So this is Christmas - what have we done?
“So this is Christmas, what have we done?”
We entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity still pounding through the public realm, with local authorities particularly in our most hard pressed areas confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services, with further deep cuts in the voluntary sector, closures and redundancies almost inevitable and with more evident and abject poverty than at any time in my working life.
Then it got worse. 7m people in the UK are now officially poor despite being part of a working family. Even the Governor of the Bank of England talks about the “growing sense of isolation and detachment” and “the first lost decade since the 1860s”. He may be overstating the good news. According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, we are living through the worst period for real earnings growth since the Napoleonic Wars. Here in the Olympic borough of Newham 34% of the borough’s residents now earn less than the living wage – an increase of 10% since 2010 despite exceptional investment and development. Remember when we thought that Food Banks were for another country and another time?
The numbers are grim but the shift in attitudes is worse. Late last night I bought paracetamol at the little shop down the road. “39 years in the UK and I’ve never had a cold” said the owner. I hoped she wouldn’t catch mine. “No chance” she said “even the germs in London don’t like us now.”
Thirty nine years, the living embodiment of contributing citizens and a hard working family and “even the germs don’t like us now”. The creeping acceptance that it is ok to discriminate and openly despise may not yet be a crisis but the “bend to justice” in Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe has swerved wildly and worryingly in the UK and across the world.
“Another year over, a new one just begun”
I understand why friends tell me that they turn off the TV news. Lately I’ve started to do that too and it scares me more than anything. We have work to do and, difficult though it may seem to be, we must embrace the New Year as another chance, a chance to rediscover hope. Here’s how
1) You have your special power, use it:
Building a more connected, humane and supportive society isn’t just about money or organisations or governments or global movements. In fact it mainly isn’t. People change lives, one to one, and we can all do that today, person to person, from where we are with what we’ve got. Social isolation and the consequential fear, distrust and misery is a modern epidemic but one that we can personally attack. It is our special power. Do the human things that only you can do.
2) Organise in new ways:
Charities are important but not necessarily the same organisational structures in the same configurations as we have today. Community Links, the organisation with which I have been associated all my working life, has, like many in our sector, shrunk significantly in recent years. As I noted last summer on this blog “we would like to think that when we stop doing things it is either because the job has been completed or because someone else has found a better way of doing it. I realise with a heavy heart that neither apply in this situation”.
After nigh on forty years I feel this personally and painfully but times change and an unforgiving future holds no special refuge for unchanging institutions. Far better to rethink, regroup, organise ourselves in new ways and renew the charge than surrender to sentiment.
Rigid tribal structures in our politics must be similarly interrogated. The most widely read progressive blog, Labour List, surveyed the wreckage of Labour’s share of the vote in the Richmond by election and concluded “it was a tough night for Labour but we have no choice other than to fight on for the causes in which we believe”. Really, not a moment of doubt and self-reflection? On a night when Labour hung on to less than 4% of the vote and when the decision of the Green Party, to withdraw its own candidate, was arguably critical to the narrow defeat of a sitting MP who had deliberately driven division with a singularly poisonous mayoral campaign, just six months earlier? This isn’t just about Labour. Across the party spectrum it istime for all of us who care about social progress to organise ourselves in new ways, work together better and worry most about getting the job done, least about who gets the credit.
3) Double down on speaking up:
The global banking crisis wasn’t the wakeup call I thought it might have been. Maybe Brexit will be. The vote wasn’t just a hammering for the political class or even for the business establishment but also for everybody else who never saw it coming. If the impending disentanglement is not informed by a better understanding of the needs of the most disadvantaged it won’t end well for any of us. It is time to speak louder and help other voices to be heard.
With important exceptions, civil society has been losing its voice in recent years. Time was when councils would be ceaselessly implored to not set a rate that couldn’t sustain essential services, when a Wednesday night TV play about one homeless family could spark national and transformational outrage and when charities were expected to disturb as well as to comfort. Now Food Banks are the response to hunger at home, not a Poor People’s March on Parliament, and as some of our most disadvantaged communities begin to feel the loss of European funding or the withdrawal of rights enshrined in EU law I wonder if there won’t be at least some charities in 2017 regretting their fearful silence in the referendum.
Never was there a greater need to educate and influence, to persuade and cajole, to make the case for fairness and justice and, yes, to take on the consequences. Speaking out whenever we have the opportunity in 2017 is not an alternative to practical pragmatic action, both are necessary, but, to again quote Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
4) Tell the story:
Austerity, Brexit and the American election were triumphs for the most effective story tellers if not the best stories. “Stories” wrote Ben Okri “are our secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and we change the individuals and the nations”.
Two kinds of tales nourish optimism - some of the here and now, some of the future. We need to reclaim the dominant line on both, to talk more in the New Year about what we can become with decent wages, decent homes, humane services, kindness for strangers, support for one another, the embrace of opportunities and we need to root this big forward looking story in the hundreds of thousands of little ones about all that we do well now but seldom celebrate.
5) Reclaim Hope in 2017:
I think we are a better society than we have often appeared to be in 2016 and I think a lot of other people think that too. It’s time to do the human things that only we can do. Change the ways we organise and work together. Speak out. Tell the stories. Most of all, because despair ne’er buttered any parsnips, own the promise of the future in 2017, reclaim hope and never let it go.
David Robinson is the co-founder and now senior advisor of east London social action charity Community Links. He leads the Early Action Task Force, working across sectors to tackle the question ‘How do we build a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than one that deals with the consequences?’ He is also a founding member of A Better Way, a network of social activists which aims to challenge business as usual.