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Simple, ordinary, human relationships.
Old power is institutionalised, embedded and defended by systems and structures. At the heart of the defence of old power are relationships held by a minority: closed off and closely guarded.
New power flows more freely. It moves in networks and through movements and is shared by many in webs of relationships. At its most powerful, new power has at its centre relationships which are widely held, open and accountable.
We are all social beings; who we choose to spend our time with and build relationships with is a reflection of our values. Our relationships are also a reflection of the norms and behaviours we see in those around us in our lives, on our screens and in our public and political life. In both old and new power, relationships can be used as a way of exerting power over others in ways that are not just inadequate to meet the needs of the many, but which also leave long-lasting scars for those who have been subjected to it. Problematic power - or power ‘gone wrong’ - is underpinned by a set of relationships: relationships between a closed few, those which have been broken or those which never existed to a meaningful degree.
It’s through our relationships that power is manipulated, leveraged, conveyed, shared or *shifted*. It’s the quality of our relationships that shapes where power lies and how it flows. It is our relationships at the most granular level - in our homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces, local political groups and beyond - that create the patterns of how power flows, who has access to it and how it’s exercised right up to the highest levels.
Statecraft at local, national and international levels is the aggregate of our foundational connections. If our relationships are dysfunctional, then so is our politics. In the words of Eric Liu: ‘policy is power frozen’134. By extension, politics and policy are therefore also freeze-frames of the relationships underpinning it.
Building strong relationships can be difficult in current times. Meaningful time together has been in part displaced by fast and shallow connection. We network and transact as never before, but being well connected is not the same as connecting well. As Compass’ Garden Mind135 paper demonstrated: capitalism treats us as ‘machines for delivering value’ - inputs into a vast money-making enterprise. This mindset has infected much of the space between us: our relationships. From workplaces to high streets to services to homes, we value competition, individualism, speed and scale rather than effective relationships, deep collaboration and the common good. Our workplaces, neighbourhoods, school classrooms and yes - our parties – have become more remote and less human, as these attitudes are wired into every aspect of our lives.
Whilst on the face of it, good, meaningful relationships might seem like simple, common sense, they are often regarded as no more than a “nice to have”. We even have a phrase for it: we talk about the teacher or the care worker or the receptionist at the front desk who ‘goes the extra mile’.
In fact the evidence shows that strong relationships are not a bonus to a flourishing neighbourhood, a thriving school, an effective health service, or a successful and cohesive society; they are the essential principle around which we organise everything else. Relationships should be the first mile, not just the extra mile.
What constitutes a ‘good relationship’ changes depending on context: the thin ties you might have with local supermarket staff look different to the thicker bonds between a carer and the person they support. But across all relationships, some common qualities surface when we consider what good looks like.
Good relationships foster common understanding, they hold space for healthy conflict and compromise, they provide the foundations for purpose, solidarity and shared action. They elicit some core emotional reactions: I belong, I feel safe, I feel cared for, I feel supported, I feel understood, I feel purposeful, I feel respected, I feel valued, I feel seen, I feel loved. In short: our thick and thin bonds with one another help us through thick and thin. But from GPs’ surgeries to schools, from workplaces to high streets, from corridors of power to street corners, we all too often end up lonely, disconnected, cut out and cut off from one another, and talking (or too frequently shouting) at cross purposes.
This isn’t exclusively a modern challenge - it’s deeply baked into our psyches. New York Times journalist Kate Murphy cites countless academic studies in her book ‘You’re Not Listening’ which show us that when we feel like we aren't being heard, we shout136. And when we’re shouted at, our personal fight or flight response goes into overdrive. In fact, it doesn’t even take shouting to do this, simply talking to someone who shares an opposing view to yours can trigger a physiological and physical response akin to being chased by a bear.
Narratives of scarcity are pulling us apart too. Stories shared in the media, as part of political life and in cultural spaces, are contributing to a prevailing narrative of scarcity: there is apparently not enough space, resources and power to go around. This creates the perfect conditions for disengagement and disconnection from each other. Hiding behind brighter screens and higher walls we are falling away from - and out with - each other.
In short: relationships are being squeezed out. Often against everyone’s better judgement and instincts, the odds are too often stacked against relationships, resulting in disconnection, isolation, exclusion and loneliness. And whilst much of this has been building in recent decades, this systematic uncoupling and disconnecting from one another has in many ways been hastened and deepened by Covid and wider crises.
If power is all about relationships, then it’s equally important to acknowledge that there is power in every relationship and on all sides. Power may often be invisible, unconscious, and unrecognised. Relationships may not always be as equal or as unequal as we might at first imagine. We cannot participate fully in all aspects of our shared lives in homes, services, workplaces, politics and neighbourhoods without recognising the power that we have and that we bring to all our relationships.
Shifting power requires a readiness to accept as well as to transfer. Power isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. In some situations we can share power much as we might share an idea - we grow it rather than lose it. But we are not able to transfer power if we are not ready to accept it.
