Clubbed out

Working Mens’ Clubs (WMCs) first appeared in the mid-1800s as a refuge from the ‘miserable place’ their members called home, says Ruth Cherrington. In the latter part of the 19th century, while they were exempt from new licensing laws – and booming as a result – the clubs were nevertheless regarded as the respectable alternative to the pub. The clubs were frequented by the social drinker not the ‘rough’ (or as we might say today, the binge) drinker. As an 1875 Act of Parliament determined they were centres for ‘moral improvement and rational recreation’.

This respectability was as important, initially at least, to the members themselves – some clubs had their own reading rooms, featured talks and lectures from invited speakers or had their own debating societies – as it was to social reformers keen to impose a greater sobriety on the working class. Today’s temperance campaigners, while far less interested in the intellectual improvement of the lower orders, are similarly contemptuous of their everyday conduct. Instead of wielding bibles as did the Salvation Army troops of the clubs’ early days, today’s booze botherers hide behind scary stats and ‘awareness’ campaigns.

But this is not to forget that the clubs were far more than just drinking establishments, as Cherrington is keen to point out and as the title of the book makes clear. They ‘exercised a form of local democracy’ alongside the emerging trade unions ‘long before all working men had been given the right to vote’. They were a focus for political meetings and often named after the industries in which their members worked or, despite the efforts of the Club and Institute Union (CIU), after their political leanings: be they ‘Radical’, ‘Liberal’ or even ‘Conservative’.

The club movement continued to grow through the inter-war and post-war period. By the 1970s there were an estimated four million members of what was, under the umbrella of the CIU, ‘one of the largest voluntary organisations in the world’ the author tells us. Since then the WMC movement has been in a state of decline with half of the clubs established at their peak having since called time. The ‘trades-clubs’ were the first to go as industrial decline set in. So embedded were the clubs in the communities of which they were a part, and for all that some continue to hang on, they could hardly survive without the ‘working men’ in whose name they functioned.

And much has changed since at a cultural level too. Cherrington points to a number of factors to explain the demise of the clubs: television, the ‘swinging sixties’ and holidaying abroad; the ban on smoking, the wide availability of cheap alcohol in the supermarkets and pub chains; the popularity of multiplexes, gyms and coffee shops; and a rise in home ownership and home entertainment, as people found something better to spend their growing disposable incomes on. But while all of this is no doubt true it seems to me that what was really decisive is that what made the clubs special and distinct – that they were owned by their members and were proudly independent – has been progressively undermined over much the same period. That people increasingly became ‘passive consumers of fee-charging leisure venues’ with which the clubs simply couldn’t compete is only a part of the story. Their decline was also part of a much wider trend of institutional and community-level disorientation and fragmentation.

While the clubs themselves left much to be desired – ‘An air of decay set in which in itself was off-putting’, says Cherrington – the world was also changing around them. ‘Masses of people used to do the same things at the same time’ until the young became more mobile and drifted away from the clubs, we learn. While this undermined the socialising influence of communities it was also a good thing: an opportunity for young people to escape the constraints of community and make their own way in that changing world. (That today we live so much more privatised ‘home-centred’ lives is a problem.) Cherrington presents the complex of factors involved in the decline of WMCs but doesn’t disentangle them. We are still left to wonder why the clubs are no longer what they were. It seems to me that not only was there the pull of a more exciting world beyond Clubland, but also the push of a slow-burning crisis in those communities; itself a consequence of the demise of a wider social, cultural and moral framework rooted in the old class politics.

The recent experience of riots without reason and the growing problem of anti-social behaviour can, in this sense, be understood as a result of the breakdown in those old social solidarities established through institutions like the clubs. Critically, it was the political defeat of the working class in the 1980s – not just the experience of industrial decline – that was responsible for the eventual collapse of those community-formed institutions.

In this context what are we to make of the clubs? Cherrington tells us the CIU still represents 2,000 clubs across the country. But not only do they continue to close; they are thoroughly irrelevant even to their own members. (Few bothered to vote in the election in 2009 for a new CIU General Secretary. The author tells us that the spoiled papers of 25 clubs came in third place.) This is a shame in as far as in their day they had a lot going for them. They may have been little more than a room above a shop or a converted house to begin with. But what they lacked in facilities they more than made up for with their admirable facility for ‘self-help’ and, as Cherrington puts it, ‘clubbing together’. Which, incidentally, is why WMCs appeal (albeit after the fact) to a political class that worries about social atomisation, cultural decline, and, relatedly, its own irrelevance. But trying to retrospectively co-opt a decaying institution in the service of civil renewal is doomed to failure.

The urge to recreate a ‘sense of community’ in our anxious and individuated times, while understandable, gets things the wrong way around. It is a mistake to get too sentimental about the clubs. They served a purpose for communities that no longer exist. They are an institutional expression of, and a left-over from, those expired social collectivities. But they are still worth reflecting on.

They were a product of a culture that imbued individuals with a characteristically robust sense of themselves – something we could badly do with today. While the club movement was torn between its ideals of autonomy and a stuffy moral conservatism – my local Walthamstow WMC, possibly the first CIU registered club, is still teetotal and men-only to this day according to the author – they were also the source of some strikingly permissive sentiments. Cherrington cites a late 19th Century Lord Rosebery, CIU president at the time, declaring in a perennial debate about licensing, that working men are ‘not to be patronised, and fostered, and dandled.’ Their clubs must ‘be free from all vexatious, infantile restrictions on the consumption of intoxicating drinks and similar matters’. ‘All that is to be done for the working men is to be done by themselves’, insisted Rosebery.

What is most striking is that this aristocrat’s belief – over a hundred years ago – that ordinary folk could be, as he put it, ‘raised by their own endeavours’ could not be further removed from the elitist and belittling sentiments expressed by supposed left-wingers and ‘liberals’ today. They are far too busy pitying and patronising the poor and so-called vulnerable about their drinking and gambling habits to entertain such wild notions. And they would no doubt be surprised to learn that this insistence that the working man stand on his own two feet was not inconsistent, as Cherrington makes clear, with a compassion for one’s fellow members. In the days before the welfare state they would contribute to the early social insurance schemes run by the clubs, and raise funds for seaside ‘convalescent homes’ for members taken ill.

And in this latter regard too it is tempting to see a model for today, a way of addressing society’s problems from lonely older folk to riotous (quite literally) youth, or – in the case of intergenerational projects – both. Maybe the clubs ‘can help to combat these negative trends that impoverish people’s lives and their communities’ and even be ‘part of important social capital’ argues the author. Maybe. But there is also a danger in looking for answers to today’s problems in a long gone yesterday; or in expecting clubs to do more than what their members want from them.

For instance, for all the talk of self-improvement in the early days, most clubs increasingly opted for the ‘less earnest and well-intentioned’ world of music hall as ‘an escape for ordinary people from the daily grind’. Clubland became the ‘largest collective venue for live entertainment’ in the country, explains Cherrington. And yet now what was once a vibrant world of tough crowds and honed acts barely exists outside grim seaside resorts and affectionate TV comedy send-ups, namely the excellent Phoenix Nights. While a minority of enterprising clubs are getting the younger folk through the doors (with new bands and burlesque apparently!); this is not a revival of the clubs so much as a reuse of the buildings that once held them.

So much has changed that it is perhaps worth reflecting on how the clubs drew on a very different set of cultural assumptions. They used to be rather good at raising the young for instance. ‘Parents would collectively keep an eye on the kids’ as members took on an ‘informal childcare’ role that simply wouldn’t be allowed today. The clubs didn’t have to be registered with the DfE, and members weren’t required to have a CRB check. The members were ‘acting as informal mentors to the next generation’ without ever thinking of themselves as such; initiating young men both into their fathers’ clubs and into adulthood. ‘It gave them not only a membership card’ says Cherrington ‘but a sense of belonging and identity’ too. But I suspect the ‘club child’ would be an object of official concern today, however much the clubs successfully nurtured aspirant adults. Not only have the authorities – in the absence of mediating institutions like the clubs – sought to protect the young (and not so young) against the supposed dangers of alcohol, smoking and gambling (amongst other things); they have also promoted a culture where adults taking on collective responsibility for socialising their children is largely unheard of today. The newly held assumption that we should regard each other with suspicion rather than as potential allies or as sources of mutual support has been thoroughly internalised.

