What can Lord Glasman teach the disadvantaged of Croydon?

By - Tuesday 21st July, 2015

Power to the people? Perhaps not in Croydon, reflects Charles Barber

Photo author’s own.

On the evening of Tuesday 7th July, the recently established Croydon Commission for Opportunity and Fairness invited selected church, community and voluntary sector leaders and the odd ignorant journalist to an audience with the Labour peer, academic, and director of London Metropolitan University’s Faith and Citizenship programme, Lord Maurice Glasman.

Lord Glasman has spent much of his working life analysing how current power structures within our society disempower those at the lower socio-economic end of our communities, and exploring how poor communities can come together to regain a sense of power and ownership over their lives.

It takes a Labour activist eight seconds to interrupt someone who disagrees with the party line

He was certainly a charming and interesting speaker, and his analysis of the current ills of our society was one that most of the assembled audience, including me, would probably agree with. It was refreshing too to come across an academic and politician who clearly believed that it was important to listen to what other people are saying and to not just stick to your own preconceived views. He told an interesting anecdote against his own party: it apparently takes a Labour party activist an average of eight seconds to interrupt a citizen she is interviewing, if that citizen’s views were somehow different from the accepted Labour party consensus.

Lord Glasman’s views and attitudes have clearly been formed from talking to many different people, and although I may not always agree with his conclusions, I do respect his willingness to really listen to what people are saying.

Although from the Jewish faith himself, he has also spent much of his time working with leaders in other religious communities to solve some of the social and economic problems that many poorer communities face. He’s recently taken a leading role in trying to set up credit unions so that poor people in need of a loan can avoid shark-like payday loan companies.

Market forces: the rich get richer, the poor poorer

He started his talk with the rather discouraging comment that politics in Westminster was ‘very stuck’ in an acceptance of the inevitable domination of market forces, in a way which seems to lead to the small minority of the rich getting richer, and vast majority of the poor getting ever poorer. He was keen to stress that only a fool would not desire a strong market economy, but such an economy could, if we chose, be organised so that the concentration of wealth it produces could be shared more equitably. He worries about how everything in this day and age seems to be treated as a commodity without an awareness of how people and nature have a value that extends beyond the purely economic.

In the Glasman analysis of the world, three types of power shape our society. The first is Money Power (the wealth and influence of large financial institutions and businesses), the second State Power (the power of the government) and the third is what he likes to call Relational Power (which we might understand as ‘community power’). He believes the domination of Money Power in the last few decades has left many people at the poorer end of society feeling disempowered and dispossessed. Through Relational Power, he sees a possibility of being able to reverse this worrying trend.

At any meeting you attend, engage one person you do not know in conversation

Market research shows that the three things that most people care about are firstly their families, secondly the place where they live and thirdly their work – while current society seems to have little respect for the integrity of the person and any of their three concerns. This attitude is more likely to be magnified if you live in New Addington rather than Sanderstead. Lord Glasman thinks that faith and community organisations can help to provide some of this respect and can also help to solve some of the social and economic problems that face their communities.

In order to be able to do so, they need to communicate and collaborate more, so if Lord Glasman was keen to impart one piece of wisdom from his years in public service it was that at every meeting that we attend, we should endeavour to engage someone that we don’t know in conversation.

There’s no lack of people struggling to solve Croydon’s problems

Lord Glasman was then  invited to answer a number of questions from the audience. In some ways this was the most interesting – if rather dispiriting – part of the evening. Time and time again, a church, community or voluntary service leader would voice their frustrations about how they really wanted to tackle particular problems but were being thwarted due to a cut in their financial support. It seemed to me that there was no lack of people struggling and wanting to solve some of Croydon’s problems, but that they were currently being gradually deprived of the tools to enable them to do so. No-one can deny that communities working together can sometimes achieve great things, but it seemed to me as I left the talk that the failure of the ‘stuck’ politics of Westminster hampers rather than helps those in most need.

It will be interesting to see what problems and possible solutions the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission identifies. It is currently seeking views from residents about what they think is unfair in their area and what assets might be better used to improve life in Croydon. If you are a part of a group that would like to be involved in this process, it also has a range of workshop ideas that you can download from its website.

As an individual you can also make a submission about the problems and issues in your area that most matter to you. And as someone who claims to care about the environment but is in truth a bit of an armchair environmentalist, it’s not perhaps purely coincidental that two days after this talk, I finally did a day’s volunteering with the splendid Croydon Conservation Volunteers.

