Superficially at least, party conference season brings out a propensity in party elites to seek to draw ‘dividing lines’ between themselves and their opponents, and this year was no exception. David Cameron’s upbeat speech sought to paint Ed Miliband as a pessimist and Labour as economically incompetent, while Nick Clegg’s took on Miliband’s perceived lack of either vision or pragmatism. Miliband, meanwhile, placed Cameron and Clegg firmly within the ‘closed circles of Britain’, vested interests that he was the man to challenge. But one key area of rhetoric saw a cosy consensus between Government and opposition.

It’s been well documented that Cameron and Miliband in particular are trying to claim the language of rights and responsibilities, with both competing to take on the mission of ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture. Miliband went first:

When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made.

Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t?

My answer is no.

Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.

And I say every council should recognise the contribution that people are making.

Miliband’s idea on housing allocations is already happening in many areas, but his initial idea – where people who volunteer were also prioritised – seems to have been dropped: Housing Minister Grant Shapps made no reference to community contributions when he said ‘Local authorities of all political persuasions are introducing measures to ensure that people who work hard, play by the rules and are responsible, get fair access to housing in this country.’

An obvious difficulty is one of style over substance: given that ‘the dole’ is now called ‘jobseekers’ allowance’, aren’t all recipients categorised as looking for work? The practical implications are worse: does anyone really think that homelessness is an advantage in the job market? But a deeper problem with this kind of talk, and this kind of policy, is its implication that going to work and paying one’s taxes makes one a model citizen. In reality, anyone who has ever had any sort of job knows that though it may be more or less satisfying in itself, we work because we have to.

Many jobs are not socially useful or are useful only in a tenuous, marginal way, justified by the fact that they keep a particular system afloat so that somewhere, at a few removes, something good can happen. The same applies to job creation. Some new jobs feed overconsumption or threaten workers’ mental health with their tediumsometimes both at the same time. Many, increasingly, can be done by machines. Creating these kinds of jobs is not, overall, a good idea. The reason that some people still advocate it is because the benefits of innovation – like automating a previously manual process – are not, currently, shared out across society. If the economic system was capable, and its participants willing, there’s no particular reason that life couldn’t be more like ‘Hey, Jethro’s just invented the seed drill – let’s all knock off work seven minutes early from now on’.

Other jobs are ‘regrettable necessities’ that a good society would not need and that we should, in the long term – and even if we never manage it – aspire to eliminate, like jobs associated with policing, say, or insurance. I once heard an interesting anecdote from a consultant who had worked with police forces in both Britain and Australia. Asked to imagine ideal and worst case scenarios in a professional context, the Australian force put ‘no police’ in their ‘heaven’ corner – job done – but the British police had the same point as their ‘hell’. The Australians, of course, had it right: we probably won’t ever get there, but our aspiration should be for a world where no police are needed, and the scale of our commitment to education, rehabilitation and community justice should reflect that aspiration.

Meanwhile, back in the present, our progress isn’t aided by politicians’ rhetorical fallacies. The idea that living on benefits, if there are jobs available and you are capable of working, is wrong because it is unfair to your fellow citizens is one which I think most people in the country would agree with on some level. But it does not automatically imply a converse, inherent nobility or fairness in working. Depending on what you’re actually working at, it’s not necessarily ‘making the right choices’ or exhibiting ‘good behaviour’: we work because we have to, and it would be nice if our politicians could occasionally admit that.

The rhetoric that defines people by their jobs, equally problematic on both the trade union left and the free-market right, never acknowledges any of this. Perhaps because he steered his course even further away from any policy substance, David Cameron may have got a slight edge on Miliband in presenting a more rounded view of the model citizen:

‘I have been saying for five years that if you put into society you should get out of society,’ he said. ‘If you do the right thing, bring up your children, work hard and try to take a role in your community, you should be able to look back on a life and say ‘I did the right thing and it was worth it’.

‘The tragedy in our country today is too many people who do the right thing think it’s not worth it because actually they get punished for that good behaviour, rather than rewarded.’

Cameron’s seemingly holistic vision of rights and responsibilities, encompassing family and community as well as work, was undermined slightly by the fact that it was in the context of an interview about tightening up restrictions on jobseekers’ allowance. It seems that though there’s time for warm words about ‘doing the right thing’, when it comes down to it it’s just about having a job and paying your taxes.

On both the left and the right of the mainstream political spectrum, building community and holding down employment are being yoked together in rhetoric in a way that they never are in policy – and it’s a link that sorely needs to be made in reality. One crucial problem is that there is not enough overlap between ‘trying to take a role in your community’ and being seen to engage in economically productive activity. The two are very often physically separated by a commute and conceptually separated into ‘work’ and ‘not work’ by the need to earn enough money to eat. Another, more straightforward problem is that most people don’t feel that there are enough hours in the day to bridge this gap, and this applies equally to those who do participate in community activity as to those who don’t. I’m going to quote my dissertation now, just because it’s there:

May (2007) posits a ‘triangle of engagement’ whereby the greater the time, resources and responsibility demanded, the fewer people will commit to a particular mode of participation, and the more dominant those few will become in local decision-making. Whilst this may be inevitable, the broader concern is that it is glossed over, rather than confronted. Skidmore et al (2006) suggest that social capital ‘is attractive to policymakers because it holds out the possibility of improving social outcomes more effectively, through means that are more legitimate and cheaper than traditional public service delivery alone’ (p.viii) but cite theoretical and practical evidence that, in reality, ‘What social capital is created by opening up governance to community involvement tends to be concentrated in the hands of this small group [of insiders]. There is no guarantee that the wider community feels the benefit of this social capital, because formal governance structures are often not embedded in everyday community life’ (p.xi).

This account focuses on how people outside the ‘usual suspects’ are crowded out of the political and civic process. The irony is that, notwithstanding some individuals who become entrenched vested interests in local civic life, most of the ‘insiders’ are crying out for people to join them. My own experience – helping run Transition Town Kingston, standing as a councillor, being a school governor and doing occasional other bits of campaigning or activism all in the same year while working part time and studying for an MA – showed me how quickly people can burn out by taking on too much with, they feel, too few people sharing the burden. If Cameron had a particular meaning to his point on being ‘punished for good behaviour’ – other than rolling community work glibly in with paid work – then maybe this was it.

These are bread and butter issues in community development and have been for many, many years. But until politicians, and the rest of us, make a concerted effort to address the nature of work, the ever-declining work-life balance, the length of the working day and week, the failure to share the fruits of labour-saving to release community energy and the way in which our society both defines and supports those who it holds up as model citizens, there’s only so far we’ll be able to go in solving them.

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