We need to reshape society to unleash the full potential of civil society

Baroness Natalie Bennett

Member of the House of Lords

You don’t have to be very old to remember four prime ministers back. It is only six years ago; that unedifying parade a reflection of our dysfunctional, unstable, archaic political system. So, you don’t have to count back, I can tell you it was David Cameron, with his guiding ‘Big Society’ framework. The name of its proponent would probably now make a good pub quiz question.

The concept was that citizens – meeting (as the Tories saw it) the obligations arising from that status – would deliver services and support for others through civil society institutions, as the state withdrew. It was supposed to be part of the detoxification of his party after Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”. Instead, in so far as it had any impact at all, it was a fig leaf for the austerity that has hollowed out essential local government services – closing libraries, ending meals on wheels services, and leaving local government with little more than the resources to be agents of the central government through statutory services – and slashed levels of benefits, with the explosion in the use of foodbanks being the standout symbol of the past decade in the UK.

Even the largest imaginable rebuilding of essential state services, something clearly crucial to the future of our society (however unlikely it might appear under the current regime), would still leave gaping holes in our social fabric. Those can only be filled by civil society efforts. A scale of delivery that demands volunteers; many, many volunteers. Yet even paying employers are experiencing an acute shortage of workers. Suddenly we’ve gone from worrying about finding jobs for people to worrying about finding people for jobs, a rethinking that most political currents have yet to really engage with, particularly in relation to immigration policy.

Rising levels of chronic ill-health are taking hundreds of thousands of people not only out of the paid workforce, but likely also from significant volunteer contribution. For organisations seeking volunteers, the rising retirement age and increasing number of women in the workplace are draining the pool of people. The latter are long-term trends unlikely to be reversed, while an improvement in public health would require very different policies in areas as diverse as the food system, housing and transport.

A shortage of people is not new for civil society and has occurred right through a decade of rising demand for the services it provides. Around 2014, I was visiting a library in Yorkshire which was about to lose a tranche of paid staff under Westminster-enforced austerity, supposedly to be replaced by volunteers. I spoke to the would-be coordinator of those volunteers who was despairing at how she was going to regularly fill some 100 slots a week when she was already stretching to run, with volunteers, several other services in the town.

This is where two policies long promoted by the Green Party, and rapidly gaining traction, have a great deal to offer.

One is the four-day working week as standard, with no loss of pay. This is now the subject of a major international trial, with scores of UK businesses and institutions – including South Cambridgeshire Council – taking part and the results being carefully studied by academics, including from Cambridge and Oxford. Excitingly, we’ve heard that the majority of employers involved are already planning to make the change permanent.

The New Economics Foundation has done work that has gone further, looking towards a three-day week as standard. There could be a trade off as we seek to live within the physical limits of this one fragile planet: less stuff in our life, but more life – time to use as we choose, rather than the use of time, energy and skills being put to the service of a boss. It’s something that, entirely by accident, I got to try out myself briefly in the Noughties. I was working three days a week in a job share as Deputy Editor of the Guardian Weekly and volunteering three days for the Green Party. And I actually had a day off! It worked very well, given I was lucky enough that the part-time salary met my needs.

The other key policy is the universal basic income (UBI), an unconditional payment made to residents to meet their basic needs, so they can then choose how to use their time, be it in paid work, community activities, caring, education – or a mix thereof. Again, it creates time and space for people to do community work. One person might choose to run a community garden, supplementing the UBI with produce from the garden. Another might, while focusing on trying to ‘make it’ as a musician, also draw fresh ideas from volunteering with young people at a community music studio. A trial has already started in Wales and is being mooted in Scotland, Northern Ireland and several cities in the UK.

Underlying this is a profound rethinking about the relationship between people and ‘the economy’. The latter should work for the former. For far too long, we’ve been thinking instead about paid work in service of the economy as the goal for human lives. No one lies on their death bed and groans: “I wish I’d spent more time in the office.” What people choose to do in volunteering for civil society organisations is exciting, innovative, energising, providing things our societies desperately need: companionable, caring spaces; innovative production of healthy food and environmentally friendly products; cohesion and support in communities wracked by poverty and inequality. We need to reshape our society to provide everyone with opportunities to be involved.