Corbomania! Living in the ‘80s?

The inescapable news of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader with 59.5% of the party membership vote has provoked comment from all corners. Never one to miss a party if I can possibly help it, here’s my contribution to the debate reflecting on what it may mean for social enterprise and health in Scotland.

As a historian one of the things that immediately got my attention was the idea that Jeremy Corbyn will take us back to the 1980s -so let’s go there…

Corbyn critics use the idea of a return to the 1980s to link Corbyn’s politics with Labour’s losing streak against Thatcher. The era of ‘greed is good’ Thatcherism divided the loadsamoney yuppies from those who lost out as public housing and services were sold off. Scotland in the 1980s was a place of mass unemployment, but what I want to stress here is that it was also a place of mass action. The Miners Strike (1984-5) and protests against the Poll Tax (1989, 1990) are the two most popularly remembered examples of 1980s activism. What is perhaps less well embedded in popular consciousness is that the poll tax protests often grew from local tenants associations groups, which is also where community businesses (a forerunner to what we know as social enterprise) began. Community business emerged as part of community action on a range of issues from housing to access to the arts. In some areas there was a close relationship between local authorities and community business. Strathclyde Regional Council and Paisley College supported the Local Enterprise Advisory Project (1978), which was one of the first experiments in a community development approach to economic growth. The Highlands and Islands Development Board funded community co-ops, some of which are still running today. Whereas in Craigmillar in Edinburgh the Craigmillar Festival Society grew out of a community arts movement that inspired local people to take an active and critical approach to the services provided in their area.

Some may argue that social enterprise moved away from these community based models in the 1990s and its original focus on social change has been somewhat diluted – a topic for another blog -watch this space!

My recent archival and oral history research suggests that the values and motivations of people contributing to community business in the 1980s; working co-operatively, believing in grass roots action, and a desire for meaningful social change, are comparable to those that have motivated support for Corbyn. In Scotland, we could also identify energy around these issues in the ongoing debates ignited by the independence referendum last year.

Turning to health, growing health inequalities between the rich and the poor articulated in the Black Report (1980) was an issue that some researchers had been attempting to air since the 1960s. Nevertheless, the Black Report is still referred to as a moment when health inequalities and how to tackle them managed to gain international attention. It coincided with the World Health Organisation’s programme ‘Health for all by the Year 2000’ (1979), which was picked up at national, regional and community level –although at times it appears somewhat lost in translation! Health inequalities are still very present today and like the 1980s practitioners are experimenting with the best approaches to reduce them, some of these involve social enterprises that -like in the 1980s- attempt to find ways of working with communities to improve their health. The difference is…

…Do we now have a political environment that will support community action rather than crush it?