Brendan Cox, Co-founder of /Together
Conference season is well underway and political commentators are working themselves up into a frenzy as a general election looms. Party conferences are traditionally the opportunity for political leaders to set out their stall and story and their speeches are the main event. You’ll normally get some rousing walk on music, an emotional story of why they entered politics, rapturous applause from the party faithful (sometimes coordinated by over-excited party officials), and then an adoring spouse coming on to the stage at the end to gaze at the party leader.
This political theatre can be as cliched as pantomime season, but occasionally it can also really matter. This is one of the few opportunities where a political leader gets to set out their stall uninterrupted (in most cases) and with the media more willing to focus on the bigger picture. The question is whether they can rise to this moment.
Despite all having been in the public eye for a long time, Ed Davey, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are all relatively unknown quantities. While the public may have a vague sense of what they think of them, none of them have fully managed to establish a story of what they are really for. That’s not all their fault, it’s partly because the public haven’t been listening – but as we get closer to an election that will change.
Part of the reason for the lack of a positive narrative may be that they have been advised against it, that they have been told that the story of politics is less important or less viable before. Facing a cynical public, tight public finances and the dominance of the cost-of-living crisis, perhaps they think the electorate aren’t interested in high flown rhetoric about a shining house on the hill, what they need is competent managerialism focussed on reducing bills.
Here they are at least half right. Politics has lost so much credibility in recent years that grand promises often fail to stir much – if any – excitement. But that doesn’t mean the public don’t want hope; in fact, we need it now more than ever.
The debate this conference season will at least in part be a question of whether our political leaders can sketch out a vision that is hopeful and optimistic, while still being rooted in reality and credible with the public. I think they can. And it’s not just me who thinks that. The Together Coalition and a huge range of people from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Michael Sheen, newspaper editors to leaders of charities, Brexiters to Remainers have written to party leaders urging them to root their vision for our shared country in a reaffirmation of community and a mission to rebuild our connections.
That’s because we have taken community for granted for too long. Social connection is perhaps the most important area of social policy, yet is only rarely discussed. It lies behind everything from the mental health crisis to low social mobility, poor health outcomes to high crime.
As well as being critical to so many areas of public life, a focus on community connectedness would also have the benefit of meeting people where they are. Rather than abstract visions or ideological principles, the public want more focus on community and already have faith in the people they live with. While trust in politicians has cratered, trust in each other has actually started to rise.
So what would it mean to put community at the centre of a new national vision? Our letter sets out five ideas to get us started.
You can read the letter in full here.
First (and yes, most boringly) we’d have to start measuring it properly, so we know how we are doing and which areas need the most help. Secondly, we’d need to make it easier for people to communicate with each other – supporting people to learn English who don’t speak it for example, or ensuring those not yet online are connected to the digital world. Thirdly, providing more collective spaces for communities to come together to connect. Fourthly, supporting new efforts to re-build a volunteering nation – volunteers who provide so much of the social infrastructure that we rely on to connect with each other. And finally, finding new ways of celebrating our local communities and creating new moments to connect, perhaps like a public holiday dedicated to community connection.
Of course, these are just a few ideas and even if we implemented all of these it would only be a step in the right direction. But the bigger opportunity here is to align a country behind a big hopeful vision where we rebuild our communities. This is politics as it should be –not something that’s done to us but something we embark on together.