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Power and leadership

Weaving the social fabric: Keir Starmer’s call for a renewed social contract

Local Trust CEO Matt Leach finds echoes of the past and some positive signs for the future of local leadership in Labour leader Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour and Civil Society summit. 

Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour and Civil Society Summit on 22 January is one of the most interesting he has made since becoming leader of the Labour Party in April 2020.

He called for “a new focus on those who build the bonds that connect us, the communities that nurture us and the local institutions that support us”.

In many ways, this echoes that of previous Labour leader Tony Blair in 1997, when he talked of the importance of building a society in which people were able to “prosper in a strong and active community of citizens”, in a post-election speech announcing the establishment of a new Social Exclusion Unit to lead work focused on turning around the nation’s most deprived neighbourhoods. 

Blair’s speech highlighted the extent to which, in too many neighbourhoods, people had been “excluded from opportunity and the chance to develop their potential”, offering to build a nation “in which each citizen is valued and has a stake”.  

The significance of social fabric

In a similar way, Keir Starmer’s pitch for a renewed social contract focused on how – 25 years on – as a country we have again failed to deliver on the expectation of a good and improving quality of life for too many people and communities across our country.  

His response is to propose a renewal of this contract based on rebuilding the “social fabric that ties us together”.  It is a significant challenge to take on. As Local Trust research has highlighted, in too many places that shared social fabric – the community centres, pubs, clubs and libraries that bind our neighbourhoods together, providing connection, identity and a place to go – have been steadily eroded. 

Communities have, as a result, been left weaker, less resilient, and less able to support each other through times of crisis. Amongst the most deprived neighbourhoods, those with the lowest levels of social fabric suffer from the poorest health outcomes, worst educational outcomes, higher than average levels of crime, and lowest labour force participation rates. 

All of which – as Demos recently highlighted – impose real financial and social costs, both on local people, but also on society as a whole.

Predominantly located on the edge of former industrial towns and cities, in peripheral housing estates and on our coasts, those places are where Labour’s missions on growth, crime, health, opportunity and energy are both most important, but also have the greatest potential for impact and where the benefits could be most felt.   

Unlocking the potential of civil society

Keir Starmer’s promise of a new partnership with civil society provides a great starting point for that work. As many present at the Civil Society Summit made clear, in building that partnership it will be important to ensure the huge potential of traditional charities and voluntary sector organisations are recognised and valued.

But Starmer also recognised in his speech the importance of drawing on the energy and potential of local people themselves “devolving power to communities; setting long-term targets and working with people to get there; giving people the responsibility they deserve and the support they need”.

Our work supporting the delivery of Big Local – a long term, lottery-funded programme giving £1m each to 150 deprived neighbourhoods in England – has shown that people living in these communities, if given time, funding, and support, have the capacity and experience to identify the most pressing issues in their area and to design innovative solutions to tackle them.   

That very much reflects the experience of the last Labour government’s New Deal for Communities programme, which research shows had most sustainable impact when local people took the lead in decision-making and delivery – something highlighted in recent research from Sheffield Hallam University. 

Enabling community action

This doesn’t mean a Big Society style retreat of the state from the places that need intervention the most, but a chance for a reorientation towards a state that enables community action rather than stifles it, in the knowledge that if the right conditions are set communities themselves can take the lead. The sort of double devolution referred to in the report of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future.   

Last month’s speech marked out the start of an important new strand of thinking about how Labour can deliver on its missions if it takes power. For Labour to succeed in achieving its missions, a place and neighbourhood-focused approach prioritising those areas of greatest need must be at the heart of its post-election planning. 

About the author
Matt Leach

Matt Leach is the CEO of Local Trust.