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If you’re searching for the big society, here’s where you may find it

The tenor of relationships within a religious community makes it the best tutorial in citizenship an

It is the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, the man who ten years ago delivered the bad news, who has now given us the good news. Social capital, once thought lost, has been found again, at least in the US. Putnam is perhaps best known for the phrase he used to describe the individualism afflicting ageing western democracies. Noting that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling, but fewer are joining bowling clubs and leagues, he coined the phrase "Bowling Alone". It summed up an era.

The free market was giving us unprecedented individual choices. Liberal democracy was leaving us freer than ever to decide how to structure our lives. Morality had morphed into a seemingly infinite variety of lifestyles, to be put on and then discarded at will.

Social capital

In the decade since Bowling Alone was published, we've travelled further along the same trajectory. Two generations ago, newspapers, radio and television were configured in such a way that an entire nation was receiving the news at much the same time in much the same way. Now news and information-gathering have fragmented: there are myriad blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages from which to choose those that resonate with your convictions-de-jour, allowing you to screen out all voices with which you disagree.

One way or another, it's been bad news for those associations - marriages, families, congregations and communities - through which we once lived out our biological imperatives as "the social animal". In the endless competition between our selfish genes and our group instincts, self has been winning, weakening, in Robert Bellah's words, "the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them frightened and alone".

Now, in his new book American Grace, Putnam sets out the good news. A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people - defined by regular attendance at a place of worship - actually do make better neighbours.

A survey carried out across the US between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity. They were also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, allow another driver to cut in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.

For some minor acts of help, there was no difference between frequent and non-churchgoers. But there was no good deed that was more commonly practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, both within and beyond their own communities.

Their altruism goes further than this. Frequent wor­shippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, health, arts and leisure, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. Within these organisations they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They play a bigger role in civic and political life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large.

Tested on attitudes, religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. On the basis of self-reported life satisfaction, religious people are also happier than their non-religious counterparts.

The art of association

Interestingly, each of these attributes is related not to people's religious beliefs, but to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.

So, if we're searching for the big society, this is where we will find it. Politically, it's the idea of the moment, but it's what faith communities have been doing all along. It's their greatest strength and a large part of their raison d'être. They are an ongoing tutorial in the "art of association" that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as our apprenticeship in liberty.

Does this mean that we are about to become more religious as a society, or that charity is an adequate substitute for government spending, or that faith communities are our only source of altruism? No. Britain, relative to the US, is a highly secular society. Philanthropy alone cannot fill the gap left by government cutbacks. And the sources of altruism go deep into our evolutionary past.

My point is simply this. In thinking about religion and society in the 21st century, we should broaden the conversation about faith from doctrinal debates to the larger question of how it might inspire us to strengthen the bonds of belonging that redeem us from our solitude, helping us to construct together a gracious and generous social order.

Lord Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide