I would like to thank Paul and the Church Urban Fund for your gracious invitation. My thanks are at many levels.
The Church Urban Fund also supported London Citizens in its early years and the decade that I worked with them transformed my life, not only in terms of my understanding of organising, the most important of which are the iron rules, ‘relationships precede action’ and ‘never do anything for anybody that they can do for themselves’, not only for the relationships that it brought and the support they gave me over many years as I struggled to find my own vocation, but also for the truth I discovered; which is that a common good can be found in society between faiths, races, classes and places but that such a common good is impossible without a generous and robust engagement by the Church. The English Church, Catholic and Reformed, carried within its tradition and memory a conception of a common good, of a balance of interests, of vocation, of place and of family, of relationships bound together by love and duty that are the basis of a good life. A conception of the common good which had a place for work and working people.
It is one of the quirks of Blue Labour that we are fond of paradox, something which sounds wrong but is right and which comes out, for example in the statement that ‘faith will redeem citizenship’ or that ‘tradition shapes innovation’, or even that ‘the past is the future’. I learnt all this working with Churches, many of them Catholic, some of them non-conformist and a few of them Anglican.
I will end my thanks by mentioning that it was through working with London Citizens that I met Arnie Graf, who was the co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which trained Neil Jameson when you helped send him off to Chicago. He has now been brought over to become director of organising for the Labour Party and is trying to change the prevailing Labour Party culture from a transactional to a relational one, developing leaders and rebuilding the neglected art of association. He is testing Ezekiel’s proposition that those dry bones can walk again. The practice of association requires an engagement with organising, based upon one to one conversation, the encouragement of leadership and a culture of evaluation. Organising is central to our meeting today and you did a wonderful thing in nurturing its growth in its early years and I am grateful for that.
So, having said thank you I don’t have too much time so I am going to say four things, two big, two smaller in scale, to give you a sense of what I think is going on and a direction of travel that will give meaning and goodness to our lives, and to the lives of the poor.
The first big thing to be said is that the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. We have tried the state, and then the market, and then the state and the market, and you will know what I am getting at when I say the dates 1945, 1979 and 1997, and they have failed. Individualism and collectivism have run out of road because both neglect the social, society, the body politic, the place where intermediate institutions promote a good that is neither market nor state based. They both dissolve relationships when we need to nurture them. Both were built upon a notion of management based upon unilateral sovereignty and deride the balance of interests that is the basis of our distinctive political tradition. Monarchy, Parliament, the Church and the City of London are the pillars of the ancient constitution and that remains the case. The balance of interests, rather than their separation has served our nation well. Public and private sector managers need to be accountable and they are not.
The important thing to get in what I am saying is that both the state and capital centralise power and ownership. Our provincial banking system has been decimated and ownership concentrated in the City of London.
The story of the Northern Counties Building Society is instructive. Established in 1850 in the North East by dispossessed workers who pooled their funds to retrieve a home in the world it grew steadily over the years. It was part of the local economy and society, that most precious civic inheritance, a trusted financial institution. In 1965 it merged with another local institution, the Rock Building Society to become Northern Rock Building Society.
I think you see where this story is going.
It demutualised in 1997 and became Northern Rock, which sponsored Newcastle United and became the fifth biggest lender in the UK market. An institution that was founded by local people for local people and had partnered its region in good times and bad for a hundred and forty seven years, that had weathered four serious depressions and emerged stronger from each could not last through New Labour’s period in Government. It was nationalised in 2008 and Newcastle United are now sponsored by Wonga.
The name of the Northern Counties Permanent Building society mocks us now. A great region and a great city, Newcastle, was degraded by a lack of regard for institutions that belonged to the people of the area and which generated value. The story generates, in contrast, a feeling of abandonment and dispossession.
That is why we need genuinely regional banks that have some capital and that can extend credit to areas that have been denuded of local institutions that can generate value. Neither the state or the market can conceptualise what you see clearly, the importance of trust, place and skill, the institutions and relationships required to preserve and maintain honesty, vocation and responsibility. A lot gets lost between the grinders of individual maximisation and collective aggregation. If the choice at the next election is between a Conservative position which understands the problems with the state but cannot extend any challenge and critique of the market, and a Labour offer which is the opposite then you know I will have failed and there is a great deal more work to do before we have changed the political consensus to give a central role to agency, responsibility, solidarity and vocation, in politics and the economy, by building and strengthening institutions that give people responsibility and power over their own lives through association with others.
