Labour’s Good Society & Strong Communities
Let’s do God, a Good Society & Community again
(but not on David Cameron’s terms)
David Cameron says he is evangelical about his Christian faith.
The Prime Minister’s religious messages began last week with an Easter reception at Downing Street, at which he said religion had brought him his greatest moments of peace and claimed “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago”. This is not true.
This reminded me of the chilling days of the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher infamously lectured to the Scottish synod that the most important lesson to come out of the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Good Samaritan had money. That was an abomination.
In a separate article for the Church Times, David Cameron argued that some atheists and agnostics did not understand that faith could be a “guide or a helpful prod in the right direction” towards morality.
I think that Labour should do God, The Good Society & community again. Here’s why …….
Labour’s Good Society & Strong Communities
There’s really no shortage of advice for the Labour Party in the wake of the 2010 general election defeat as it searches its soul. Searching its soul indeed for a vision, narrative and practical policy agenda that will first sustain it between the maelstrom, tedium and emasculation in opposition, and second serve to metamorphose the way the Party connects and sustains a conversation and momentum with the public, now and when back in government.
Some like Alice Miles, look at specific policy issues in trying to determine ‘the challenge for Labour’. She refers to the local election results in May this year when the public failed to reject the Conservatives’ agenda of punitive spending cuts.
She states that “this is the latest evidence that voters have reached a limit in how much they are prepared to continue to fund a universal system of public welfare at ever-increasing cost, which demands nothing from recipients in return, and with diminishingly obviously benefit in terms of social outcomes. This is the challenge confronting a Labour Party trying to find an agenda for the 21st century”.
Cue a signal to unleash Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury in June this year who lamented how “the political debate in the UKat the moment feels pretty stuck”. His sermon to Labour also contained a stark warning “we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like”.
Others inside the Party simply ask for a listening ear, and according to Anthony Parker “despite the influx of young members into the party and despite the importance attached by our leader to the new generation, one question still occupies my thoughts, when will our ideas be asked for?
For the Labour leader though, Medhi Hasan notes how Ed Miliband has articulated “three distinct challenges to which the next Labour government must be the answer: tackling generational decline where there are fewer opportunities for young people; strengthening communities and historical institutions, and reducing the new inequality between the squeezed middle and a wealthy elite”.
On strengthening communities, this is again seized upon by Miliband when he states “going forward, we need to rediscover the tradition of Labour as a grassroots community movement – not for the sake of nostalgia for the past, but to strengthen our party’s capacity to bring about a real change in people’s lives”.
It will then be my strong contention in this essay that indeed not just the notion of strong communities, but its practical out-workings combined with a coherent and definitive narrative of what a “Good Society” is, can help transform the fortunes of the Labour Party, and facilitate the real generational change in people’s lives we yearn and strive for.
Integral to my argument as well is that Labour must rediscover its Christian Socialist principles and values. If as David Landrum has argued “the Bible speaks to politics because God is interested in government”, surely Labour needs to end a 50 year plus hostility and ignorance of its Christian heritage. Moreover it should abandon the “we don’t do God” mantra adopted famously during the Blair years. In summary then a powerful triumvirate of Christian Socialist Values, a good society and strong communities will be the cogent vanguard of a resurgent Labour Party and Movement.
Enough ink has already been spilt debating the ongoing historical arguments and conflicts over Labour’s purpose, meaning and value. Well before the 2010 General Election defeat in May 2010 where Labour suffered its worst election result since 1918 (bar 1983), and having lost five million voters in a thirteen year span in office, a deep seated malaise had engulfed the Party. Back in 2009 Richard Reeves had signalled that Labour was falling, broken and on its knees with no defining positions on the role of market, the purpose of the state, the relationship between individual and social needs, to name but a few.
To further compound the Party’s grief and rub salt into gaping wounds David Marquand miserably opined “it is hard to see why anyone outside the narcissistic ranks of the Labour Party should waste mental or emotional energy
worrying about its current state or future prospects. There is no mystery about the disease that is now killing it. Under Blair, it made a Faustian pact, not just with one devil but with two — neoliberalism in economics and charismatic populism in politics”.
Yet ironically enough it was under the same Blair hegemony that the term ‘community’ spread its tentacles across the UKpolitical discourse. In particular it was noted how “Community workers have always been concerned with the ideological power of the concept of community. We acknowledge its potential to organise oppressed people for collective action and social change. So, with the emergence of Tony Blair and New Labour in the mid 1990s it came as no real surprise that they were quick to spot its inherent power. In his early speeches, Blair spoke repeatedly about the need to renew community to counter the growing fragmentation of life at local, national and even global levels”.
