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Creating the Good Society

David Cameron's 'big society' concept continues to lumber on. A bit like the elusive 'Third Way', it appears to merely describe the actions (or inaction) of the current government.

And just like the 'Third Way', lots of people are rushing to put flesh on the bones of this concept and to define it. In parallel with this debate, progressives have been talking about the Good Society. This concept is similarly vulnerable to the charge that it is a depositary into which we can all place our political aspirations for society. In contrast to the 'big society' however, it introduces a moral element. It uses the word 'Good'.

Discussions about the Good Society tend to focus on engaging communities: unlike the big society ideas out there, government has a role. Government has a responsibility to ensure people are not left to rely on the services of hard-pressed voluntary organisations if those organisations are unable to deliver. It can also encourage communities to work together and do more (Lambeth's Cooperative Council model is one such example). In a Good Society, public services are properly funded and work in ways which help bind society together. This is all good stuff. But is that all we mean by 'good'?

You might expect the churches and faith communities to be consulted when we talk about a Good Society but references to them are not as great as they could be. There is a church in almost every neighborhood in this country. If we want to talk about reinvigorating society we should be learning from them. We forget too easily how organisations such as Citizens UK not only include lots of like-minded people politically, but that they also include a large proportion of people of faith. Faith motivated many of Labour's first members. Labour does itself a disservice if it ignores this.

We do sometimes acknowledge the role of faith groups (especially at a central level in the Labour party eg working with the Christian Socialist Movement). Often, though, we just admire their activity and involvement in their communities. Some constituency Labour parties are going a few steps further, learning from them and experimenting with engaging at a deeper level with their neighbours (eg my own Vauxhall CLP). In doing this, they are rediscovering some of Labour's community roots

Yet there is more that faith groups can contribute. If we want to talk about a Good Society, we are immediately talking about morality and ethics ie what is a good thing to do and be. The financial crisis prompted many people, including Gordon Brown and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to question the morality of the marketplace. What are the values we should be acting upon? What does it mean to be virtuous in the 21st century? How can we encourage deeper and more resilient relationships between people in local communities, in the workplace, in our country? Our debates about the Good Society have to engage with this. Churches and other faith groups need to be a part of it.

This article was first published on the Progress website, on 30 March 2011.
Details of the Christian Socialist Movement's Tawney Dialogue are here.
Progress, 30 March 2011, 30/03/2011

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