At our first roundtable policy discussion for the Better, Stronger, Closer Communities Policy Commission, we went – to borrow Sir John Major’s ill-advised phrase – back to basics.
As part of the Young Fabians research on ‘Generation Crisis’, we’re exploring ways to try and strengthen our communities, ensuring they are places where different generations come together and integrate.
This is not so much Sir John’s infamous ‘country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ (that would probably require the Doc’s DeLorean to recreate), more Tony Blair’s vision of a stakeholder society, ensuring everyone has a stake in their local community.
Before we could get on to questions of how to (re)create this, though, we had to establish what a 21st century community looks like, and how it has evolved over the past fifty years, fuelled by an increasing number of younger people moving away from home for education or employment, and aided by social media and the exorbitant price of property, which means many younger people are now well into to their thirties before buying their first home and settling down in one place.
The fact is, for whatever reason, communities have changed, and from our discussion, it was clear that the very concept of what constitutes a community has evolved. Whereas in decades past communities were traditionally based upon geographical links, that is not necessarily the case nowadays. As long as there is some sort of shared entity or passion amongst members – be that a sport, hobby, political party or band – communities can exist where members have no geographical ties.
Of course, some communities are still based upon where we live, but these tend to be very specific, and often dominated by one age group. Communities based on university friends, for example, whilst ostensibly set around a shared geographical link, lack the sort of inter-generational integration that would exist in many neighbourhood communities. Furthermore, communities established at university are prolonged with the advent of social media, so four friends who study together but end up in different parts of the country can ensure their community survives through Facebook, and Twitter, long after they have ceased living near one another.
Indeed, 21st century communities do not even require a physical presence. Some will have one, such as a regular meeting place or activity, but others might exist purely online, conglomerates of like-minded people united through their broadband cables.
What was also clear from our discussions, is that we all belong to many different communities, and these can overlap, and even clash, the reconciliation of which sometimes necessitates a member leaving a group – or being forcibly removed from it! Fluidity, though, is a key component to our communities, and means that people are constantly moving between different groups.
In certain communities, there are a clear set of rules which members must sign up to. Sometimes these will be written rules, sometimes merely implied. Sometimes the rules will dictate to what extent members can play an active role in the community, sometimes they will prohibit membership entirely if they are not adhered to. Sometimes the unwritten rules might preclude people from joining the community without them even knowing it.
Most communities will have one element that all members must subscribe to – one central belief, value, ideal or interest that unites all who are part of the community – but aside from that (and a regular monetary contribution to enable membership to continue in some cases) members can generally dictate their level of involvement in the community.
In the Labour Party, for example, there is an implicit rule that members subscribe to some form a centre left or left-leaning progressive politics, and members must pay their membership fee. After that, however, members can choose their level of involvement. If they can resist the constant cajoling of their CLP secretary, they can choose to do no more; they may decide to leaflet, canvass, run a street stall or hold a fund-raiser; they may seek elected office as a councillor, MEP or MP; they might even seek election as leader of the Labour Party. But it is their choice. As long as they adhere to the basic requirements, the level of involvement they have is entirely up to them.
At times, our discussion felt more philosophical than policy-based, but what was clear is that our attachment to groups within society remains as strong as ever, it is just that societal and technological change has shifted our concept of what constitutes a community, so most people could name numerous communities to which they belong without mentioning their own neighbourhood.
The challenge for policy makers is to harness this attachment to our own geographical communities, strengthening our neighbourhood communities and bringing different generations together in a way that few other communities do. These are the challenges our policy commission will be considering in forthcoming discussions.
Tobin Byers is a Young Fabians member and Co-Chair of the Better, Stronger, Closer Communities Policy Commission