This week, I went to the launch of a briefing on local engagement in democracy from the Pathways through Participation (PtP) team. PtP is a research project led by NCVO in partnership with the Institute for Volunteering Research and Involve. It’s findings were published in September after more than two years research into participation and this event at the House of Commons was an opportunity to share what had been learnt specifically about public participation. Chaired by Simon Burrall CEO of Involve, the findings were introduced by two of the research team Ellie Brodie (NCVO) and Tim Hughes (Involve) and then three speakers responded: Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell from Kensington and Chelsea and the LGA, Tessy Britton who blogs here and Dr Stella Creasy MP for Walthamstow (pictured in full flow immediately below left).
In the UK, there have been longstanding worries about dropping levels of political participation. This is reflected in the sharp decline in union membership, in political party membership and of course in the numbers voting in elections. In 2008, politicians saw signs of a social movement in Barack Obama’s extraordinary campaign for the US presidency and pundits from all sides hoped they might benefit by importing to the UK his magic dust of community organising. Meanwhile, in the States, the use of the techniques of community organising were being widely employed (and disparaged) in partisan voter mobilization campaigns without the essential purpose of changing the balance of power between disempowered citizens and the elite.
It was in light of this hope that the idea of the community organiser training programme was launched by the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2010 election and the Movement for Change created within the Labour Party by David Miliband, before he lost the Labour leadership to his brother. The deep roots of organising in the labour movement remain strong but under-developed in the UK. In April, the arrival of Arnie Graf from the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago to be the Labour Party’s Director of Organising indicates that Ed Miliband is also convinced of the value of organising for the Party’s future. But will such programmes really reinvigorate the participation of citizens in local politics?
The disgrace of being political
The PtP findings suggest that community organising has some significant hurdles to overcome. For many people, politics is a dirty word. It is clearly not about apathy or disinterest but rather that citizens who want to make a difference in their community do not want to be labelled ‘do-gooders’, the ‘usual suspects’ or NIMBYs*. