This week I was asked to write a  guest blog on Tiger de Souza’s great website and was delighted to do so.  This is what I wrote –

Last week, an unusual thing happened. The internet was buzzing with a story about a parish council. Was this local governance getting some publicity and attention at last? Was social media going to finally help the public understand better the personalities, and the behaviours that are part and parcel of local community democracy? Sadly not. What we learned from a recorded and edited version of a Handforth Parish Council  meeting was something rather different.

The Handforth Parish Council meeting that descended into chaos

We could treat ourselves to the sight of technology tripping up a group of mainly elderly citizens. Then we could roll our eyes at the display of petulance, bad manners and temper tantrums, and gawp at the endless bickering over arcane standing orders, and finally, we could join in congratulating the stoicism and diligence of the clerk – there was even a hashtag #ImwithJackieWeaver to accompany a round of admiring media appearances.

We witnessed a number of men railing at a woman who was trying to introduce order. We watched as they proved themselves completely incapable  of dealing with running a meeting without shouting and insulting others. And we witnessed the way that the rules of engagement  – the much pronounced standing orders –  did nothing to help matters progress. Small wonder that we looked on with horror, and anyone who has never engaged in any local or  community action,  made a silent vow to avoid any such activity in the future.

Well, right now we can all do with a laugh and a viral clip of a disastrous meeting hit the sweet spot for many of us. But along with the hilarity, it’s worth thinking about four other things that the recording showed:

  1. It is hard to imagine that  any woman, who has ever attended a meeting – parish council or otherwise – did not wince with recognition at the naked and aggressive misogyny on such blatant display in this event. The sight of a woman, keeping calm and carrying on, when all around were bawling at her, insulting her or laughing at her maniacally is an all too familiar one to those of us who have been involved in making the hard slog of local democracy and community engagement work. Of course, this was an extreme example, but a quick poll of women friends and colleagues showed I was not alone in having flashbacks to many an unpleasant and difficult meeting.  And sadly none of us were remotely surprised that no one intervened to stop the appalling behaviour. Not one of the people on the call seemed to have either the awareness, or the willingness, to speak out against such bad behaviour.
  2. We all talk about the need for difference in community organising. We know how important it  is that younger people join in and take on leadership roles. That they are made available to people from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people and with all of us so they can genuinely reflect the rich, diverse and varied communities they serve. This was an object lesson in understanding  why that desire needs much more than talk. As I laughed at the video, I also knew that all too many meetings actually seem just like Handforth’s, and that if you are new to this work, it will look as bizarre, as ill-mannered and as intimidating as this one did. We have to behave differently. And that take practice and serious attention.
  3. Handforth’s travails also highlighted that skills and training are needed when people who care passionately about their community, are put in a room together and start talking. Time after time we talk about the importance of engaging residents, of involving those with ‘lived experience’, of the importance of ‘local participation’ – and then we expect people just to get together (on zoom or for real) and we stand back. Then we are either amazed or delighted when things go wrong. Board members of PLCs get training, and expensive board evaluation.  So do those sitting on the boards of housing associations and hospital trusts. But members of community groups are all too often just given an impossible task  and told to get on with it.  If they are given any rules, they are often in a format (those dratted standing orders)  that do nothing to help genuine engagement; that give no ideas for generating vital and authentic debate and that do nothing at all to protect the voices that are too often shouted down or ignored.
  4. And yet local democracy has never been more important. We’ll never get through our current  terrifying predicament without people prepared to get involved and make change happen. If they suffer abuse, are laughed at and challenged with hostility, can we be surprised that they don’t come back? If the rules are so obscure that they are either discarded, or they dominate proceedings, can we wonder that community engagement is so hard?

A few years ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece about how to undermine community involvement. In Communities – Nine ways to break them – I talked about the overloading of community groups, the disrespect we show and the lack of support we offer.  If I were doing it now, I’d write about aggressive and undermining misogyny, a woeful lack of attention to the skills training in those involved, and a set of processes that do nothing to enable active and supportive involvement. And I’d conclude again, that if we are really serious about the importance of local democracy, we’d take it all much more seriously. But I’d still want to stand with Jackie Weaver!

If I hear one more leader talk about recovery (without mentioning emotions) I shall scream….

We are going through a period of collective trauma. We’re all facing loss and the attendant grief. For many it is the sadness of mourning someone who has died before their time, felled either by Covid or by illness not treated because of the pandemic. That grief is overwhelming, and we know this week that the shocking toll of 100,000 deaths means 100,000 grieving families. The repetition of that figure does not make it any easier to tolerate, or envisage. 60,000 civilians died in the UK in the Second world War over 6 years, and their loss casts a long shadow. 100,000 people have died in under a year, and we need to mourn every one of them. We need to recognise that individual funerals are in no way sufficient recognition of that level of distress and loss.

But there are other losses too. The children who are spending a precious year, or more, without the companionship of their friends. The young people feeling trapped at a time of their lives when so much should be available to them. The loneliness of people missing human contact. The sadness of people separated for so long. The intolerable circumstances facing people for whom an instruction to ‘stay at home’ is a sentence of violence and abuse. The loss of opportunity, of plans, of future prospects. The loss of jobs, of home, of future. The loss of adventure, and pleasure and contact. A world of loss and grief.