Though it was women – even though they weren’t members in most instances – who took on the childcare responsibilities; these were clubs, as Cherrington puts it, ‘set up by men, for men’. Whatever your views on the clubs’ attitudes to women, exclusivity is the point of setting up or joining a club. The members alone decide who they let in. In the late 1980s the CIU President Derek Dormer made the case for women to have full membership rights but only on the clubs’ terms: ‘This is not something that will ever be forced upon club members’ he said. But the pressure to conform saw the CIU introduce equal membership rights in 2007; and by 2010 they were required to comply with the Equality Act. Indeed ‘equalities’ became something of a nuisance for a club movement with more than enough problems already.

When it came to ‘race’, for instance, the exclusivity associated with club life was not regarded as a recommendation so much as an indictment. The right of members to exclude those with whom they didn’t wish to associate looked suspiciously like, and sometimes was, a ‘colour bar’. One branch claimed they had ‘coloured people’ as members. ‘We would be discriminating if we kept a list’ it was argued, and it has to be said with some logic. Up until the mid-1970s the CIU stuck to this line with one General Secretary writing that those accusing the clubs of racism failed to ‘understand the true nature of a bona fide members’ club … that it is an essential ingredient in the construction of a club that it must be private’.

While acknowledging their slowness to adapt and their embededness in ‘attitudes and behaviour that were prevalent’ at the time, Cherrington reminds us that the clubs had always self-selected according to ‘occupation, political stance, or ethnic identity’ – the Welsh miners with their choirs ticking every box. So what’s the problem? ‘Should clubs’, she asks, ‘whether WMCs, Turkish or Greek sports and coffee clubs, be made to recruit from outside their own target groups?’ Surely that would be absurd and unreasonable? Rather tentatively she ventures: ‘It could be that multiculturalism has encouraged separation of ethnic groups rather than mixing’. I would go a little further. Those who have endorsed this supposed ‘equalities’ agenda – multiculturalism with its reification of cultural difference in fact being its opposite – faced with the fact that it has tended to reinforce and even fuel divisions rather than abolish them, have sought to legislate against its divisive impact.

In an eloquent presidential address to a CIU AGM, and under the threat of equalities legislation, one delegate had this to say: ‘A club is not a club because of the size of its structure but because of the atmosphere inside the building. That is the atmosphere of friendship that comes from love or esteem between two or more persons – it can never be ordered by law’.

This understanding as Cherrington put it that ‘people could only be integrated on the basis of friendship and mutual cooperation, not the force of law’ held little sway with the leadership of what was (once at least) the political wing of the labour movement. Indeed, the coming to power of the legislatively loose and politically hollowed out New Labour governments only made things worse. The clubs were compelled if they had 25 members or more to demonstrate through their constitutions that to the satisfaction of law makers they didn’t discriminate with regards gender, race or ‘disablement’. Whether or not clubs are more inclusive as a result there are certainly fewer of them around to do any including. I suspect such impositions, whatever the intentions, are only contributing to the quickening of the clubs’ decline.

Against this rather hostile social, cultural and political backdrop, Cherrington’s optimism is admirable. Surely the kids will get bored of social networking online and rediscover their grandparents’ yearning for ‘real, physical contact with friends’ in which the clubs specialised, she speculates. The trouble is that far from being able to trade on the ‘unique worth and traditional values’ of the WMC brand to this end, these were jettisoned long ago.

The CIU has forgotten its values in the opportunistic pursuit of a narrower notion of ‘worth’. Its rightful opposition to the bureaucratic burden on the clubs is not driven by any underlying principles. While it strongly opposed the impact of the smoking ban on its members it has been less keen on them exercising their freedoms outside of the clubs. So it joined in the calls for minimum pricing on alcohol to allegedly stop so-called binge drinking. And no less opportunistic is the search for policy fads on which to hang a hoped for revival. The new-found admirers of the clubs in the policy world go on about their importance to building the Big Society. Cherrington too thinks they are capable of ‘addressing fragmentation and social breakdown’ after the riots; and that the ‘evidence that clubs are good for you’ means they can contribute to the government’s rather creepy happiness agenda too.

But putting these questionable policy prescriptions to one side, the author’s account of the club movement is not only fascinating but a thought-provoking contribution to the debate about what happened to the working class culture that bore the WMCs. Still I find it hard to disagree with those who regard the CIU and at least some of the clubs affiliated to it as ‘out of touch and old-fashioned’. I rather think that they should be allowed to go extinct rather than be preserved as flat-cap curiosities. Energies would be better spent trying to create new institutions more suited to our times – while challenging those things that have changed for the worse – rather than seeking to breathe new life into one that is evidently taking its last gasps.

