The late Tony Carter – whose funeral took place today in south London – and I never really got on. I last saw him in August 1998 when he attended a meeting at Friends House which Andrew Dunning had organised to build a national movement in support of independent advocacy with older people. By the end of the day we had made some good progress. Tony was unimpressed. ‘What do you make of it, then?’ I overheard someone ask him. ‘Not much’, he replied. ‘Still can’t see what it’s all about.’ His many friends and admirers might have been surprised at this. He was after all a great eclectic: a trade unionist who played a key role during the 1990s in the national movement of older people’s forums; a pioneer of user engagement who collaborated with Peter Beresford; a man committed to adult learning through his involvement with the Pre-Retirement Association and the Association for Education and Ageing; and then, during the last decade, a scholar who completed an MA in public history at Ruskin College in his early eighties. He was also, in his droll, funny fashion – and unlike too many of his peers – comfortable at collaborating with women in the proliferating networks and associations where he concluded a lifetime of activism. So why might he have been ambivalent about advocacy, a movement whose principles appear so closely allied to his own? The answer I think lies with his deep ambivalence about the professionalised voluntary sector. I was confronted with this during one long evening in Hackney in the latter days of the Thatcher government.

It’s not well known that Tony was the last chair of Pensioners Link, the innovative, tempestuous, and largely unmanageable community work organisation that operated across more than a dozen London boroughs from the mid-sixties (it had begun life as Anthony Steen’s Task Force) until 1992. I worked there between 1978 and 1991, leaving in the year before it went bankrupt. And so it would have been in 1990 when Hackney Council, in one of its many benighted attempts at reorganisation, had reviewed its budgets in such a way as to put a considerable slice of our centre’s annual grant at risk. Tony, in his dutiful, good-humoured fashion had agreed to come and represent the organisation’s directors at a consultation meeting with a sub-cttee of elected members and Hackney officials. At its crudest his job would simply have been to make it clear that any reduction to our local grant would not be made up by funds from elsewhere. But he joined me at 6pm in our office on Dalston Lane to be sure of his brief and to learn more about the services – or the ‘work’, as I would have called it at the time – that might be affected.

As I took him through the portfolio – support to the Hackney Asian Senior Citizens Association; group health promotion activities; producing a quarterly newspaper with a print-run of 14,000; welfare and housing rights advice; practical help with DIY and gardening, and the multifarious engagement of staff in running other organisations and campaigns that was so characteristic of the period – he was clearly more and more appalled. A practised writer of reports and commentaries himself he could make no sense of the elaborate arrangements spread across three organisations that went on for several weeks to produce the Hackney Pensioners Press (something we saw as a small triumph in its reconciliation of inclusion, engagement and propaganda). Why on earth couldn’t people produce their copy, submit it (with an expectation of it being edited), get the thing printed and have done with it? He appreciated the case for black and minority ethnic social groups, was comfortable with the information-sharing side of health promotion, and – although he wrinkled his nose at the charitable associations implied by ‘practical support’ – could see the point in helping someone keep their garden accessible, or maintain a supply of tomatoes. His real sticking-point was welfare rights: people didn’t need ‘casework’ or repated assistance filling out forms. They should expect robust encouragement and a bit of advice and direction but the aim should be to make their own applications, reporting back if they got stuck. Stand up for your rights. He did grudgingly propose that there might be a role there for assertive activists like himself.

After an hour or more of wrangling we drove down to meet the sub-committee. I made a few technical points before Tony forcefully and quietly highlighted the vital importance of all the services we’d just been in dispute about. It was a determined performance which saw the grant removed from the hit list. We had a pint afterwards in the Old Ship by Hackney Town Hall before he refused to claim any expenses or consider getting a taxi to expedite his return to south London. In the years that followed we had one or two sharp exchanges, including one in print, when he disapproved of my representing older peoples’ forums as talking shops, but I never forgot his work on our behalf that evening in Hackney. Tony was truly a representative of the ‘uncommon people’ from an ‘unselfish generation’ commemorated by Martin Shreeve in an Abbeyfield Lecture in 1999.
So what explains those discordant notes? Tony was a great campaigner, with a gift for developing and working across networks. But he remained himself regardless of the context, and the roots of his approach came from trade union practice. Fundamentally, therefore, he sought to encourage self-reliance within practices of solidarity and mutual support. He worked to establish structures that would foster and facilitate those qualities and so he was disconcerted by the extent of our team’s involvement with people whose condition implied they fell outside such structures. He had, I think, the traditional trade unionist’s dislike of the voluntary sector and its often self-serving claims to virtue. He was suspicious, despite undertaking his brief stint at the helm of Pensioners Link, of people who made a living, a career, a ‘profession’ out of advice-giving, or community development. These were matters that ordinary people, working-class people, should resolve through debate, in trust and through contact, and by giving each other time.

That this isn’t enough may seem obvious but it must also serve as a challenge, a reference point for a more demanding model of active citizenship. That Tony couldn’t see much evidence of that in a day’s discussion of independent advocacy in 1998 was our failing as much as his lack of insight. I didn’t know him well enough to say whether he had a fear of vulnerability, although I’ve come across that often in others who might superficially share some of his perspective. But if he did I’m guessing he went on to work some of it through. The pamphlet ‘Age and Change’, which he wrote with Peter Beresford for Joseph Rowntree in 2000 to a distinguished chorus of rapporteurs, concluded that ‘more work is required on collective forms of involvement.’ By this they meant in part a greater capability to engage people despite their impairments, their frailty or their difficulties in communicating. Strikingly, Tony and Peter mused on the need for ‘further work to explore working relations between older and disabled people and their organisations’. It’s hard to see, fifteen years on, that there’s been much progress there, if any. The dialectic implied is, of course, hugely inflected by time and generational factors – who could then have predicted the merciless assault on disabled peoples’ benefit incomes that is still taking place? So a synthesis may permanently elude us. But for me, having spent much of the day thinking about Tony and what he said and wrote, it’s hard to come up with a better memorial than such a challenge to address unfinished business. So thank you, Tony. Let’s go to work.