So what it is specifically about “strong community” that would so assist Labour’s salvation and offer a signpost for a new generation? Certainly one salient argument is that in practical policy terms it significantly allows the Party to play to its strengths. We also need to acknowledge an underlying problem; encouraging people to listen when there is still an unfavourable association with Tony Blair and New Labour. So a key challenge therefore is to be identified with something ‘fundamentally different’.
Perhaps the way forward is more obvious than first realised. A huge reservoir and enrichment that Labour should utilise to and dwell upon in order to in build strong communities is to renew its marriage vows with the co-operative movement. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.
Some have argued however that during the Thatcher onslaught the Co-operative movement was effectively destroyed in the 1980s, and what remains is being propelled by a neo-liberal tidal wave. This argument has been powerfully rebutted by
Kieron Merrett as he contends “we are strongest when we focus on how co-operatives do better for people than private enterprises, putting people before profits. That is why the Labour left should embrace the Co-operative movement wholeheartedly”.
Crucially Merrett also highlights how the very message and values of the Co-operative movement also allows a clear dividing line and distinction to be made from a Tory Party determined to shrink the state, whilst at the same time proclaiming salvation in the amorphous Big Society ideal.
‘It’s the community stupid’ – some practical examples
Turning to what “strong community” might actually look like in practice I draw upon empirical evidence from my experience as a Labour and Co-operative councillor.
We should not cease to remind ourselves though that whatever level we represent the Labour Party, as branch member, councillor, MP or MEP we realise all too well just how much the odds can be stacked against us. Not just the rantings of the right wing press that seek to slay us, but as Oscar Wilde so rightly stated ‘Socialism’s great, but it takes too many evenings’. It’s hard and takes hours of hard slog often behind the scenes unnoticed, as we seek to change to society, driven often by the vision of the public good, whether as a school governor, faithful attendee of the local branch meeting, manning the street stall or delivering the leaflets in the rain.
Whilst of course there are notable exceptions in the country, by and large the Tory way is easier and different. No such lingering desire to be involved, to get stuck into those grassroots issues – it’s real lassaiz-faire, exemplified perfectly by Nicholas Ridley during the Thatcher hegemony when he proclaimed ‘local councils should meet just once a year to hand out contracts’. One might well ask the Prime Minister how this notion fits in with his ‘Big Society?’
But what does a ‘strong community look like? I would like to expand how in my own council ward in Broxtowe (Kimberley and Cossall) community initiatives have been successfully built (in particular between 2007 and 2011) campaigns run, with people empowered, leading in turn to much better results for Labour. I am not for one minute saying I have the monopoly on ideas, I know up and down the country there are many instances where Labour councillors are getting their hands dirty, toiling away – often behind the scenes to build a better society. I simply refer to my own experience simply as I can see initially where I got things wrong, and then more importantly how through changing the approach and vigorous campaigning, showing that in the end, it does actually serve to make a real difference.
I’ve been a Labour councillor in Broxtowe,Nottinghamsince 1991. I’ve never enjoyed the luxury of a ‘safe seat’ and in the May 2007 local elections whilst I retained my seat, the other two seats in the three member ward went to the Tories and Lib Dems respectively.
I recall Lord David Triesman when he was General Secretary of the Labour Party (and before he was ennobled) saying how Labour infamously lost the Brent East parliamentary By-election on 18 June 2003 because ‘we had lost our ability to campaign’. This thought remained constantly with me.
In 2007 I’d probably become a little complacent and perhaps taken voters in my communities a little for granted. To correct this in the following four year spell between May 2007 and May this year what I can only describe as an avalanche of campaigning ensued in my council ward. Below are just a few examples of the scores of campaigns that were run in and for the community:
- I started an action group together with local residents (not chaired by me) which succeeded in persuading Nottinghamshire County Council to install a new pedestrian crossing http://www.eastwoodadvertiser.co.uk/news/eastwood-kimberley-news/kimberley_action_group_1_658144
- I worked with another group of people to set up a local farmers market which really got the town buzzing http://www.eastwoodadvertiser.co.uk/news/kimberley_market_brings_out_community_spirit_1_662727
- With another group of people we organised a Community Speed Watch campaign to help make drivers aware of the dangers of speeding http://www.eastwoodadvertiser.co.uk/news/eastwood-kimberley-news/gotcha_reeling_in_speedsters_1_659446 As a result of our campaign we persuaded Nottinghamshire County Council to install 2 speed cameras and interactive speed signs.