Of course, given the scale of the physical legacy of the WMCs some will make a go of it and good luck to them. But this will have little to do with what motivated the working men that built the clubs, however much social capital they might generate for their respective localities. Being more outward-looking and business-minded, and inviting the community to use the clubs’ considerable under-occupied facilities is no bad thing. But there is a difference between trying to revive the WMCs and finding a new use for the buildings they once occupied. Their emptying out as representative and functioning working people’s institutions – much like the faded New Labour brand and what passes for trade unionism today – is too far advanced for that.

First published in Culture Wars

Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

Early Intervention? Why not No Intervention?

BigbenLast week I attended the launch of The Deciding Time published by the Early Action Task Force. Early Action – usually referred to as Early Intervention – has a good deal of support in official circles.

Indeed, not only did the debate take place in Westminster but none other than Louise Casey, Director General for Troubled Families at the Department for Communities and Local Government, was there to respond to the report. I confess my own position isn’t one of enthusiasm. Though I found Casey surprisingly engaging – and oddly endearing – with her no nonsense case against the ‘liberals’ that dominate in welfare and social care circles; like many who hold to orthodox opinion about the supposed need to intervene in families to arrest their spiralling intergenerational decline, she was far less controversial than she imagined.

Like I say, she got a number of things right. ‘There is nothing wrong with being judgemental’ insisted Casey, presumably hoping to pre-empt the frankly none-too-apparent outrage of the invited audience. That is what we ask social workers to do all the time, she quite rightly said. While I am no fan of the dubious grounds on which families are disrupted and potential carers refused the opportunity to start new ones; where there is cause to intervene it should be done with the not insignificant authority that the law allows. As I’ve commented before it is the failure to act on that authority rather than the stock-diagnosis of professionals not ‘working together’ that is so often to blame when things go wrong.

But that doesn’t make the case for earlier intervention or more intervention, just better intervention. Indeed I would argue – as I did with Casey at the launch – that the problem isn’t one of when to intervene but of whether to intervene at all. Whether its with regards her current brief or her previous high profile roles as head of the Respect Task Force and before that director of the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit; she has made a career of responding to problems caused by too much – not too late – intervention. Rather than quibbling with the timing, something for which the evidence is at best mixed and the grounds for doing so evidently illiberal, wouldn’t it be better not to intervene at all?

Now I confess in my own modest career working in the public sector I too have worked on an early intervention or prevention project or too. They’re hard to avoid in my line of work. But they don’t have to be illiberal. Actually, I think the approach can be defended up to a point. For instance, working with older people who may be at risk of being accommodated into a health or social care setting – with all of the attendant loss of independence and the expense involved in providing that more intensive care and support. If it is possible to find ways in which they might be able to continue to live in the community with a little more support – whether its insulating their home from the cold, arranging for somebody to pay them a regular befriending visit, or getting adaptations fitted in their home so they are less likely to trip and fall – then that is a good early intervention in my book.

Having said that, even then, because we live in a culture of presumed vulnerability and incapacity that is only amplified in the health and social care sectors, there is the danger of over-identifying needs and deepening levels of dependency; rather than encouraging people and the communities of which they are a part to fall back on their own resources or become more self-reliant. While public services are often dysfunctional and if not under-funded certainly badly targeted, it is important to get that relationship between state and society right. It is all too easy to undermine people’s confidence or sense of responsibility for themselves by intervening too much – something that welfarism, ‘troubled’ families policy and social care provision are blatantly guilty of.

So while the issue of how to use scarce public resources more wisely to support those who need it is very important, and The Deciding Time is a contribution to that discussion worth engaging with; we need to acknowledge first of all that investing in the greater public good can sometimes be as much about withdrawing state support for those who don’t need it rather than necessarily doing those interventions sooner or even differently. Whatever policy makers do they need to be sure that they don’t create more problems for society than they solve. As I said to Casey that’s how we got into this mess.

Pop-up communities: here to stay?

This is an edited version of my contribution to a debate on Saturday, part of the After the Riots strand at the Battle of Ideas festival held at the Barbican, London.