But there are other emotions abroad too. The terror caused by the pandemic. The fear we all feel at hearing the dreadful news. The anxiety caused by communication that, whether carefully and thoughtfully crafted or not, is intended to evoke fear, because fear is an entirely appropriate response to a virus that is both readily transmitted and very serious.

And there is anger. Anger that this has happened, that we haven’t been protected by those charged with keeping us safe. Anger with those we see breaking the rules.

And of course, in the UK there is shame. Shame that in a country as rich and influential as this one, that we simply did not have the resilience, the leadership or the capacity to protect people in this most terrible time. we can admire our leaders and applaud our ‘key workers’, we can thank the NHS and all of this we should do. But we also feel shame that it has come to this. That so many of our citizens have suffered so much. And the dreadful certainty that all of this pain and loss is experienced most by those who already lacked security, money and recognition, is deeply shaming. The fact that being poor, and being black, made the impact so very much worse is deeply shaming, whatever your politics.

No wonder we’re so exhausted and bad-tempered. Grief, loss, fear, anger and shame are powerful and exhausting emotions. The whole population feels them. And just as we know that to recover from natural disaster requires more than just rebuilding, so too coming out of this terrible period will need something different.

It does not need guilt and blaming of people. It does not need further division. But it does need a focus. If recovery is simply expressed as the creation of jobs, (desperately needed), the building of houses, (and how well we now understand the importance of home), and some sort of ‘return to normality, we will miss the point.

Recovery demands that we acknowledge the trauma that has been experienced. That we mourn properly, and publicly and must support those who have lost so terribly. It means that we need to think about our sense of identity, our shared priorities. It means we need to be actively engaged in making the difficult decisions about the shape and priorities of the new world. We need jointly to make shared and credible decisions about protection, and long-term public health. We need to plan and develop new approaches so that we never face this trauma again. But if we do that without recognising the grief, the fear, the anger and the shame, we are effectively telling a country facing post-traumatic stress to ‘pull themselves together’. And I think we all know where that ends. Because there are dark places where emotions are understood and fostered. Places where anger is fuelled, and grief distorted. Places where terror multiplies. Places where people are blamed and difference is exploited. Places where emotions are manipulated.  If we ignore these emotions, this shared trauma, we are storing up trouble for the future.  And that threat is existential.

We have artistic and cultural skills in abundance. We have heritage and sport and fellowship. We need an explosion of celebration and expression, and that needs theatre, music, story tellers. That will need money, but we have the organisations and networks in every part of the country. We have the talent and ingenuity to devise truly creative ways of celebrating.  We know about the mediation of difficult decisions, we know how to build trust and help people to re connect. All over the country there are groups and organisations that have held us together through these very dark days. It is those people who can help us to design and think through the challenges ahead. We know about the power and strengths of communities. We have sacred and beautiful places, and people who are able to inspire, and to soothe. We can create places where people can share and support. We can find ways that people can express their feelings. We can do all these things and we can come through this stronger, and more fit for our increasingly uncertain future.

All of that requires supported, energised civil society in the arts,  and community leadership, in the development of young people’s networks. It requires the deliberative democracy which we know so much about.

It cannot be business as usual. Our recovery can’t simply try to revive what there was before. We can’t just create jobs, and build new roads, and encourage more big shops to return to our desolate high streets. If we ignore these emotions, this shared trauma, we are storing up trouble for the future. And our current approach to civil society  – watching charities forced to shed staff, theatres with no capacity to re-open, artists and creative people forced to abandon their art, community groups spread so very thin, we risk walking into a very dark place indeed.

We have done it before. Marc Stears in his lovely new book tells us that after the horrors of two world wars, the UK recovered because of the extraordinary power of everyday life.  Robert Putnam in his new book reminds us that it is civil society that allowed the USA to recover in the same challenging time. But doing it this time demands an approach that recognises trauma, and consciously helps us all jointly to rebuild. Snapping our fingers and hoping for the life we had before is simply magical thinking. And deeply dangerous magical thinking at that.

I wrote last week about the nine things I’d noticed at the start of this crisis, but I’ve carried on watching. And I’ve since observed

  • That emotions really are the blind spot in public policy and in the way in which we talk about things. In all the words that have been expended so far about the impact of this crisis, I have not seen much attention paid to the fact that we’re all experiencing grief: grief for hopes and plans dashed, for security taken away and for some, the terrible lasting grief of bereavement.
  • And we’re all terrified: scared about what the future holds, anxious at a time of such uncertainty, frightened for those we love. And we’re angry – angry at a government that has failed in its basic job of protecting us, furious at those who we see as exploiting the situation, raging at forces we cannot control. And at times of grief, terror and anger we cannot always be rational, we are all easily triggered, so the language we and others use really matters.
  • And because language matters so much I’ve also noticed that Zoom and Skype calls, social media tweets and blogs and conversations that don’t acknowledge the pain we are feeling are dangerous places. When I hear people talk blithely about the great opportunity this is to shape our economy, or who seem to exult in ever last bit of tragic or terrifying news, I retreat in horror. I notice the armchair epidemiologists who spread fear or rush to darken any glimmer of light. I fear the Cassandras who spread gloom and despair as our predicament continues.
  • And I know that trust in these dark and difficult time, is the most precious currency. The most fundamental contract the people have with the state has been broken. We expect the government, whatever that government is, to keep us safe, and while we know that many of our fellow citizens were long ago abandoned by a state that failed them in this fundamental duty, this time we have all been betrayed at some level. We need to trust the science even while we know that science can be flawed. We need to trust the NHS even though we know its grossly underfunded and can make mistakes. We need to trust people making decisions on our behalf, and that’s really hard when so many of them have let us down so badly.

