This essay is going to discuss the concept of community and how it has increasingly featured in social policy. It will also discuss New Labours revolutionary communitarian approach and how New Labour’s policies have engaged communities in decision making. The essay will also discuss how New Labour’s policies have targeted problems such as social exclusion and deprivation.
Hillery (1955, in Hoggett, 1997, p.202) in an early literature review stated there are over 94 definitions of community, nearly all of which suggest that it ‘consists of persons in social interaction within a geographic area and having one or more additional common ties.’ Hogget (1997, p.202-203) argues the meaning of community is contested, and Plant (1974, in Hogget, 1997, p.202) states that community ‘has been linked to locality, to identity of functional interests, to a sense of belonging, to shared cultural and ethnic ideas and values, to a way of life opposed to the organisation and bureaucracy of modern mass society.’ Overall it could be said that the concept of community is a complex phenomenon with varying definitions that are relative to the ‘perspectives of the people and institutions that have espoused them’ (Taylor, 2003, p.2). They cannot be manufactured, and are affected by economic and political changes.
Since the rise to power in 1997 of the New Labour government, the role of community has undoubtingly increased as a feature in social policy. This was a drastic change from the previous Conservative government. ‘The ‘Thatcher revolution’, fuelled by social, political and economic change, was committed to a ‘dismantling of the protective elements of state welfare, to breaking the power of the organised labour movement and to a reaffirmation of market forces that would bring poverty and unemployment to unprecedented levels’ (Novak, 1998, in Ledwith, 2005, p.15). Thatcher’s famous speech in 1987 stated ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’ (Thatcher, 1987, in Lund, 1999, p.449).
The Conservative government undertook a policy of reducing public spending and recentralisation, effectively removing power, finance and resources from local councils and authorities. Thatcher used a top-down approach believing the answer to social problems was to support local businesses and not communities, meaning there was no community consultation. Overall Thatcher’s policies, such as the closing down of the coal industry and reducing benefits, impacted negatively on communities, by creating deprivation, unemployment and poverty.
As a result, ‘in 1997, the Blair government inherited poverty and social divisions that had escalated during the 1980s under Thatcherism’ (Ledwith, 2005, p.17). The New Labour government, with its new political ethos referred to as the Third Way, asserted ‘that the theme of community is fundamental to the new politics,… Community doesn’t simply imply trying to recapture lost forms of social solidarity; it refers to practical means of furthering the social and material refurbishment of neighbourhoods, towns and larger local areas’ (Giddens, 1998, in Fremeaux, 2005, p.268).
New Labour realised that different areas needed different services, and that community consultation would guarantee the area received the most appropriate services. The new policies were not based around changing communities, but instead changing the services and public sector. The government believed these changes should occur at a local level, which is where communities function. These changes saw decision making moved from central government to local authorities, the opposite of the previous Conservative centralisation. In turn, the communities felt involved and empowered.
Community moved to the forefront of social policy for several reasons. Less people were voting, showing there was a decreasing interest in politics but also in the very decisions that governed peoples’ lives; the resulting democratic deficit was also undermining the legitimacy of the government and local authorities. It was clear the top-down style of decision making was not working and was leaving people socially excluded and disempowered.
New Labours perception of community is based on Amitai Etzioni’s (1993) ‘idea of responsibilities that individuals hold towards their community as the other side of rights.’ Etzioni states (1993, p. ix, in Fremeaux, 2005, p.269) ‘Communities are social webs of people who know one another as persons and have a moral voice. Communities draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members to abide by shared values. . . Communities gently chastise those who violate shared moral norms and express approbation for those who abide by them.’
Robert Putnam’s (1993, 2000, in Fremeaux, 2005, p.269) concept of ‘social capital’ ‘which insists on the value of social networks and ‘the norms or reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’ (2000, in Fremeaux, 2005, p.269) is also a key factor in New Labour’s ideology. ‘The concept of social capital, or its absence, has been used in the specification of a wide range of social problems that New Labour seeks to address including, most obviously, social exclusion, but also educational underachievement, health inequalities, community breakdown, teenage pregnancy and urban deprivation’ (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2002, p.322).
In 1998, the government formed the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) which produced a report entitled Bringing Britain Together (SEU, 1998). The report identified about 3000 neighbourhoods which were suffering from high levels of poverty, unemployment, crime, poor health and schooling, and extremely poor service delivery. This policy was new in the fact that it specifically targeted regeneration at poorer areas (Ledwith, 2005, p.18). Area Based Initiatives, such as Sure Start, New Deal for Communities, and Local Strategic Partnerships (LSP’s), were created with the specific aim of using joined-up service delivery and localised decision making involving local people to solve the areas problems. The government placed on obligation on all service providers to engage the local community and Local Strategic Partnerships, which ensured input from the community and voluntary sector, had to be in place before an authority could claim money from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.
The New Labour government initiated a number of schemes to empower and involve communities and improve civic pride with the vision that ‘within 10-20 years, no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live’ (SEU, 2001, in Ledwith, 2005, p.18). The government White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities (2006), was a key policy in community involvement. It strengthened the role of councillors, empowered citizens with ‘bottom-up’ decision making and strived for better financial efficiency through devolved budgets. Other government responses include Stronger Local Voice and Community call for action.
Another significant shift in New Labour policy has been the engagement of local service providers, with the aim of increasing the involvement of local people. The government has introduced new criteria, which affects funding, to measure and ensure the public are consulted and involved in decisions regarding their area. The most considerable changes have involved the police, who before New Labour were virtually their own entity. Due to New Labours Neighbourhood Policing they now have to involve and consult local people and be receptive to their needs, and use a multi-agency approach. New Labour’s policies have also contributed to a growth in the 3rd, or voluntary and community sector, with the government recognising the sector is an excellent way of empowering people and giving them the confidence to get involved with local decision makers.
Although New Labour takes an extremely positive view of community, Taylor (2003, p.50-64) believes it has a dark side that is both oppressive and exclusive. She believes communitarianism ostracises those who do not conform to its norms. Hale (2006, p.260) argues New Labour does not have one consistent definition of community and has never been communitarian, but instead have simply continued Thatcher’s legacy.
In conclusion, despite the contested nature of community, New Labour has used the concept as a way of reorganising welfare and service provision. It has moved away from funding led solutions, which typified policy between 2001-2002, and instead made the large number of service providers work more efficiently thus making the solution more sustainable.
Community is a socially-constructed, complex, dynamic but contested phenomenon that is affected and changed by economic and political decisions. It is different for every individual, and it helps to provide for our needs, such as education, housing and doctors. It fosters a sense of belonging and identity, with everyone belonging to more than one community. A neighbourhood with good social capital, social networks and services will need different help to a neighbourhood with very little of these. The New Labour government, who define community in a largely neighbourhood geographical context, have used the concept as a way of reorganising social policy and welfare with the aim of returning to the ‘golden age’ of post-war community. This is a completely new political u-turn that targets services at the needy, involves communities in decision making, and introduced doing ‘with’ instead of doing ‘to’ communities.
New Labour’s policies are aimed at sustainability and financial efficiency, and have seen substantial changes in terms of health, policing and neighbourhood regeneration. Using bottom-up strategies, the government has sought to empower people, increase multi-agency working and tackle key problems such as social exclusion, poverty and deprivation.