Lord Glasman – I think you’ve got a point.

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Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Sean Creighton

    I was not able to go to the Glasman event. Much of what you summarise him as saying is already part of the debate in Croydon. The problems of Money and State Power are the centre of the concerns of the Croydon TUC Croydon Assembly, and why it is seeking to link a wide range of community organisations together and to produce an alternative vision for the way forward. The Whitgift Centre CPO Inquiry was all about the differences among different sections of those with Money Power and the way one section has captured local State Power, with only a small number of voices putting a different perspective. The need for networking between those who support Relational Power are developing: e.g. Croydon Arts Network, the Friends of Parks forum, Tech City, Croydon Communities Consortium. Many of the postings on Croydon Citizen have been an attempt to encourage discussion on improving Relational Power. The challenge facing everyone who wants to build Relational Power and support the disadvantaged is how to engage with people whose lives are under constant stress, the high turnover of population in Croydon every year, the sheer range of issues that have to be dealt with, and the number of people who cannot fully access the internet which is increasingly becoming the dominant method of finding things out and taking part in ‘community consultations’. The activists are snowed under and because they feel marginalised and not listened to it can become all too easy to resort to in-fighting which is exactly what Money and State Power want to happen. I agree with you that it is important that individuals and organisations submit their views to the Commission (as I have done), but people should be thinking of doing this by the end of October given the Commission’s timetable. It would also be helpful if the Commission made available for early September a summary of the issues that have been drawn to its attention and the questions it is asking arising from these; and a summary of the positive suggestions made to it.

  • moguloilman

    Certainly disappointing if the predominant message is just give us more money.

    Also disappointing IMO is the Opportunity and Fairness Commission. Hardly recently launched, it was launched in January, yet there have only been two public meetings (other than the ad hoc session reported here). I have been to both and there was nil useful discussion.

    Since then there was supposed to have been a meeting in Central Croydon in June (hasn’t happened) and the plan showed a meeting in South Croydon in July (no sign of that either). The £200,000 spent on the Commission might have helped on the cash situation.

    • CroydonNeighbourhood

      We’ve actively promoted the Opportunity and Fairness Commission (OFC) but are left wondering what is the point.

      We missed the January launch as we had a meeting on the same night. This was unavoidable due to the lack of notice of the OFC launch. We promoted it, nonetheless, as clearly of wide interest.

      Like you, a committee member attended the New Addington public meeting and found people generally shocked at the lack of opportunity for those who attended to speak at the event to share their views. The meager sample number, on which the statistics quoted at this event were based, as a result of the OFC’s engagement of communities in New Addington, was risible.

      Several of us also attended the Lord Glasman session. Although very interesting, and promoting the importance of talk to promote a sense of community, the opportunity for those attending to speak was severely limited, even given that the commissioner chairing the session sneaked in a few more questions, despite Lord Glasman declining to take further questions after the first six!

      As you say, there was no promised meeting in June – a date we delayed plans for our meeting in order to avoid a clash.

      We offered the OFC the opportunity to speak at our AGM or to use this to canvass views. Although told this would be put to the commissioners, no one has yet come back to us on this. Our AGM was two weeks ago now. Still no word.

      There is a youth commission but who is on it is not disclosed and there have been no advertised events so far.

      The ‘competition’ to engage youth closed yesterday, with only a handful of entries submitted. And only this handful are in it to win it, if you think it fair to include a submission from a person we suspect is sitting on the youth commission running the competition, an entry from a Labour councillor’s account promoting a Labour initiative, and a young person using a stock photo – presumably against the rules and pointed out to the OFC as an issue, although still there.

      Given the lack of opportunity to speak at the scant public meetings staged so far and the extremely limited public engagement across the age ranges and communities in Croydon, interest in the views of residents appears to be way down on the agenda of the OFC.

      We’ve also made contact to ask to table information as a committee but told that the Bishop was not available until May. We are now into August. Guess what? Still not a word, although we’ve followed this up several times.

      The report of the Commission should be available by the end of September or in October 2015, bring to an end what the OFC refer to as “large scale public engagement”.

      CCC are yet to see or hear of this engagement. We know our evidence has not been submitted as we still wait to hear.

      Some quibble over piddling amounts awarded to groups in Croydon, or see groups with real worth remain unfunded, yet stand by silently and watch £200K spent on this ‘engagement’ exercise.

      It would be very interesting to hear what others think of the work of he OFC so far.