How do you create a “big society”?

A big song may not be a bad start.

Whether one thinks David Cameron's "big society" is hopelessly deluded or, as Ed Miliband put it, an attempt by the coalition government "to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society", few would disagree that the aim of "unleashing community engagement" is a worthy one.

I have an idea that may not have found its way into Tory plans, but perhaps it should. For if the "big society" is to mean anything, it has to be about more than just delivering local services such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing services in a different way -- important though that is. It also has to include the most ambitious target of all, which is to reverse the atomisation of our communities and to bring back some sense of belonging.

In other words: it needs to build social capital, as the former Labour adviser Andy Westwood conceded in a surprisingly fair-minded early response to Cameron's big idea that you can find here.

And it struck me that, quietly, and without being connected with any discussion of the "big society", one type of those "little platoons" Burke urged us to cherish has been showing its worth, in the concert hall, on the much-mocked (mostly justly mocked) format of reality television, and in real communities. I'm talking about choirs.

Real people sing Bach

Who provided a large number of the singers for Mahler's 8th, which opened the Proms last week? Not a group of highly paid professional singers, but the amateurs of the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Where on Sunday night could you see people of all different sizes, ages and races come together and give up their spare time to rehearse and then perform, both for their pleasure and for that of others? On Don't Stop Believing, Channel 5's show inspired by the success of US TV's Glee. And what was it that brought "a real sense of pride", according to a local teacher, to South Oxhey, a large, despondent and divided housing estate outside Watford? The community choirs, assembled by Gareth Malone, a tireless and inspirational chorusmaster featured in The Choir: Unsung Town and several other BBC series.

This will be no surprise to anyone who has spent much time singing in one; and I write as someone who did so for ten years, including, for five, in either the crypt or the nave of Canterbury Cathedral every Sunday. But that example should not be taken as typical.

In fact, the ones I mentioned above are far better models for choirs or choruses that bring communities or groups together. For, contrary to their slightly elitist image -- ordinary people singing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, imagine! -- the truth is that the chorus is one of the most powerfully egalitarian of institutions.

Unlike in sport, individual success does not require that others should fail (the only competition is to maintain or exceed the standard of performance). And unlike team sports, in which individual effort is noted, rated and judged, the chorus is one.

A footballer may be tempted to take a risky shot at a goal to further his own glory. A singer in a chorus whose voice can be heard amid the throng is doing something wrong; his or her role is to serve and combine in the greater group.

Indeed, it is precisely because of this melding of the many into one that it does not matter all that much if individual members of a chorus have particularly good voices. The embarrassment that leads many men in particular to claim that they can't sing, or to pretend they can only do so in a basso profundo monotone growl (both nonsense -- being genuinely tone-deaf or lacking at least the baritone range of a Frank Sinatra, in my experience, are extremely rare), swiftly disappears when singular imperfections are masked by a greater whole, affording singers the liberty to enjoy the most uplifting of forms of self-expression.

There is a reason why many mining pits used to have male voice choirs and why all religions employ singing as part of their devotions. The eastern bloc countries were very aware of the power of music -- remember the Red Army Band and Chorus? But we have lost, or become shy of, one of the oldest and most bonding of human traditions.

Generous helping

It is a paradox that instances of singing -- such as bellowing out a hymn as part of the daily act of worship schools were meant to provide under the Butler Education Act 1944 -- came to be seen not as acts that enhanced esprit de corps or group solidarity, but as anachronistic, paternalistic examples of repression or religious indoctrination. Try telling that to any group of people who have just sung "Jerusalem", whether at a funeral (as I have done twice in the past few weeks, at those for Sebastian Horsley and Beryl Bainbridge) or at a football match. They know better.

This suggestion may seem frivolous to some, perhaps, or a distraction from the cuts whose effects the "big society" is expected to ameliorate. But if the term is to represent anything real, if individuals are to think more generously about others than concentrating selfishly only on their own "rights", something has to bring them together.

It will not, I think, be through the works of Philip Blond and Robert Putnam suddenly becoming bestsellers that a greater sense of cohesion and mutual obligation will come about. If, however, different people from across an area meet regularly in a common endeavour, they are surely less likely to walk on by or to ignore the problems faced by others, hitherto unknown, who have through this experience become neighbours -- a notion of which our frightened, unfriendly cities, whose dwellers barricade themselves in at home behind triple locks and bars, are in desperate need.

A choir may be only one example of such an endeavour, but it is a good example, and one that deserves the encouragement and support of the Departments of Culture and Education. I would urge anyone who still thinks I'm being foolish, facetious or fatuous in suggesting it to look up any series of BBC2's The Choir, and the third in particular.

Yes, it was a reality TV show. But I'm willing to bet that it brought more joy, hope and sense of community to a run-down, depressing area than any government initiative or grant has in the whole of South Oxhey's existence.

No one knows exactly how to create a "big society". But a big song might not be a bad start.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.