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The Politics of Belonging – the Freedom to Belong

There’s a new report out today from Onward, the organisation which describes itself as a ‘new future-facing and campaigning thinktank with a mission to build a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders.’ With the catchy (but long) hashtag #PoliticsofBelonging, the report  The Politics of Belonging, is a data rich survey of attitudes and emotions how we live today. As I have argued that emotions are the blind spot in public policy  I fell on it with enthusiasm.

There’s lots to agree with in the findings. They chime precisely with what we heard in Civil Society Futures.In our own discussions with local people from different parts of the UK, they told us they had little control over their lives.  They felt distant  from others in their communities, and believed that their country was increasingly divided.

People also told us they felt they had not benefited from modernisation and globalisation, and that those who had, lived far away. People felt their own situation was deeply and worryingly precarious. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in their own work on modern poverty, found very similar responses about the extreme insecurity experienced by so many people.

Finally, all of this research shows that, above all, people really want to feel that they belong. This is as true of newly arrived Syrian refugees as it is for people with learning disabilities or those who have lived in a neighbourhood housing estate. All of them feel excluded and locked out of what society can offer.

They are not wrong in feeling like this. We are a deeply divided society, where the gains of modernity have certainly not been fairly distributed. There is huge tension between generations. Younger people feel angry that the benefits experienced by their parents and grand-parents are not available to them. And in turn the older generation fear the insecurity and uncertainty facing their children.

But in our Inquiry we also found hope and energy alongside the despair and anger. In every community we visited we saw people making their own solutions, supporting their neighbours, building bridges, creating a sense of belonging. Academics call it associational life – for many of the people we met ‘it’s just what you do’. From choirs to allotment societies and support circles; from residents’ associations to young people setting up their own enterprises, from Park Run to Refuges at Home, there were many examples of people contributing to the communities to which they belonged.

Churches and mosques, community run swimming pools, long established charities, and new movements and pressure groups all confirmed to us that people have a desperate, visceral human need to belong and will go to huge efforts to do so. From rural villages to inner city estates, across all ages, people demonstrated great loyalty and identification with place.  Our report celebrates the ability that civil society, in all its forms, has to bring people together.

But there was another element unearthed by our research. We found a strong desire for freedom and independence. People want the opportunity to build their own communities, in ways that work for them. They recognise that they know more about their ‘place’ than the chief executive in the town hall, let alone the man in Whitehall. We met people who wanted to devise solutions for their own problems, but prevented from doing so either by regulations, or more frequently the absence of even the smallest dollop of funding to help them get going. Many grassroots groups and organisations told us that their freedom to innovate, to engage, to really help instigate change, were being constrained by those holding power.

Civil society is about change as much as it is about conservation, and we also heard from groups actively pursuing the freedom that they strongly believe they need. The freedom from worry and crippling anxiety for parents with children addicted to drugs and alcohol. The freedom to manage their own housing estates, the freedom to worship and express their faith and their own sense of belonging.

We noted that for most people, and for men in particular, until about 15 years ago, their workplace was their strongest and most profound place of affiliation and belonging. Time and time again we were told that the changing labour market – not just the ‘gig economy’ but also the ways in which companies are rapidly forming and re-forming – meant that work provided less of a focus for belonging. Young people felt that their insecure housing meant they were unable to form the deep human connections that are so important to us all.

So, the diagnosis in Politics of Belonging held few surprises for me. Nor did some of the analysis about how people feel that they and the people and places they love benefit little from a fast-changing world which makes them uncomfortable and resentful.

Inequality and division has a tendency to have that effect.

But it was with  the final words of the report that I part company with the authors. In advice to political campaigners, (and this report speaks directly to the Conservative Party it concludes:

‘reject the freedom fighters and pursue the politics of belonging’.

A whole hearted embrace of belonging doesn’t contradict a desire for freedom and autonomy, in fact it can only enhance it. There’s only a contradiction if what we’re really talking about here is power.  I think it is. When people really belong – to a trades union, charity, community group or a campaign like Extinction Rebellion – they feel a tremendous sense of power. They also have the power to bridge across divides – divisions on grounds or race, ethnicity, faith divide and destroy. That’s why belonging matters. It allows people to set their own course. And with that power comes freedom and autonomy. To separate the two runs contrary to our most profound human impulses.

Any party that wants to achieve power has to address people’s deep sense of insecurity. It has to recognise the vital importance of belonging. And it has to recognise that it is only by strong, shared action – across all the divides that currently afflict us – that we will really achieve the true social change that is so important for our deeply uncertain future. Its only through a renewed and re energised civil societythat we’ll be able to really assert the importance of belonging, and the true value of our own very precious freedoms.

