The Sleeping Giant of Communal Action.
The election for the Labour Party leadership has been a constant fascination for the UK media. Not a day goes past without some article, editorial, TV and radio interview raising some spectre or other about Jeremy Corbyn; the surprising front runner in the race. Labour having been roundly beaten in the General Election seemed to be going through the motions of another leadership selection which too often feels like moving the deckchair on the Titanic. Then a few fair minded Labour MP’s decided to nominate a left-wing candidate who has consistently put forward an agenda based on socialism rather than the Thatcherite-Blairite hegemony that has prevailed since 1979. Corbyn went from rank outsider to becoming the firm favourite (according to the opinion polls – which always need a pinch of salt). This has caused the Labour establishment and the majority of the press to have kittens (to use a good earthy expression).
One of the most common spectres haunting the pages and airwaves is that of 1983. This was the first election I was able to vote in, and the common narrative is that Labour wrote the longest suicide note in history – being their manifesto. Michael Foot the left wing leader of that time was an easy target for the press, with his slightly eccentric image and duffle coat. He was in fact highly intelligent and a great orator. He was not only a politician but a man of letters, (he wrote a biography of Aneurin Bevan – architect of the NHS). Unfortunately his left wing policies had been discredited by the winter of discontent and a powerful right wing lobby led by a strident Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers. The people of the UK were not prepared to trust a socialist agenda and wanted to try the new Laissez-faire, privatising economics that the Conservative Government had imbibed from Milton Friedman and the Chicago school.
It seems to me we are in a very different place now. There is little left to sell off. Austerity has been the order of the day. We are experiencing a new phenomenon for my generation, that our children will be worse off than we are. My Mother and Father’s generations worked hard for a world where their offspring would thrive. I am reminded of the stories that my Parents and Grandparents told me about the General Election of 1945. Labour, under another bookish and unostentatious leader, Clement Atlee, swept to power on a wave of optimism and the promise that they would implement the Beveridge Report. A Liberal Don, William Beveridge had identified what he named the five giant evils – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.
Rather than focus on the austerity needed to emerge from the post war privations – rationing was in place until the 50’s, – they sought to combat what the report identified as communal blights with nationalisation, and a huge programme of public investment in a better future for all citizens (notice citizens not customers). One can argue the merits of the particular ways this was done but it is harder to argue that things like the National Health Service (still a jewel in our crown – remember the opening ceremony of the Olympics), slum clearance and the provision of affordable housing, far more equal access to education, a safety net for the destitute and poor were not a triumph over the giants. My Mother, who voted Conservative for most of her adult life, argued vociferously that the War and Post-War periods were the most cooperative and communal this country had ever been. ‘We looked after each other, the war had levelled more than our houses and it brought us together’. It created a common cause across the boundaries of class, race and gender.
The economic and social climate is not as it was in ’45, we are relatively better off. What, I wonder, is the communal climate? I have spent many years of my life working in community development. I worked for 3 years in the mining communities around Doncaster and lived in Maltby a Pit town, near Rotherham, during the Miner’s Strike. I became adept at taking the communal temperature of a place. What was under attack in those areas was the whole infrastructure of dignity. The pits gave people a sense of place and where they fitted in the world. I am well versed in all the arguments as to why pits were closed but what continues to horrify me is the crass and almost total disregard on the part of the establishment for the people left behind. After the war we, in this country, agreed to care, to work for the progress of all, to build a society where our children could thrive. The communal malaise that started in 1979 has been wittingly or unwittingly (depending on your point of view) allowed to flourish under the coalition and now the Conservative government. We are told that we shouldn’t have to pay for others, whether it be third level education, decent social housing, care for the elderly, that the market in some form or other is the best provider. We are encouraged to engage in an emperor’s new clothes type of blindness that denies point-blank that the same market that provides actually caused the continuing financial crisis in the first place, and because democracy doesn’t reach into the corridors of the city traders or the banks very few of the culprits have been held accountable.
Just to take one issue – that of housing, a major cause of the giant evil of squalor in the 40’s. My two eldest children have studied and lived in London. For a year they lived in an ex-council flat in Bethnal Green. When I was involved with Tenant’s Associations in the 90’s it was considered an hard-to-let estate. Under the much vaunted ‘right to buy’ policy this particular flat had been purchased by a private landlord and now was on the market at £2500 a month for a four bedroomed unit. Probably at least double what their council tenant neighbours were paying. The lack of affordable housing does not create the mass squalor of the tenements and slums, but is does create a debt culture and severely diminishes equality of access to large swaths of the capital and other major cities. Without communal action and a cooperative social commitment things will only get worse. The latest assault on social housing known as the ‘right to buy’ housing association stock will only continue the trend. In an excellent article in the Observer on the 16th August 2015 Matthew Taylor has this to say. ‘As long as the incentives are to hoard surplus property rather than dispose of it, a problem George Osborne’s recent inheritance reforms will make worse, the obscene coincidence of massive housing shortage and massive under occupation will continue.’
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise has caused a great increase in the membership of the Labour Party and a growth in the engagement of the young, similar to the ascent of the Scottish Nationalist Party on the back of the referendum. It could be that the sleeping giant of collective action that was wide awake in the post war period may be stirring and the quiet man in the open necked shirt could be an appropriate stimulant. Matthew Taylor goes on to say: ‘solving the housing crisis might mean the public, particularly those who have done well, adjusting their aspirations. The measure we must set for our housing is not whether it makes us rich but whether it enables us to live well.’ Living well would be a key determinant of any assessment of the communal climate – are we enabling and encouraging each other to live well. Not just ‘well’ for me and mine but well for my street, my village, town or city, my county and my country. As Matthew Taylor concludes. ‘The problems of housing affect most of us. The solutions need to involve most of us too.’
I hope that whatever happens in the Labour leadership elections the spectres, or are they the angels of social concern, communal action, and a commitment to again slay the modern versions of the five giant evils, will visit us again.