The second big thing is that the new that is yet to be born will require a politics of the common good in which there not only needs to be a reconciliation of estranged interests, between capital and labour, faithful and secular, immigrants and locals but a genuine good brokered between the living in which the Christian inheritance will play a crucial part. This particularly concerns poverty and the lives of the working poor. One of the principle of Blue Labour is no responsibility without power. A Common Good is not a conceptual construct but a settlement between interests in which Jeremiah’s edict of exile in Chapter 29 verse seven is taken to heart. ‘Seek the peace of the city for in its peace you shall find peace’. That is another paradox, that the common good requires us to rediscover our interests, our traditions and to seek to preserve and strengthen our inheritance. Reciprocity is only possible if there are two balanced sides to the relationship. Unless there is a decentralisation of power, in the financial markets and in politics, then there can be no negotiations that can transform the present system of domination. Domination by the rich of the poor, by the educated of the uneducated, by the City of the country. Perhaps a simpler but more controversial way of putting it is that the German economy, with workers on the boards, regional banks, vocational labour market entry and co-determined pension funds has proved to be more capable of producing goods than ours. Their system is based upon subsidiarity and vocation, the cornerstones of the Christian inheritance. Secular modernity is not working. It is inappropriate for our times. Here’s a new paradox: Modernity is out of date.
So, I've tried to answer Marvin Gaye’s question of What’s Going On? What’s going on is centralisation, humiliation and demoralisation. It is only at this point that it is right to ask Lenin’s question of What Is To Be Done? Marvin Gaye’s question shapes Lenin’s so that what we need is decentralisation and a renewed status for local democracy and of work, based upon virtue and vocation. The basic principles behind this are that people are neither commodities nor administrative units but capable of love and grace, responsibility and power. We need to build incentives to virtue rather than incentives to vice, which prevail in the existing system and are self-interested, instrumental and unrelational. That’s the direction of travel. Towards the Common Good.
So, let’s look at two things that we can be getting on with that will be transformational for the lives of isolated, powerless people. The first is the building of a network of regional banks over the next decade that can offer an alternative to Wonga and the Money Shop. Debt erodes relationships and Christmas is coming and the desire to buy a present for an estranged daughter from an unreconciled marriage will be strong and not to be despised. Wages are stagnant. The banks borrow at 3%, they lend to the Money Shop at 7% but they lend to the poor at five and a half thousand percent. An interest rate cap is one part of this but is insufficient, we need to build new financial institutions.
I absolutely commend Archbishop Justin in his leadership on this and it is time to follow. The Church, however, cannot do this on its own. You need partners. Where are they to come from? This is where the politics of the Common Good become demanding, challenging and interesting, in other words genuinely political rather than party political. The obvious ally for the church is an institution which also carries an ethical tradition of association, that also holds that the person is not a commodity and is capable of dignity and that this can only be protected by association. That is the Trade Unions.
I often say that one of the great thing about working with faith communities rather than economists is that they don’t think the free market spontaneously created the world. The great thing about working with churches is that you understand not only the possibility but the necessity of redemption. That it is possible to be good, to be better and that real change is to be found in relationships of trust, of faithfulness and experience.
I am working with Unite in Salford to set up the Bank of Salford. It is going well. They have consolidated the credit unions, put money in, the city council will put their pay roll through it to stabilise the asset, the government are supporting it with advice and lowering entry requirements to become a bank that can lend to businesses as well as families. It will be bounded within Salford, there will be local residents on the board as well as institutions, but Unite cannot do it on their own. There needs to be a partnership between the Church and labour that can put some constraint on capital without relying on the state. Relational accountability and democratic governance are key to this. That is how the old bones will walk again, by renewing a commitment to the common good in action. It's a great thing to do.
The condition of this task is training your own people in organising and leadership so that there can be some governance of the poor, by the poor and for the poor, and not simply a governance of them. This is a move from hosting the peace talks to actively seeking the peace. Pursuing it is a matter of necessity to your own flourishing.
We are all in exile in the cities now and Jeremiah’s words guide us well.
The Trade Unions are progressive, statist and materialist organisations that have not been very open to the common good. I sometimes think that they actually would like the dictatorship of the proletariat rather than an active alliance with the church so that they can partner their members in a move from debt to value, from employment to vocation, from subordination to partnership but sometimes I don’t. Unions were not always this way. They were a miracle of self-organisation and build burial and building societies to address their dispossession and degradation. It is a possibility we must embrace for it will be an unexpected and mutually beneficial relationship for both institutions, for both of our traditions, in that it will be complemented by a strengthening of society and local institutions. The welfare, peace, prosperity, goodness or shalom of the City is the Common Good from which all benefit, in which all give and all take appropriately. Only through the power and agency of poor people can their lives be changed. Only by building our relationships with them can our purpose be redeemed.
The task before us to build the banks together but that requires first that relationships are built. Relationships precede action.
There are interesting conversations and interesting times ahead.
Tackling Poverty Together
Stratford Town Hall, November 2013
Author: Jeremy Aspinall
Date: 18 November 2013
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