THEY should have spoken to my next-door neighbour, Jane.
A group of cross-party Members of Parliament has announced that communities are in decline across the country. Volunteering and civic participation is falling away. Local institutions are in decline: one in four British pubs and libraries has closed in the past 15 years and the number of post offices has halved. Arresting our “fragmenting community”, restoring “social capital”, and repairing “social fabric” is the “defining challenge” of the current Parliament, the MPs say, fluent in contemporary think-tank jargon.
The example of Jane Baugh suggests that what is needed is something else. Before Jane’s funeral last week, the cortège drove slowly through the local park in our little town of Sale, to the south of Manchester. Jane had been one of the leading lights of Friends of Worthington Park, who keep the place neat and pleasant. She had been responsible for the installation of the exercise equipment, which made up an outdoor gym next to the two children’s playgrounds.
That was far from all. She was President of Sale Brass Band, Honorary President of the local Alma Singers, President of the Trafford Branch of Parkinson’s UK, vice-chair of the annual cultural festival in Sale, and Patron of the Alex Hulme Foundation, which has raised half a million pounds for children who suffer from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. She was the driving force behind the building of the local Waterside Arts Centre. Such a lynchpin was she of local life that Worthington Park was lined with local residents to pay their last respects as the hearse passed.
When the leader of Trafford Borough Council, Cllr Andrew Weston, paid tribute to her on the local Facebook page, his eulogy was followed by scores of comments from Sale residents which were a testament to the extraordinary breadth and depth of Jane’s commitment to her community — and her personal affection for the people whom she served for 30 years as a local councillor and as Mayor of Trafford. The comments ranged from respect from her political opponents to heartfelt thanks from a foster-mum whose children Jane had supported in her job as the council executive with responsibility for children and young people. Jane Baugh never failed to follow up on a promise. She went, repeatedly, beyond the call of duty.
For Jane, all this was more than politics: it was personal. “All I knew of the Labour Party as a child was Jane Baugh and it was her example that inspired me to become involved, ” Cllr Weston wrote. “She was so generous in her encouragement of colleagues, reassuring countless women and younger Party members in particular that they were good enough, could serve, and would make effective councillors.” Jane Baugh was an inspiration to everyone who met her.
So, it is all very well for the MPs behind the new renewal initiative, who include Labour’s Jon Cruddas and the Conservative Danny Kruger, to talk of institutions and infrastructure. We need them, of course. But words are easy, as we may recall from Tony Blair’s stakeholder economy and David Cameron’s Big Society. But, without extraordinary individuals such as Jane Baugh, all that will count for nothing.