That will mean asking some deeply uncomfortable questions about who holds power, and how they use it. And it will mean recognising that we need a fundamental shift of power. That’s how the real Politics of Belonging works. It allows us to express solidarity with those who are excluded. It allows us to start to mend our dented democracy. It allows us to work together to stitch the frayed social fabric. It makes it possible for us to start making the essential, and increasingly urgent changes demanded by the climate emergency.

That’s what civil society does at is best, and that’s why I don’t think there is a contradiction between demanding freedom, craving belonging, and resisting insecurity.

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Voluntary trustees – are we paying a price for this principle?

Every few years a minor argument breaks out in civil society about whether or not we should allow trustees to be paid. Every few years, someone laments the fact that it’s hard to attract people to trustee roles and every few years someone else says that public trust is helped by voluntary trusteeship, that the voluntary principle is at the heart of who we are and that it would make no difference to the number and quality of trustees anyway. And at some stage we point smugly at the FTSE companies and the NHS trusts that do pay, and tell ourselves that they don’t have inclusive boards either.
And every few years after the row subsides again, I’m left feeling deeply uncomfortable. Partly because I know how hugely I have personally benefited from being a trustee. (I will always treasure the memory of a Very Important Person in the charity world portentously reminding me that no-one should ever benefit from their trust, while I reflect on the personal, professional and generally life enhancing benefits I have received from trusteeship).
But also because the voices of those saying that payment for trusteeship is wrong nearly always come from people who are already trustees. It’s a bit like those people who have already easily negotiated the rickety stairs and narrow doors of a meeting room describing the room as absolutely accessible. Those of us lucky enough to have salaried roles which allow time for trusteeship, or those who earn enough to enable them to give their time, need to be very cautious about advocating a model that may not always work for everyone.

I’m interested in hearing from someone on very insecure earnings, who loses pay every time she goes to a trustee meeting. And yes, advocating for time off (as NCVO does), is important, but it only seems to apply for those in secure, salaried work. I’m interested in hearing from the many people I have met who wanted to join a housing association board but knew that it might imperil their benefit payments because they were no longer deemed available for work. I’d like to hear from young people, scrabbling to piece together an income in really difficult times who would like to take on a role – and are so desperately needed by charity boards – but cannot risk the possibility that they thereby miss out on a shift or a freelance contract that takes them out of town.

I’m not comfortable with a debate that doesn’t ask the views of people who are currently not sitting round the trustee table.
Are we content for our trustee boards to be staffed by people who are either salaried, or on a final salary pension schemes or who otherwise have sufficient income to allow them to make what is in effect a substantial donation to their charity of choice? It’s also worth remembering that many of the same arguments were used to justify MPs not being paid, a stance which ensured that people were only represented by ‘men of means.’

Now I actually believe that on balance there are really strong – indeed compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary. Theoretically, it allows trustees to demonstrate some necessary independence, knowing that their income is not on the line if they present a dissenting view. Non-payment of trustees is still a distinguishing feature of the sector, which recognises the voluntary impulse at the heart of voluntary action. It’s important that people who can afford to, can give back in this way. What is more, for the largest charities which don’t seem to have any challenge recruiting trustees, it’s simply not necessary. And of course the vast majority of charities are not paying anyone anyway. Some would also point out that payment of trustees is a poor use of charitable money, (although if you think good governance is central to the success of the charity it seems odd that this is the one thing we can’t justify paying.)
But we should recognise that all of this does come at a cost. It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price.

But if we are going to reaffirm, yet again, the voluntary principle, then there are things we ought to do much more seriously . We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship. How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. (And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced). We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given.
And perhaps we need to think more about the future pool of trustees. As the ‘job for life’ disappears, we cannot expect employers to continue to release people for trustee duties as part of their development programmes not because they can’t but because they won’t have the same investment. And as the last generation of recipients of final salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?
Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one.

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The canaries in society’s coal mine

This has been quite an extraordinary week in the UK, even in a couple of years that have had more than their fair shares of surprises and shocks. I’ve spent a lot of the last year going around the country listening to people interested in Civil Society Futures and the more I do that, the more I wonder at the surprise expressed by those frequently described as the “political class.”

Nobody who was deeply connected to the communities in Hartlepool and Hull was surprised by the Brexit vote. Those who were surprised were simply not paying attention. Everybody working closely with tenants at Grenfell Tower in Kensington and Chelsea knew about their frequently expressed  safety concerns. They were of course devastated by the scale of the tragedy but they were not surprised. From the treatment of the Windrush generation, to growing  gang violence, to the damaging implementation of Universal Credit – across the country voluntary and community groups, churches and charities,  knew what was happening. But time after time they were they were ignored.

Every system needs early warning. Every system needs to know when things are going badly wrong. Every system needs to know about deep and underlying discontent. In the UK it seems to me that civil society is the canary in our coal mine. Shocks and surprises happen because we are not listening to those repeated urgent warnings.

And a society that does not listen very acutely to warnings of things going wrong, is a society that will always be shocked and dealing with crisis.

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power