Working together

A key building in Findhorn needs repairing bringing about a sense of nostalgia for the early days of

It feels like old times. Gangs have been out all week, working on the roof of the Universal Hall, the splendid building at the heart of the ecovillage that plays such an important role in the cultural life of our community. After almost 30 years, it is beginning to show signs of wear and tear and the roof now has to come off to permit replacement of waterproofing membranes that keep the building dry.

The Hall figures large in the mythology surrounding the ‘heroic phase’ of Findhorn’s development. The image passed down is of great teams of volunteers out digging trenches, putting up buildings, turning fields into farms. This was the early 1970s, an era of great idealism with the model of the Israeli Kibbutz as a shining example of the power and beauty of communal solidarity.

Every so often, when we celebrate community anniversaries or the birthdays of those who were around during this period, the old photographs of the great work-gangs are wheeled out. As a more recent arrival – I have lived here for only around seven years – these photos tend to make me feel nostalgic.

And I remember back to a wonderful late summer’s day in a small intentional community I used to live in on the Dorset/Devon border, where a team of us rose before dawn and harvested an 11-acre hay field in one long day, pushing the last bale into place in the great barn in the late twilight just as the day’s first raindrops started to fall, before retreating to the local pub, to sit silent, exhausted and deeply happy with ourselves, with each other and with life.

Today, the greater individualism in society as a whole has also permeated the ecovillage movement. Most of us here have to make our own living. And while there are still some self-build projects, most houses are now built by professionals (even if often, those professionals are other community members that learned their trade on projects like the Universal Hall). The trenches for cables and pipes are now dug by paid teams wearing official hard-hats and uniforms – no apparent need for those in the heroic period, suggest the old faded photographs.

The Hall took ten years to build. A team of local skilled stonemasons was brought in to build the first wall. Then, partly due to financial considerations, partly because of the prevailing can-do spirit, they were released and community members who had worked alongside them took over. “There was generally always one person on the job who knew what he was doing”, one of the elders tells me, “but not always”. Still, go look at the walls and try to identify which is the one that was built by the professionals – I still cannot.

Work was completed on schedule in time to host the first World Wilderness Congress in 1983. Among the early speakers was Fritz Schumacher, of Small Is Beautiful fame. Now, the Hall is a venue for many important local festivals, including the Nairn Jazz Festival, the Aberdeen International Youth Dance Festival and for a host of dancers, singers and theatre troupes. It is perhaps the biggest draw that brings in people from outside the community.

So, it is fitting that it should be Hall that provides us with an opportunity to rediscover the joys of working together as volunteers in great teams. My prayer is that we re-acquire a taste for this way of working and that it gets woven back into the fabric of who we are as a community.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.