In which Stuart Bourne talks us through the Mutual Aid Road Reps Community Initiative, and how such groups might continue in a post-coronavirus world..
It’s fair to say that this country is going through some traumatic times, and yet that trauma has spawned many acts of kindness. We have all seen them, from the wonderful support shown for Captain Tom to the support of the NHS and care workers shown on every Thursday evening. But nothing is more symbolic of this kindness than the multitude of community support groups that have sprung up across the country. These groups have provided a vital service in getting shopping to people, picking up prescriptions, and even providing a person to talk to over the phone. They have reassured people that no one is alone at the moment. I myself have been working with the Mutual Aid Road Reps (MARR) group of volunteers in Medway since March. Yet are these groups just around until the crisis is over, or are we witnessing the start of a revolution of community cooperation and mutualism that will impact our political landscape?
I imagine most of the groups have started very much like ours did. You have one or two people, who are already community spirited, who see the crisis unfolding and know they have to do something. Then there are people who have never thought about volunteering before, but the extreme nature of the crisis has awoken a desire to help that has been dormant inside them. And then you have those people who have been active in the community for years, community leaders, local politicians or charity workers. Years of experience has shown them that there will be a lot of work for people to do. Then all these people end up coming together, normally through social media, and they begin to be organised. There’s a WhatsApp group setup, maybe even a Facebook group. Soon they grow bigger as word is spread, maybe several groups even merge to share resources. Then suddenly before you know it, the ad hoc group has turned in well-funded, well-structured organisation, which is filled with dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. As of the end of April, MARR has well over 150 registered volunteers from across the Medway towns, with new members joining each day. We are organised into several areas of Medway, with a dedicated Admin officer assigned to organise each area, and with a dedicated WhatsApp group to distribute tasks to people.
This is a lot of people willing to join a brand new organisation, and they are coming from many different backgrounds. Yet, they all seem to be gravitating together under the same simple idea. The idea that COVID-19 threatens the people of community like nothing before, and the only way to fight it is for the community to come together to ensure no one is left behind. But alongside this is the concepts of mutual aid, which has spread from many different groups across the country. Mutual aid is where a group of people organise themselves to meet their own needs, which is outside the formal structure of existing governmental organisations or charities. It’s about people coming together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for one another. And this emerging feeling of community solidarity isn’t just isolated in those people volunteering. From my experience of talking to the people I’ve helped, there has been a consistent comments of ‘where has this been?’ and ‘once the crisis is over, I hope this keeps going.’ So whether the Covid crisis has created this feeling, or it’s been bubbling under the surface for years, there is a good chance that this will still be around after we have returned to some level of normality.
The next question is where would these groups fit within the political landscape in that new world. This is hard to predict as they have much more longevity than other single issue community groups that have often shaped local elections. An example would be the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, which was formed to fight the civic complex development, but is now haemorrhaging councillors back to the conservatives. It is also hard to predict as the ethos of mutual aid is for communities to take care of themselves outside the normal government control. This makes them oddly politically non-political and wary of working within local politics. Finally, many volunteers are not politically minded and are members to simply help people. It would be far from certainty whether they would switch their time for any other reason.
However, what I can predict is that these groups should not be ignored. From my own experience of MARR, they are filled to the brim with enthusiastic and dedicated people. People who are willing to drop anything to help deliver shopping, prescriptions, and offer a friendly chat to anyone alone. I have seen nearly the whole of Medway leafleted within a month (something many political parties would be jealous of during an election) to make sure no one is forgotten about or missed. And we have had nothing but positive responses from many people, even those who did not need our immediate help have been grateful and appreciative. They have even told me that we have restored their faith in humanity. That sort of political muscle and high favourables would be the envy of any Medway political party, let alone a normal community group.
It is hard to predict what the future will be like in a post-covid world. Yet it’s also hard to imagine that the many community support groups, whose beginnings have been forged in the traumatic world of a pandemic, will not play a major role in shaping that future.
Stuart Bourne became politically active in 2005, helping to re-elect the Chatham & Aylesford MP Jonathan Shaw. He became the branch secretary for Chatham Labour Party, and stood as a Labour candidate for the local council elections in 2007 and 2011. He moved away from Medway in 2012, but has now moved back as a Liberal Democrat.