Steve's Real Big Society Speech

(November 16, 2012)

Steve at St Georges Hall

Lord Mayor, Your Grace, Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to join you today and to celebrate Nugent Care’s work and to talk about the REAL Big Society, right here, in one of the most unique and special cities in the country and in a building that was once my official residence.

As many of you will know, just a few short years ago I had the enormous pleasure of being the Lord Mayor of Liverpool during our Capital of Culture celebrations. 

2008 was a special time – a time when Liverpool dusted off its Civic Pride and metaphorically puffed out its chest again – and claimed our place as an international destination of choice.  It was a year when millions of people flocked here and (both internal and external perceptions) rightly altered towards our City and its people.

 I have to warn you all that at that time, I was precluded from being political. The Lord Mayor has to be impartial and independent of any political Whip -  and I took that duty seriously.  But there are no such current restrictions, so (as I am now able to speak freely) I do so as a Labour politician – a backbench Parliamentarian - but also a proud member of a party that believes in social justice and not just the rhetoric that others spout – when their actions run counter to their words.

‘Big Society’ is a popular catchphrase.  The Prime Minister and Chancellor have tried their level best to use it as a mechanism with which to detoxify their party, whilst at the same time, embark on the most unfair and disproportionate programme of cuts, in living memory.

  • A Big Society doesn’t attack its weak and disabled
  •  Big Society doesn’t give tax breaks to the rich and the very rich, whilst those on modest incomes are hit hardest
  • And a Big Society doesn’t watch idly, as austerity forces our elderly into deciding whether to heat or eat.

Father James Nugent would be astounded (and probably AS equally disappointed) that the work of the charity that he set up in the 1850s is as relevant today – as it was – a century and a half ago!

Nugent Care is still providing a valuable service to children, disabled people and the disadvantaged.  Its values are truly those of creating a Big Society where people are treated with dignity and respect – where care (and dare I say it) love – are integrated into everything they do.

The term Big Society was hijacked for phoney political posturing – in fact I have asked numerous members of the coalition what its definition is – and they have all given very different explanations.  But maybe that’s what they want – something that means anything to everyone.

The term ‘Big Society’ was actually coined by one of the great socialist philosophers of the 20th century – the late great Bill Shankly.

Because it was Shankly in the late 50s who used the phrase to describe the fans on the old Kop. But even before the terminology was contended, (and there is some evidence that it was used in the 19th century) Liverpool had, in practice, already developed a Big Society mentality.

Nugent Care is one of the oldest and most diverse charities in the North West pioneered through the leadership and vision of Father James – in relation to child welfare, relief from poverty and social reform.  Despite my kids telling me I’m knocking on a bit – I obviously never met Father James – but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that -  (much like the current Archbishop) – I might have had a lot in common with him regarding the fight for a more egalitarian society.

But whether it is innovations in public health in the 19th century from the likes of Kitty Wilkinson and Dr Duncan - or the first Age Concern in 1927 - Liverpool has led on many of the great innovations in developing a society fit for its people.

And its the fight for social justice what gets me out of bed in the morning – it is my bedrock and it is what makes our City tick.

One of the best things about being an MP, is that I get to travel the country, work with people from all over the country and talk to people who experience things all over the country.

Let me tell you, the life of a young kid in Walton, is not so different from a young kid in Walthamstow or Wolverhampton. The hardship of a single mum in Fazakerley is similar to the discord of a single mother in Fife or Falmouth -  and the dad, who has worked his whole life in the factory in Speke - is in the same boat as the factory worker laid off in Swansea or Sunderland

What we need right now, is a Big Society.  But a real altruistic model, not one that promotes vested interests of the few over the will of the many.  Not one that rewards bankers when the business’s they run are failing – and when it was their profligacy that got us into the crisis we currently face – in the first place.