None of this sounds at all ‘strategic’, but I believe that it is. Because we are learning three fundamental lessons

  • That we need to be kind and thoughtful and intentional in the way we talk- and behave – and that is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I argued in  Kindness, emotions and human relationships will be vital in public policymaking. Indeed, the really disruptive approach is to be kind in a world which favours cool rationality,
  • That anger, like revenge, should be a dish best eaten cold. We have seen the underfunding and the vilification of our public services, and our public servants, we have watched the undervaluing of the work done by carers. Now at the time of crisis, we can witness appalling behaviour by some employers, observe the machinations of profiteers and speculators, and see the disarray in our political leaderships. We should neither forgive, nor forget. But let’s not waste precious energy right now, and risk fuelling more despair and anguish when it is already abundant.
  • And that while we plan for a better tomorrow, and we must, we need to do so in a way that recognises this is so much more important than ‘a political opportunity’, so much more profound than an attempt to simply repeat what we have always said before. We need to recognise that we are observing and learning things that challenge our most precious preconceptions.
  • Real social comfort, real solidarity and therefore real change, comes from people and the relationships they have with each other. And that anything at all that devalues or undermines those precious relationships diminishes us all, and threatens our chances of getting though this sad and frightening time.

We’ve known that a global pandemic would come for decades, and it’s been modelled and planned for time after time. But when it comes it’s a massive and terrifying shock, and the implications will be felt for decades to come. Just now we’re wrestling with the health and economic impacts and learning things we didn’t know about ourselves, as well as confirming what many of us have always believed. And primarily it has confirmed, if it was ever needed, that global shocks hit the poorest people most badly.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say that this extraordinary period is variously as big in its impact as 2008, or 9/11 or 1945. But it clearly is a hugely important moment in our lives and will probably change everything. I feel it’s a bit too early to make dramatic predictions (after all, what use are they just now?) but it is probably the moment to notice accurately what is going on. I often think that change happens in the most unexpected places and when we are not really looking. This is one of those occasions.

  1. We’ve learned that we need strong, trusted institutions. After a decade or more of it being easy to throw brickbats at the NHS, the BBC and the civil service, at a time of national emergency those authoritative and powerful bodies are needed more than ever before. Just notice how often senior politicians invoke ‘our NHS’.  Remember that only 10 days ago the end of the BBC was called for, and carelessly compared to Netflix.  And we’ve learned once more that trust is, and always has been, the most precious currency.
  2. We’ve learned that people do look out for their neighbours and friends, and that a dense network of connections is keeping people going, supporting their well-being and offering practical help. Support really is local, mobile and social – and the outpouring of local support and friendship has been astonishing and heartening to see.
  3. But it has its shadow side and the panic buying, stripping of supermarket shelves, and shameless profiteering is a powerful antidote to those of us who like to think that crises produce the best in people.
  4. We need the state. Anyone who in the last few years has been tempted even for  a minute by the siren voices proposing that the market or the community alone can cope, now knows the absolute importance of a connected, capable and properly powered state.
  5. Experts matter. We need to be allowed to trust the science and the advice. The clear voice of experts rings through all the noise.
  6. But in a world where everyone has access to a publishing platform, we’ve also learned of both the dangers of rumours and false information and the extraordinary benefits of rapid organisation, and the ability to raise concerns from anywhere in the country.
  7. We’ve learned that 1:10 of us in the lower half of incomes can work from home, and 9:10 of us in the higher half can (thank you Resolution Foundation) and that really matters because it makes our economic prospects so hugely different. The Universal Basic Income has its detractors (and I’ve been one) but if ever here was a time for it, it is now. It is feasible, effective and could remove economic anxiety from a nation already massively anxious.
  8. We’ve learned how appallingly degraded our public services have become over the last decade of austerity. We’ve learned that 5000 ventilators for a population this size is the lowest in the developed world. And we’ve learned how very badly some companies have behaved. We’ve learned that even social landlords needed to be told not to evict people who couldn’t pay their rent, and others in the private sector have tried to by-pass this instruction. And we see that, and we will not forget and forgive.
  9. And we’ve seen the very best of what we can do as humans, as community networks and as big institutions, moving to support, to salvage and to save. The generous leadership, ability to organise, willingness to forsake brand and position and just make change happen, has seen the very best of us at the very worst of times.

It’s been a terrifying week, and it doesn’t look as if it will get much better very quickly, but what I’ve observed and felt will stay with me for ever.