Lessons from the heartland
Jonathan Rutherford, writing about how the left is 'in a state of intellectual disarray', argues that "the centre left now faces an epochal task of constructing a political economy and philosophy that has broad electoral appeal and which is able to contest the Liberalism of the Labour right and the right wing communitarianism of the Conservatives."
Rutherford says that the way to achieve this is through a "plural politics of alliances held together by an ethical form of socialism." Ethical socialism "offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people’s lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality, and imaginary communities of belonging."
Personally, I find this kind of theorising quite abstract and hard to understand. I prefer to learn from actual examples of people and groups who have helped their communities by putting these values into practice.
So I'd like to introduce you to the Gellideg Foundation Group.
Gellideg is a social housing estate in the north of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. The Gellideg Foundation Group was formed in 1998 by 6 mothers on the estate who wanted to create better life for our children. They now employ over 35 people, delivering programmes across the themes of health, youth, education and the environment. Over 100 local residents volunteer their time to provide activities for all ages, across the ward.
They are a grassroots organisation. All projects and services offered by the Gellideg Foundation Group are born out of a expressed community need. There is a culture of ongoing participatory community consultation and engagement, formal and informal, which informs the direction of the projects offered by the Gellideg Foundation Group.
All activities within the Gellideg Foundation Group affirm the philosophy of the organisation – to build the capacity of the local community. This then enables the community to gain more independence and to exercise more control of its own affairs. This is achieved by:
- Employing and training local people to enhance the local economy
- Believing in and valuing skills and talents within the community which promotes independence by utilising those skills within the Gellideg Foundation Group and raising hopes and aspirations.
- Advocating for individuals and groups at a local, regional and national level to ensure that the community has a voice
- Offering training courses to enable individuals to develop both personally and professionally
- Working in partnership with the local community and other organisations for the benefit of individuals and families
- Having a non-judgemental approach to individuals, families and the community
Their ethos is best summed up by something that their Director said about their work with people who had been in prison. “For us, they aren’t “ex-offenders” or “hard to reach”, they are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and we help them because we love them and because they are part of our community”. It's a totally different way of thinking and working from the technical and dehumanising language of "hard to reach", "NEETs", "customers", "the incapacity benefit stock" and so on which government ministers and people who work in the public or corporate welfare sector use.
Critics of so-called 'identity politics' would do well to note that one of the big breakthroughs for Gellideg Foundation was when in 2002 they carried out a Gendered Needs Analysis, which gave them the analysis and understanding of their community which helped make them so successful. A lot of their funding also came from both the European Union and various quangos - showing how both of these much maligned organisations can help civil society groups to flourish.
I think that anyone who is worried about 'the intellectual disarray of the left' and wants to know about how the centre-left can undertake its epochal task should start by going over to Merthyr and talking to Colette, Mandy and others at Gellideg, and others like them up and down the country - people who the political class may not have heard of, but whose patient, dedicated, grassroots work should be the inspiration for all us lefties.