I am not just bashing bankers because it’s open season on them (and despite the fact that many of them deserve the fact that they deserve to be dragged down a peg or two).  I am critical of their casino style extravagance because we have been kidded for far too long.  Anybody can bet on something going up or down – it’s not rocket science – and its borne out of the results of the worldwide financial crisis that even the best Oxbridge brains can still lose at a global game of monopoly.  Collectively they gambled all – and lost.  Now it’s up to us all to shoulder the burden – but some are having to have broader shoulders than others!

But when these giant games of chance go wrong – guess who picks up the tab?  My constituency has the 5th highest unemployment rate in the whole country.  Walton still has 3 wards that rank in the top 10 most deprived in the UK indices of multiple deprivation.  But there is an indomitable spirit of our people.

I know the fears that families are fighting right now.

  • How will we feed our kids?
  • How will we heat our home?
  • Do we have enough money to get the train or bus to work?
  • What are we going to do for Christmas?

It wasn’t ordinary people that caused the banking crisis, but it is those at the bottom of the economic ladder who are suffering the most.  And this is why I question the Big Society rhetoric over reality.

Despite the setbacks we will recover – just as our city is emerging like the proverbial phoenix out of the ashes.

The press were gushing with praise for the Olympic volunteers.  They were right to do so. But Liverpool led the way with our Capital of Culture celebrations when our volunteers showed those that visited our city just what scousers are about.

We are proud of our city and of our achievements – but equally – we never forget those we have lost. 

Next week, on Remembrance Sunday, we pause to remember those who have fought and continue to fight for our country.

Underpinning our reflections is an overwhelming appreciation of the courage, bravery and selflessness of the people of our city that fell in both world wars and in conflicts since. It is my belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things if we work together.

In recent weeks, we have seen Liverpool unite with the families and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster, to share in their grief, share in their outrage and in their vindication for their 23 year fight.

I (rightly or wrongly) don’t believe there is another city that would have carried on such a fight against (what most agree) were (supposedly) insurmountable odds.   Ordinary people on both sides of the football divide joined together to fight one of the great injustices of the 20th century – and even the Prime Minister had to admit that we had suffered a double injustice.

I have never been more proud to be a Liverpudlian, than I was on the day that the Hillsborough Independent Panel report was published.

Liverpool is synonymous with a unique kind of solidarity.  Whether red or blue, we are scousers all.

And it is not just over Hillsborough that we have come together on.

Save the Children released a report this summer which revealed that over 3 million children are currently living in poverty.  25 % of those children’s parents, admitted that they were having to go without food in order to provide (what little they do have) for their children.

This is plain wrong.

In 2012 Britain, this is particularly wrong when there are so many whose wealth continues to grow exponentially – whilst others struggle to survive.  I am fortunate enough to be involved in the Liverpool Foodbank initiative, which is helping to provide for those who cannot afford to provide for themselves.

I was delighted to recently open the North Liverpool Hub which aims to help young people back into employment and combines the Housing Trust, National Careers Service and the European Social Fund which shows organisations working hard together with the betterment of my constituents and our City.

That’s why we really do need a Big Society – the real Big Society that people across our city are trying to forge despite the odds often being stacked against them.  That is why Nugent Care and other great local charities are so important.  They give people hope in times of despair and bring relief to those less fortunate.

But let no one say that big ideas cannot come from Liverpool.

This city provides a unique contribution to the fabric of British life.

Just a few months ago the Global Entrepreneurship Congress was held in Liverpool, and put our City on the map as a hub for the world’s biggest business.  The spirit of entrepreneurialism (even within a social context) is alive and kicking – and we as leaders need to ensure that we provide the conditions by which it can flourish – whilst remembering our social responsibility.

I believe that the state does have a positive role to play in social mobility – laying the ladders so that people can from all walks of life achieve whatever their full potential.

By working together, ensuring that we look after our family first but also our friends, neighbours and colleagues, we can continue to make the Big Society a reality for Liverpool.



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