- Together with the then Labour MP in Broxtowe Nick Palmer we campaigned for a new integrated transport system in Broxtowe. We launched a huge survey in the local area which elicited close onto to one thousand replies and then we duly negotiated with three major companies Tesco, British Land and Veolia commit £500,000 to a project which has seen bus and tram services in Nottingham joined up, and providing vital services for residents in one particular area with little in the way of public transport http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/Letter-Praise-Phoenix-Park-Flyer-bus-service/story-12226921-detail/story.html
- I now send out a monthly newsletter via e mail to 770 members of the public on e mail in my borough council ward, informing them of what’s going off in their local area. Between 2007 and May this year I issued over 70 newsletters – see http://richardsrobinson.org.uk/work-in-broxtowe/
Together with 2 fellow hard working Labour council candidates in the local elections this year May 2011; the result of all our work in the community culminated in all three seats becoming Labour in Cossall & Kimberley (taking 2 seats off the Tories in the process)
I might here emphasise the significance of ‘community’ is not just reflected in Labour’s ability to campaign at grassroots levels. It’s very much about the quality of people’s relationships and environments, their ‘social capital’, their sense of tradition, place and reciprocity.
There’s a central lesson too stemming from community organising in that it’s essential to build enduring networks around a vision of the common good, bound together by a solidarity and purpose. A stiff challenge we face against the materialistic mindset of the masses, but nevertheless we should not demur.
What I would say is that a strong community is one where there a strong “campaigning” activism! Remember as well that it wasn’t for nothing that Thomas O’Neill, Sr affirmed all politics is local.
Labour will win again where we are strong, and we can be strong when we successfully work with and empower our local communities to thrive.
We need to build the power of civil society to achieve the common good, and to the extent that Labour shares that goal it will surely benefit.
What is a Good Society?
In recent history there’s probably no better place to start than The Compass publication in 2006 entitled ‘The Good Society’ which discusses some critical challenges for the left including how Labour develops progressive policies on health, crime and punishment, work life balance, race, immigration and so on.
There’s little doubt as the contributors to ‘The Good Society’ spell out that the good society is not defined by acquisition or through material prosperity, neither of which has led to personal fulfilment or satisfaction. They do though delineate a path within our capabilities showing just how society can be renewed through the interaction of the democratic impulse for freedom, equality and solidarity.
At this juncture it is certainly appropriate to disabuse any sort of notion that the ‘Big Society’ can equate in any way to the good society. Whilst admittedly Jonathan Chaplin has identified that the ‘Big Society” is far from being just a slogan and has developed a cogent powerful institutional driver right at the heart of the Coalition government in the form of the Office for Civil Society, he has at same time highlighted how four distinctive ‘big society’ policy goals which include administrative decentralization immediately serve to attract criticism. The ‘Big Society’ being nothing more than pure privatisation with the goal of shrinking the state.
Yet in a timely intervention from Maurice Glasman he warns that as social democracy has become neither social nor democratic, this has in turn, led to Labour deserting this land, with the vacuum now being filled by the ‘Big Society’. Nevertheless Glasman is equally adamant about how what the response should be and proclaims “Labour needs to develop the idea of a Good Society as its rival, and such a society would be built on relationships built on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, all the up and all the way down, in politics and within the economy”.
Just what a society embracing reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity might truly look like, encapsulating freedom and equality is clearly not going to be captured within parameters of one chapter in this book. I find it incredibly difficult though to distance myself from Glasman’s compelling vision and analysis of where we need to be. How we get there I suggest, brings me to my last argument, which whilst I accept may not prove universally popular is nonetheless an absolute non negotiable for Labour’s success – it must rediscover its relationship with God.
Where does God fit into the Good Society and strong communities?
Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side’. When we are genuinely concerned about the rights and welfare of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ability, or age — then it’s hard to argue we are not on God’s side. Socialists fight for these rights.
However awkward and uncomfortable it may be today for large swathes of the Labour movement to embrace and acknowledge a specifically Christian identity, Paul Bickley has reminded us of an unmistakable “historical taxonomy of the key connections between Christianity and the labour movement”. Furthermore James Green has asked a very straightforward question “we don’t do God, but should we?”
