Although asset based approaches cannot in themselves address the enormous power imbalance inherent in society, the approach is a useful and empowering step towards citizen participation and redressing power balance between individual citizens and the state.
The learning acquired from using asset based approaches to address inequality in communities can helpfully inform Labour party strategy. If we continue to expect citizens to participate in the democratic process without planning to redistribute power, those we seek to represent will continue to find the process both empty and frustrating. There is currently a disengagement between voters and the democratic process that has reached a tipping point precipitating the rise of populism and a rejection of organisations that communities, rightly or wrongly, feel unheard by.
I joined the NHS in 1982 as a student nurse and in 1996 I qualified as a health visitor. Asset based approaches have become part of my everyday work because, for me, they offer an effective and coherent way to express my belief in social justice, life-long development and respect for the rights and responsibilities of the individual within society.
I have learnt that if we truly wish to encourage people to work in partnership for sustainable change, we need to facilitate two-way communication with communities. Organisations shouldn’t just listen to what is said to them but must plan for sufficient interaction to build relationships that they would not normally pursue. In asset based approaches action is not ours to take unilaterally but a negotiation with communities.
In using asset based approaches we also accept that a solution isn’t always possible but the journey to that decision can still bring benefit to all involved in terms of good will and preservation of the individual’s right to be involved in the process.
I would never criticise anyone for wanting to respond to needs or address the inequalities that are so clear in our society. However, we need to be mindful that if we undertake to elicit change in isolation and ignore the right to involvement of those affected by change, we are more likely to satisfy our own altruistic need by tokenism than true citizen participation, regardless of our good intention.
Technology has changed both society and the world of work. With this change traditional Labour communities are becoming fragmented. Maslow’s hierarchy of need suggests that for citizens to be outward looking they must first feel secure about their own circumstances. Today, many citizens are focused on their own job insecurity, lack of acceptable and affordable accommodation and doubts over their future prosperity. It is small wonder that there is currently limited concern for the bigger picture of an outward looking society.
If Labour is to succeed against this adversity it will need to acknowledge that the NEC and the parliamentary party are only a very tiny tip of an already large iceberg and if power continues to remain in the hands of the party hierarchy, then we will continue to lose votes regardless of how admirable the party’s aims.
Whilst the co-ordination of activity needs to remain the remit of the governing body and parliamentary party, a way must be found to devolve more autonomy to the CLP. Devolving power offers an enticing opportunity for the party to present a flexible and responsive face. Labour could promote the growth of fluid communities and a sense of connection that is currently being eroded. CLP’s could not just listen to voters but actively seek ways to use the knowledge and skills of individual’s in new, meaningful and dynamic ways.
Few of the disenfranchised and disengaged are interested in the abstract of our intentions but they are interested in what concrete difference can be made to their daily lives through contact with the largely untapped resource of the membership.
Our MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates need to show leadership not only to become electable but also in motivating and co-ordinating the membership in delivering programmes of support with local impact even in CLP’s where candidates are not likely to be elected. With resourcing and leadership from the NEC new roles and responsibilities could be created at a local level. People want to experience the benefits of giving their vote to Labour not just hear about it.
In July this year I will retire from the NHS. Like a lot of my colleagues, last year I became unwell due to prolonged work related stress. I began to question whether the effort and dedication to public service I had given had been worth the personal cost because the NHS I see around me and truly believe in, is facing the biggest risk to a continued existence that I can ever remember.
I tuned in to watch the 2016 Labour party conference and saw Angela Rayner MP speak of her experience of SureStart and I knew that the effort had been worthwhile. I was not Angela Rayner’s health visitor but I have been the health visitor to hundreds of Angelas, mothers and fathers from all walks of life who found themselves facing adversity. In offering this support we did not tell them what they should do nor did we deliver what we thought they needed. Instead we explored how they could take back at least some control over their lives. In doing so they drew on their own resources, accepted the challenge and grew as people.
One of my colleagues summed it up by saying “we thought the impossible was possible and sometimes we even achieved it”. If the Labour party is to be meaningful in the future it must utilise these asset based approaches to inspire widespread positive citizen participation and give people back some level of control over the course of their lives.