Shifting power requires attention to systems, leadership and culture. An emphasis on any one of these and not the others will not shift power.
Structures, rules and institutions can demand and enforce, but they alone can’t shift social norms and cultural assumptions. It is through our relationships that we kindle trust, empathy and understanding – the necessary foundations for transformative, sustainable change. As Malcolm X wrote: “We can’t empower people, we can notice the power that they have and give them the opportunity to use it”.
Difference in a relationship is an asset. We must seek out and value relationships which both bond within groups, as well as bridge between. Bridging is particularly crucial when we spend a lot of time connected to people like us - be it by class, race, ethnicity, home town, income, age, religious belief or most other determinants you can think of. We all hold positions within social webs of power which determine what we see and experience and what contribution we can make. We must recognise that much of the status quo for relationships reflects and amplifies existing inequalities. Shifting power requires people with different experiences to gather together in order for solidarity to grow and power to flow. Shifting power requires us to be able to value different contributions equally in order for power to be evenly distributed.
How are we to respond to the long tail challenges of Covid and to the injustices that it exposed? How can we heal divided communities, respect differences, trade fairly, care for the displaced, or share the natural world? How are we to live together? More than ever, the big questions of our time are all about relationships. Covid offers windows into understanding how we might navigate the multiple, intersecting and complex challenges we face.
On the one hand, our instinct around relationships of new power have been clearly seen through Covid. From the mushrooming of mutual aid efforts, to the millions of new neighbourly connections and the 750,000 people who signed up to volunteer from the NHS138 - these all point to the past couple of years as being a time of deepened or renewed appetite for relationships with those around us, in our homes, on our streets, in our services and beyond. These are glimpses of what Rebecca Solnit calls ‘a paradise built in hell’, which she attributes to the power that emerges through disaster, where the current social order is replaced with an instinctive reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society139.
Yet of course this is only half the story. Covid has also revealed the disrepair in the state of relationships and how power is hoarded by the few, or jammed in systems with cultures and leadership who discourage the quality and quantity of relationships we need for collective flourishing.
For many, especially those who experience marginalisation because of inequality, Covid has brought with it new or renewed feelings of isolation, disconnection and distance. According to the British Red Cross, 1 in 3 adults have experienced loneliness so deeply that they believe something could happen to them and no one would notice141. Meanwhile the dashed hopes of the millions who signed up to national volunteering efforts, never to have their calls returned, showed the inadequacies of institutions dominated by old power in the midst of a complex crisis crying out for a mass response at the most local level. Not to mention that the divvying up of PPE contracts totalling hundreds of millions of pounds is the ultimate proof that old power manifestly embodies the old adage that it’s ‘who you know’ that matters most.
As Compass’ Garden Mind paper set out143: for more than 100 years we have set out to shape our society as if it was a machine reflecting the values of capitalism itself. Our government institutions, our corporate organisations and our rules and regulations all reflect a ‘machine mind’. The sheer inefficiency of the machine mind is heaping unsustainable pressure onto creaking public services and crushing our innate capacity to build relationships and care for one another in our communities. The mentality of the machine mind has created the unequal, brittle and dangerous world we now live in. We need to shift from a machine mind to a ‘garden mind’. Garden mind changes government from controlling to ‘tending’. It shifts away from centralised systems to more open experimental ways of working with good relationships at the heart of them. We will create our alternative future through a politics that draws on many sources of resource and power, building relationships that embrace diversity, collective learning and sharing, experimentation, and building strength through connectedness.
So endeavouring to repair relationships or build new ones has to be a big part of a successful Labour Government
A relationship-centred Labour Government would recognise relationships between people as the central organising principle, rather than relationships between people and the state, or between people and the market. It would point to healthy relationships between people as the ultimate human good and so our schools, economy, health services and communities would be designed to generate relational - or social - capital.
Much of our accepted norms about statecraft are rooted in systems which foster transactional, unequal relationships which hoard power. The Labour party must urgently consider how each of us can talk and relate our way to a more cohesive, equitable and safer future. This is about how we all do relationships. And the future of our country is dependent on them being placed back at the heart of society. Only then can conversations about shifting power move from warm words, to concrete action and change for the many.
So a shift to a relationship-centred society requires a fundamentally different approach to the affairs of government. Creating the conditions in which relationships can be prioritised will necessitate the reimagining of the relationship between the state and citizens, as well as between different layers of the state. In a nutshell: you can’t nurture relationships from afar, so everything needs to become a lot more local. Nothing less than a radical transformation will suffice - ranging from where and how policy decisions are taken, through to the behaviour of us all in our local affiliations, and starting perhaps most importantly with decision makers and shapers within the party and stretching out into behaviours. All this would start and finish with how we hold, care and treat one another in our neighbourhoods, workplaces and political associations.
A Labour Government that holds restoring and rebuilding relationships as a core operating principle would be the shepherd needed to shift power and build a better, fairer, kinder and more equal future for all. The following propositions illuminate possible ways of becoming this shepherd.