioritising social action as a form of community campaigning. My concerns about this include:

    1. “Politicising” tenants’ associations and other community groups – a tenants’ group which is set up by the Labour Party is going to be less effective and more likely to exclude people than one set up by local residents.

    2. It can create resentment if people get involved in social action and then find that this is used to publicise a political party during an election campaign.

    3. It isn’t a very effective way of campaigning, and there is quite a significant opportunity cost – time spent clearing flower beds is time which could be spent knocking on doors and reaching a larger number of voters. The Tories devoted substantial resources to social action in the run up to the last election, with no discernable success.

    4. Specifically, it isn’t a very good way of reaching the most disadvantaged people, as this kind of community engagement tends to involve interaction with a relatively small cross section of the community.

    I think the most effective form of Labour-led social action involves volunteers from the Labour Party knocking on people’s doors all year round, asking for ideas to improve the local area and asking if there are any problems that people need help with. Particularly at this time with all the cuts, this is a fantastic way of reaching people who need our help, but who wouldn’t go along to a residents association and might not know about what support is available to help them through difficult times.

    If CLPs are already doing this all year round and have spare capacity to do other kinds of social action work, or want to pilot other kinds of activity to attract new volunteers who don’t want to knock on doors but who could be persuaded to get involved with the kind of work you describe, then great.

    But starting from where we are now, I think the priority is to get every CLP knocking on doors, not clearing flower beds.

  2. Tim Sewell says:

    Sorry Jessica but I’m with the naysayers on this. While helping to start a tenants’ association is a proper and valuable use of party efforts the other activities plainly aren’t. Labour needs to campaign on local issues and help communities to challenge the vested interest which keep their members in poverty.

    Employment action groups, living wage campaigns, social housing campaigns, legal and benefit clinics – these are the types of action which place the party firmly and positively in peoples’ lives; and whether the outcomes are positive or not we show that the issues that really matter to them are ones for which Labour is the only champion – and we reap the benefits come election time.

    If communities have work, decent housing and good education the flower beds will take care of themselves.

  3. Dan McCurry says:

    There are two rules to planting bulbs.
    The first is that we’re not here to put professional gardeners out of business. Planting bulbs should only be done to enhance the contracted gardeners, which it does because contracters come through once every six months only; they don’t indulge in tender loving care, which we do.

    The second rule is that it has to be institution building rather than just a silly one off.
    My adopt a flowerbed scheme is recruiting local people who, like me, live in a flat and have no garden. By adopting flower beds on the estate or the street people get to have their own patch and make it beautiful.
    I started this scheme after noticing the four raised beds outside the Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green. 3 of the beds were bedraggled but one was blooming. It was the one directly outside the Buddhist Centre. It wasn’t their prayers, it was the fact that they water it.

  4. AnneJGP says:

    A really good article, Jessica; thank you.

    I think it is necessary to draw a distinction between what you do as a Labour activist and what you do as a private person, as the other commenters suggest.

    Helping to start a Tenant’s Association is something an outside activist can do; belonging to that same Association is for people who are tenants. If the activist is a tenant, fine; it’s all open & above board and there’s no suggestion of ulterior motive.

    When you’re an MP, like Ms Jowell, or a PPC, it’s above board in the other direction: everyone knows you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t want the pulicity and are (usually) glad of the publicity you’ll provide for them.

    Aa an activist, you need to decide whether you’re a “Billy Graham evangelist” or a “Mother Teresa missionary”. In the former case, you’re passionate about the needs of people in the mass. In the latter case, you’re passionate about the needs of individuals. You can only be effective with individual needs by living amongst the people you care about, but that restricts the number of people you come into contact with.

    Presumably, the people who are “tribal” voters in Labour’s heartlands have become thoroughly convinced Labour voters because Labour activists have a track record going back generations of being passionate about the needs of individuals. And the same for other parties in other places, of course.

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