Three months ago today politicians were united across the normal divides in paying tribute to Jo Cox, their murdered colleague. I doubt whether the word “love” has been used in the House of Commons as many times in the entire lifetime of a government as it was in that single afternoon. Love was, they agreed, Ms Cox’s defining characteristic, love of family and friends, love of constituency and colleagues, love of humanity.
Listening to the tributes I was reminded of a phrase used by my health worker colleagues. They talk about “teachable moments” - the period immediately after a scare or a near miss, a cancer alarm, an illness affecting someone we know – a time when we are most likely to respond to messages about changing our behaviour because we have been shocked into a new perspective. These are the moments when the truly important breaks through our casual acceptance of routines, conventions and mindless habit. How often have we all heard people at funerals or memorial services say “it makes you think about what really matters”? Perhaps we have said it ourselves.
Briefly and optimistically I thought those last days of June were national “moments” and that the awful shock of the murder might jolt politicians, and more broadly our national discourse, into a new appreciation of love and trust.
I was heartened at the time because I thought it showed a common acceptance that love should be the guiding principle at the heart of public life, public services and public discourse even if articulating the idea and acting on it is potentially awkward, sensitive and complex. The quality and depth of human relationships, not the efficacy of the transaction, determine the value of the outcome. The transfer of knowledge or the delivery of a service may create the necessary conditions for progress but it is the special attributes of the human bond that console and strengthen, that nourish confidence, inspire self-esteem, unlock potential, erode inequality and so have the power to transform. This is what Community Links calls the “deep value” in a successful relationship. It is not just about the spending of time but also about, in the words of Cicely Saunders, “the depth of time.”
What, in practice, might this mean?
For government it means devolving power not only to cities and regions, that's just a beginning, but to the smallest viable unit of delivery. None of us feel human in organisations where everyone is just a number, and often a very long one. Policy makers used to talk about “double devolution” – from Whitehall to City hall, then from City Hall to neighbourhoods and communities. The phrase, and the practice, seems to have been forgotten in the most recent, welcome but inadequate, wave of half measures. It should be recalled.
For public service agencies, in all sectors, it means conditions and protocols that recognise the primacy of the human interaction in all that they do, prioritising staff discretion and autonomy, systematising the consistency and stability of the client / provider relationships, planning ample time for relationship building and rigorously and unambiguously separating policing and supporting.
And for individual workers and small teams it means a clear set of competencies that can be articulated, taught, managed , appraised and replicated just like any other essential skill.
These would be ambitious and wide ranging changes, collectively revolutionary, but they all begin with having the maturity to talk about love and trust, the insight to understand its importance and the courage to design it into legislation, to services, to organisational processes and to our national discourse, not, as so often today, to very deliberately design it out.
Occasionally a debate in the House of Commons captures a public mood and elevates it. June 20th was such a moment. We share a responsibility to preserve the opportunity that it gave us, to nurture the new perspectives that it revealed and, step by step, to be directed less by custom and practice, rigid convention, unthinking adherence to rules and rote and guided more by our better angels.
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.