I didn’t see the previous debates in this strand. My wife is expecting our first child so I have been in Antenatal class all day. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that being a parent – or being a ‘good’ parent – seems to have more than a personal significance these days. Especially after the riots. Bad parents, problem families, or the ‘troubled families’ discussed this morning, were quickly blamed. Or else patronised by those claiming to want to ‘support’ them.

I don’t know what he had to say this morning, but I was pleased, shortly after the riots, to hear David Lammy say what a number of us had been banging on about for a while. Parents feel undermined by a political class that tells them how to bring up their kids; or in the case of smacking, how not to. Sadly he went and spoilt it all a few weeks ago when he blamed knife crime on absent fathers. Or was it absent fathers on knife crime? It doesn’t make much sense either way.

The tendency to indulge young adults’ very violent tantrums no doubt came up this morning too. But it is this notion that grown-ups just aren’t very grown up any more – that the previous debate focused on – that is a good way into this debate on communities. Adults don’t seem to have the authority they once had: whether it’s bringing up their children or holding the line against riotous youth. It is this crisis of authority that in my view created the conditions for last year’s riots, and continues to make an effective community response so very difficult.

I’m no localist but I was none too pleased to discover that my adopted neighbourhood of Walthamstow had been destroyed. Not by the riots – there was a bit of looting, but nothing too serious – but by the Boundary Commission. While the places we live – they are hardly communities really – tend to be anonymous and disengaging, especially in London, most of us still don’t like unwanted interventions and impositions from outsiders. So, while we barely talk to each other, I still resent the prospect of me and my fellow Stowians being divided up between neighbouring Leyton and Chingford as is proposed. On the non-parochial plus-side I also get a kick out of people sticking up for their communities.

So when around 1,000 residents of Clapham Junction arrived on their riot-hit streets armed with their brooms this was rightly celebrated after the events of the previous nights. It made a nice change to see communities taking the initiative where the authorities had failed. They were out there all big society-style and without the usual complaint about the impact of cuts that we’re used to hearing from the so-called community sector. The organised chaos of the rioters was shocking, but it was heart-warming to hear how those residents organised their own response quite literally overnight. Where the rioters used their blackberries, these residents used Twitter via #riotcleanup.

But there was still something not quite right. This ‘sense of community’ lasted only as long as the riots were deemed to be a threat. Once the police had regained what was left of their badly diminished authority on the streets of Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon and elsewhere; everybody went back home and got back to their socially detached lives. Still it was nice while it lasted and it wasn’t another consultant-led initiative claiming to be community-centred and bottom-up, when it is nothing of the sort.

I have in mind, for instance, the response to the burning down of the House of Reeves in Croydon. A family-run furniture store that had stood there for 140 years became one of the iconic burnt-out images of the riots. A year later the Reverse Riots campaign – run by the state-sponsored youth volunteering outfit vInspired – decided to plaster the remaining building with what The Guardian describes as ‘more than 4,000 images of young people holding positive statements’. That’s it. I have no idea what those positive statements were, because even The Guardian (a newspaper that tends to like this sort of thing) couldn’t be bothered to read out any of those messages. It was just another vacuous and uninspired ‘lets say nice things about young people’ initiative.

But there are good examples too. Personally I like pop-ups that don’t over-claim or take themselves too seriously. The likes of Sing London and Ping! England. Pianos and table-tennis tables just popping-up for no particular reason in public places. Really fun ideas that trust people not to nick the table tennis bats or the pianos for that matter. Table-tennis tables popped-up in Walthamstow during the Olympics; and last time I looked they were still there and being used. But the connection with The Games meant that they also became associated with the desperation for a ‘legacy’. Not just an East London legacy, but a feel-good legacy. In a way, the Games themselves were treated as one massive ‘pop-up’ response to the riots. According to The Independent they were an opportunity to regroup around a ‘common purpose’. But as Zoe Williams, who also spoke earlier today, put it: ‘We can’t hold an Olympics every year’.

The world of the pop-up community is very different to the cloth-capped communities of old. In the absence of a sturdier or more deep-rooted solidarity, we seem to be scrambling around to capture what are manifestations of a very impermanent sense of community. From the riots of 2011 to London 2012, every event becomes a pop-up vehicle. Every genuine sentiment, whether it’s that of the clean-up volunteers or of the Games Makers, is deadened by officialdom’s desperation to capture it.