Jon Cruddas then identifies “the problem with Labour is that it used to be religious and civic and it’s now secular and statist – and I think there’s something to that. Labour at its best was pluralistic. You had different classes, different faith traditions, different philosophical traditions, and the policy programmes were the resolution or the reckoning of those different traditions. Now you have a hollowed-out party which is about retaining power. There’s no policy architecture or infrastructure to provide a reckoning from different groups within it. We need to return to our history, in terms of rebuilding that pluralism, rebuilding space where different traditions can rebuild and articulate their different propositions, and these can be resolved and respected in a tolerant manner, and a different policy agenda can be developed accordingly”.
Whilst we know the Tories will always claim Christ as their own, the moderate Muslim Mehdi Hasan has unswervingly responded how “in word and deed, the son of God was much more left-wing than the religious right likes to believe”. Undeterred Hasan is emphatic “Love your enemies. Renounce your wealth. Pay your taxes. Help the poor. Cure the ill (for free). These are the hallmarks of a left-wing, socialist politics. What Jesus wouldn’t do is allow the rich to get richer, give a free pass to the bonus-hungry bankers and invade one foreign country after another. It is difficult to disagree with Wallis when he says: “The politics of Jesus is a problem for the religious right.”
To conclude it’s hardly a secret that the that the financial crash and the deficit that it generated is the focal point for the political background for the foreseeable future and certainly at the next General Election.
The title of this book and the ideas contained in it are however designed to propel us to a higher plane, to renew and refresh ourselves in opposition, ready to lift the Labour movement to an apogee. A ‘Good Society’ and strong communities must be at its very core.
There then seems to me to be an extricable and interwoven link between a re-awakening and sense of an awareness of a living relationship with God and the benign implications for society. The Peterson translation of Isaiah 58 reads “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore the old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community liveable again”. (note the word community)!
Let’s do God, a good society and community again.
1 Miles, Alice, The truth is that Lansley’s NHS plan doesn’t go far enough”, in New Statesman, 16 May 2011, p 23
2 Williams, Rowan, The government needs to know how afraid people are”, in New Statesman, 13 June 2011, p 4
3 Ibid. p 4
4 see Anthony Parker / @anthillel Mar 22, 2011, Harnessing the new generation,
5 Hasan, Mehdi, “Enough of these hazy, vacuous and contradictory attacks on Miliband”, in New Statesman, 30 May 2011, p 12.
6 see Miliband, Ed, preface, in “The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox”, The Oxford London seminars 2010-2011, eds Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White, p 8
7 see Landrum, David, series forward, in Bickley, P, “Building Jerusalem? Christianity and the Labour Party”, Bible Society,Swindon, 2010, p 1
8 see Reeves, Richard, (2009), What next for Labour? Ideas for the
progressive left, http://www.demos.co.uk/files/What_next_for_Labour_.pdf?1244746884 p 7
9 see Marquand, David, (2009), “Wait for the next StPaul”, in What next for Labour? Ideas for the progressive left,
10 see “Blair’s Community: Communitarian Thought and New Labour Community” in Development Journal (2008) 43(2): 259-261 http://cdj.oxfordjournals.org/content/43/2/259.extract
11 Merrett, Kieron http://kieronam.net/?p=107 January 12, 2011
13 see Rutherford, Jonathan & Shah Hetan, in “The Good Society”, Compass programme for Renewal,Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 2006
14 Ibid. p 15 – 19
15 see Chaplin, Jonathan (2011) “Why a “Just Society” must also be a “Big Society”,
16 Glasman, Maurce, ‘ Labour as a radical tradition’ in “The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox”, The Oxford London seminars 2010-2011, eds Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White, p 27
17 Bickley, Paul, “Building Jerusalem? Christianity and the Labour Party”, Bible Society,Swindon, 2010, p 7
18 Green, James (2011) http://www.labourlist.org/we-dont-do-god-but-should-we
One might take note as well of the words of Andy Hawthorne OBE a British evangelist, author and founder of The Message Trust at the National Prayer Breakfast in Parliament in June 2011 when he argued that the “problem is not so much that Labour doesn’t do God, it’s that it doesn’t do Jesus”. This in itself is a powerful narrative for the renewal of the party.
20 Hasan, Mehdi (2010) http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2010/12/jesus-god-tax-christ-health
22 Peterson, Eugene, “The Message The Old Testament Prophets”Navpress,Colorado, Navpress, 2000, p 136
This article appeared in “What Next for Labour” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_next_for_Labour%3F