“Fake news”. “Lying MSM”. In 15 years as a reporter, I’d never heard either of those phrases, but in the last three years I’ve heard them directed at me most months – if not weeks. And that’s true of most of my colleagues, too. The media definitely has some soul-searching to do. But it seems that people increasingly dislike questions that peel away at their own views and opinions. It feels as though lots of us want to live in a real-world echo chamber – like the virtual one that we get every time we log onto social media.
People appear to be angrier, less trusting and more divided. It’s as if we’re retreating from a sense of a wider society to what I think of as micro-communities, as much defined by who we follow on Instagram and Twitter as which street we live on or where we shop. We do less in person – face to face. Increasingly, we interact online only with those we specifically choose to interact with, often seeking them out because we already know what they think.
Building community in both the digital and analogue worlds
So where does a sense of “real” community come from? For me, it comes from being able to walk down the street where I live – or my local high street – and say hello to a few people, and perhaps have a chat. It comes from knowing what’s replacing the nearby shop that closed down a few months ago. It comes from logging onto the community forum and asking a question, and often getting a response from my area councillor.
What we give as individuals can also create a sense of legitimacy. I organised a street party for our road in south-east London. There was some scepticism, but it was a great success. Everyone mixed – from those who’d lived in the street for 40 years to the new arrivals. We all put up decorations, ate and drank together – for us it had a huge impact. I now know who lives in almost every property. And we now have a streetwide WhatsApp group, which creates a great sense of belonging, as well as plenty of strange requests for sewing machines and the like!
I think there are some things that government can do to help with that sense of belonging. Create an interface where there are real responses, an acknowledgement of a problem, if not an immediate solution. Think of it as a Mumsnet for Westminster, where opinions and concerns are voiced, where responses are given, and where advice can be generated quickly – often as a result of shared experience. As I mentioned before, it works where I live on a local level, where councillors respond regularly and honestly to a wide range of questions posed.
People need to feel their opinion matters.
Just as new mothers and babies are assigned a health worker they can visit at a drop-in once a week, so government could provide a similar service for every adult. They may never use them, but if people know there is a physical person to contact who could signpost further help, they would feel more cared for.
And why not provide funds to be used at a local level to engender that sense of belonging? I’ve heard of some parts of London where local councils provide £100 for street parties like ours, which can fund a bouncy castle for the day, or a band. Where I live, the council has put up picture banners on lamp-posts, celebrating local landmarks and workers, like the regular street-sweeper). It all goes to create a sense of pride. And these are, in a sense, the “face” of government, albeit in a very local sense.
… and the role of a trusted local, not national, government
It doesn’t feel to me as though national interventions like the Big Society actually work (at least not the “officially” sanctioned ones). They often feel hollow and paternalistic. So much of this sort of thing is going on already, it would make far more sense to celebrate what is currently being achieved by volunteers. If government could provide the spaces for those activities to thrive, that in itself would create goodwill and positivity and a unifying space for local endeavours that enable a community to work together.
A relationship between government and its citizens will only flourish through trust and a sense that they are being heard.
And the thing I hear more than anything when I interview people, across all sorts of communities, is that politicians lie. That they say one thing and then do something completely different once in power. Creating a climate of honesty and humility – and fulfilling campaign promises – might be good places to start. Perhaps there should be a panel to hold governments to account on pledges – in a public way.
Because ultimately it’s about feeling that you have a voice and you won’t be let down. That you matter. And that someone cares what you think. And that is perhaps a challenge that can best be met at a local level.