In an interview with BBC News, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, talked about the importance of the response to the riots, of the Jubilee and London 2012. With remarkably frank cynicism he said the government wants to ‘tap-in’ to these events. He was being interviewed about the recently launched We will gather website. Built by the people who brought us #riotcleanup, and paid for with £100,000 of government money; it is only the latest attempt to bottle that community spirit. While I wish them well I think this is an impossible task, especially when officialdom gets so eagerly involved.

But we needn’t be so cynical ourselves; there is still life in the pop-up community. I’ll leave you with an example. Last week I read about the Battle of Barnet. (This has nothing to do with the Battle of Ideas, by the way.) In contrast with the vInspired House of Reeves pop-up, this Guardian story featuring a ‘hotchpotch alliance of squatters, retired booksellers, local bloggers and international anti-capitalist activists’, is genuinely inspiring. Not the sort of people that I would ordinarily have much time for admittedly. But this was different. They had just succeeded in preventing Barnet Council from closing a library. They had turned the big society tables on the infamous no-frills ‘Easy Jet’ Council. It is now being run, reportedly, by a ‘volunteer staff of guerilla librarians’ and supported by residents who have ‘donated 5,000 books to restock the shelves’. Now that’s my kind of pop-up community. And the volunteers even run ‘children’s story sessions’. Maybe I’ll move to Barnet.

Riot-hit communities need more than this lazy policy

First published in Independent Voices

Too often government tries to “fix” communities whose problems can only truly be solved from within.

I was speaking at the Asian Fire Service Association Conference last week alongside Dara Singh, member of the Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel. According to the Panel’s website it was “set up to examine and understand why the August 2011 riots took place”. Its final report was published in March of this year. Plenty of time for deliberation you might think. An opportunity to go beyond some of those easy projections of left liberal angst about poverty, austerity and the cuts, and the other familiar and wholly inadequate excuses rolled out to explain the quite unprecedented mass vandalism of what came to be called the riots.

You’d think so. But you’d be disappointed. As with the the Guardian/LSEReading the Riots report – that might have been excused for being published so much earlier – we learned that young people lack a stake in society, and there aren’t any opportunities for them; there needs to be more respect, agencies need to work together and intervene earlier, as do parents and schools, the police and the general public. In short, the report had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said: not just by previous reports on the riots, but by every administration going back to the New Labour government.

Instead of putting all of those policy prejudices to one side, and taking a fresh look at what happened in order to “examine and understand” what was really going on, the riots were treated as just another hook on which to hang them. Trotting out another well-worn and contradictory notion, the report sought to explore ways of responding that might “build social and economic resilience in communities”. The contradiction lies in the notion that resilience is something that resides or can be built from without. In fact such interventions can only undermine communities’ resilience by the very fact of being an official intervention in something that can only be worked out by communities themselves.

The same goes for the recommendation that all schools run programmes designed to instill character and confidence in young people. This was not something the young rioters seemed to be lacking. Nor will this do anything to tackle the other problems mentioned, such as disruptions in the classroom, or make young people anymore ‘work ready’. The report makes an uneducated leap from the fact that half of the crimes committed were ‘acquisitive in nature’, to suggesting that a more responsible capitalism and a less ‘aggressive advertising’ by the big brands, will address the problem. Now I have a low view of the rioters – and I’m not one to make excuses for them – but even I wouldn’t attribute their actions to corporate nudging, far less regard it as a solution. To be fair, the report departs from the government’s blaming of 120,000 troubled families; but only to recommend that public services instead “engage” with 500,000 “forgotten” families.

In the one area where more forceful and effective intervention was seen to fail, and with disastrous results – policing – the report has no insights to offer. If anything it only contributes to the undermining of that authority by recommending “police forces proactively engage with communities about issues that impact on the perceptions of their integrity”. It seems likely to me that communities expect a very different sort of engagement from the police. And I don’t mean tea and cakes with residents in community halls or the Panel’s call for “social media capability” (what, better than the rioters’ Blackberries?).

That residents complained of a “lack of involvement” and regarded their neighbourhoods as far from idyllic or ‘tight-knit’ is hardly surprising. But more of the same old interventions is only going to make things worse. The notion that riot-hit communities need to be “put back on their feet” and that the authorities “accept accountability for turning around the lives of individuals, families and, in turn, communities” is both wrong and incredibly patronising. I’d go as far as to say that communities could do with a lot less engagement if this is the best that policy wonks can come up with.