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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.