Some people say we’re losing our sense of community spirit. That’s just not true. Across the country there are 20 million people that volunteer in their local areas. In the last few days I’ve met people running grassroots sports clubs, helping people to believe there is life after a stroke, acting as a governor for their local hospital and stewarding a charity fun run in the rain. All of them give up their time for people who aren’t their immediate friends and family. All of them are deeply committed to doing things for other people’s benefit.
In Wigan, where I live, that sense of community remains strong even though we have come under the most incredible strain in the last few years. It’s remarkable. It gives me hope. To plagiarise William Wordsworth, it makes me ‘feel that we are greater than we know’.
David Cameron claimed that Britain is broken, but we know that the challenge and opportunity for a Labour government is to harness, utilise, support and strengthen the energy and creativity that exists in all of our communities. Here are five ways we plan to do that:
1. We will do things with you, not to you.
Solutions don’t lie in Whitehall or town halls, they lie with people, families and communities. So instead of rolling big, national programmes that ignore local realities, a Labour government will find what works locally and invest in it.
2. We will start with the potential people have, not the problems they pose.
When I worked with homeless teenagers it struck me that so many services were unable to take an interest in what they had to offer. There were services for tackling drug abuse, programmes for people with alcohol addiction and mental health problems, but nothing to channel the ambition, warmth and intelligence of those young people.
3. We’ll recognise that the biggest asset anyone has is good, strong healthy relationships…
… and we’ll support and invest in them. Whether that’s helping you stay in touch with your friends if you have to go into care, or ending 15 minute home care visits. No amount of professional help is a substitute for someone that knows you and cares what happens to you.
4. We will not abandon you.
We understand that inequality exists. Some communities are under huge strain. The Conservatives’ idea of the Big Society is that the state should get out of people’s way, but that leaves some to swim while others sink. So we will make sure that we create a framework where people can get involved, by raising the minimum wage, extending the living wage and free child care, freezing energy bills and creating jobs and apprenticeships, so that people have the time and resources to get involved.
5. We’ll be realistic.
Giving communities more power isn’t an answer on its own. Autonomy should go hand in hand with accountability. As we’re seeing in schools and hospitals, without strong accountability we all lose out. And there is still a role for government, to help set priorities, share resources fairly and ensure all peoples’ voices are heard.
In a way it is a radical, big leap from where we are now to where we should be in 2020, but in another sense it’s not radical at all. The Labour party was built out of voluntary associations and collective action and our strength has always been in our grassroots. This is about putting Labour values into action.