Without structural change, civil society can only help one starfish at a time

Kirsty Blackman

MP for Aberdeen North

Not much of the news these days is good. Several of my friends have just stopped following current affairs. It’s too depressing. The economy, energy bills, the cost of living crisis, inflation, abuse, attacks.  It’s easier to not know than to be switched on these days.

If all you ever see is that big picture, there’s little to be optimistic about. This coming winter, millions are going to be plunged into fuel poverty. Inflation will continue to rise and so we will see even more skipping meals to survive. It’s clear that our social security safety net is failing to save many families from extreme poverty.

We can’t fix the cost of living crisis without massive structural change, which requires government intervention. Clearly this is not going to happen any time soon.

I’m reminded of The Starfish Story. It’s one I tell schoolkids. It’s a story I’ve thought about a lot in the aftermath of big events that make everything seem hopeless – when the UK voted for Brexit, when Donald Trump was elected, when the UK government withdrew the Universal Credit uplift.

One day, there was an old man walking along a beach. This was a route he took every morning, from his house on the cliff, along the beach, and back home again afterwards.  The previous night there had been a huge storm. The waves had been wild, and the wind had buffeted his windows, but the storm had blown past, and all was quiet and calm now. The beach was cluttered with debris after such a wild night. 

As the man walked along, he noticed that hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of starfish had been washed up. It was clear they were all going to die so far out of the water. He shook his head, sadly. 

Then he spotted a little girl. The girl was going back and forth, picking up a starfish, carrying it down to the ocean, and placing it there. Then returning to do the same again.  “What are you doing?” the man asked. “You can’t possibly save all these starfish.” “No,” said the girl, “But I can save this one.”

In the absence of structural change, we must focus on saving one starfish at a time. We must use what little power we have to make a difference.

In these difficult times, and with scant resources, even more difficult decisions will have to be made. Civil society will necessarily have to focus on saving individual starfish. The little, everyday interactions are the ones that can change communities for the better. Every week, I meet passionate, committed staff and volunteers who are working in their own ways, in their own areas, to improve lives.

There is no question that people, families, and communities across the UK are facing some of their toughest times in decades. Organisations relying on donations or public sector contracts will also be feeling the squeeze as budgetary pressures hit.

During the Covid lockdowns, society recognised and celebrated frontline staff and volunteers in a way that we have otherwise generally failed to do. Although applause will not put warmth into homes or food on the table, it does have value. Going forward we need to ensure we are harnessing that enthusiasm. In the wake of the pandemic, we saw encouraging numbers of new volunteers; individuals and groups popping up, looking to help people and make a difference. Perhaps we can use that new energy and interest to bolster civil society, so this storm can be weathered.

The enormous impact of civil society cannot be comprehensively measured. How can we put a full value on a benefits advice charity helping someone to get their PIP claim approved? On refuge being provided for someone fleeing domestic abuse? On advocacy support so a parent can explain to teachers how their child is feeling? On a charity shop selling affordable bed sheets to a care leaver starting college? Or, on a community group receiving training on how to apply for grants?

Yet the impact on wellbeing is indisputable. If we can pivot society and government to prioritise measuring wellbeing, we will all be better off. And fewer starfish will need civil society to step in and save them.