Labour’s family roots

The “big society” is a myth. It’s high time the left wrested community engagement back from the Tori

David Cameron's idea of the "big society" has been widely derided. It is commonly seen - even by other Tory politicians - as a way of dressing up public-sector cuts. One anonymous Conservative MP described it as "complete crap". Another, David Davis, summed up his colleagues' basic position. "The corollary of the big society is the smaller state," he said. "If you talk about the small state, people think that you are Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, they think that you are Mother Teresa."

Left-of-centre comment has been almost as contemptuous, arguing that most people do not want to get home after a hard day's work only to attend endless meetings about organising local services. Another objection to devolving power in this way is that many inner-city communities are an ethnic mosaic. The danger is that those with the time, confidence, literacy and social capital to run "community" organisations will not represent the community as a whole.

Despite the derision, Cameron persists with the idea, which he launched in Liverpool this summer. There is something about Tory politicians and Liverpool. Michael Heseltine went there after the riots in 1981 and named himself minister for the city. Fearing the rage of the urban mob, Heseltine didn't mess around with namby-pamby ideas such as the big society. He strong-armed money out of big business and his government colleagues with a statement about Liverpool's citizens: "These people are burning this city. If we let them, they will burn others."

While Heseltine was a cheerful proponent of large-scale state intervention, Cameron has a very different approach. He says that he wants to empower communities to start doing things for themselves. Conveniently, this will save the government money at a time when it is seeking to cut billions in public expenditure.

And yet, is it right to dismiss the notion of strengthening families, social networks and communities just because the words come from Tory lips? Why should my party allow the Conservatives to appropriate the idea of supporting mutual societies and co-operatives, which are such an important part of Labour's heritage? The provincial building societies of the Victorian era represented the apotheosis of respectable, working-class self-help, while the co-operative movement was a founder of the Labour Party and remains affiliated to this day.

Community service

Hackney, one of the poorest areas of the capital and in the whole country, has been the lucky recipient of every form of state intervention and aid since the days of Heseltine. But the government has been far more successful in regenerating buildings in such areas than in regenerating people. The combination of a ben­efi­cent Labour mayor of London and a beneficent Labour government led to huge im- provements to the borough's infrastructure over the past decade. We now have a new London Overground line, better bus services and sparkling new stations; and millions have been spent on doing up estates. But fixing family structures and community relations has proved more of a challenge.

Primary school teachers in Hackney report to me the disturbed behaviour of some children entering school for the first time. The impact on children's attitudes of being raised by mothers rendered neglectful by drug abuse, without extended families, can be dramatic. Less dramatic - but just as potentially damaging to their long-term life chances - is the incidence of children starting school who have not been spoken to regularly. Young mothers often deliver their children to school with earphones firmly in their ears. Motherhood is kitting out tots in designer clothes, but not communicating with them. I find this unbelievable. Growing up in a noisy, West Indian extended family in the 1960s, you were never short of adults talking to you, at you and around you. It's not like that for many young people today. Family and community relationships have degenerated as our buildings have become shiny and new.

It is clear that something has happened to family cohesion when people crowd in front of TV cameras to blame social workers each time a child dies at the hands of a relative. Sometimes, I wonder: what did they do? Don't they take any responsibility for the grandchild or niece? Have we subcontracted responsibility for our families to underpaid state employees?

It is no wonder that working-class boys of any race fail at school, if they grow up on an estate where they rarely see a man going to work regularly, let alone reading a book. For decades, politicians have debated the problem of single-mother households, but there needs to be a little more debate about the men who leave.

The history of the Child Support Agency proves that there is no quick fix. It was established by a Tory government with Labour support. The consensus was that it would force feckless, working-class men to face up to their responsibilities. But the agency had no impact, as the men didn't have jobs that would enable them to pay. And middle-class men rose up in fury when the agency thwarted their ability to walk away from their families and trade their wives in for younger models. Politicians have backed away from the matter ever since.

Perhaps I take such a strong view on issues of self-help and solidarity because I come from an immigrant family. Social solidarity and strong family networks were vital for survival in rural Jamaica, and even more vital when people migrated here. New migrants would rely on family for their first place to live, for help in getting a job and all the sorts of practical support that social workers nowadays attempt to supply. Because community networks are so important to immigrant groups, they tend to value them and retain them long after the group as a whole has moved on and up the social ladder.

Family values

I reject the idea of a "broken Britain". I know too many hard-working volunteers and too much unsung neighbourliness for that. Nor do I demonise young men in the inner city. I believe in strong, properly funded state institutions with paid staff. Yet money alone cannot cure all the ills of our communities. Family and community should take centre stage in the debate about what the Labour Party is for.

New Labour frayed some of the ties that hold communities together. It regarded co-ops and mutual organisation as dusty and old-fashioned compared to the bright and shiny free markets and international financial services. Now that we have seen the terrible damage those markets can do, the moment has come to rediscover some of the old models. They might provide fitting structures for banks such as Northern Rock, now owned by the government.

The movement that was born of the best of working-class self-help and self-organisation should be leading this debate.

Diane Abbott MP is a candidate for the Labour leadership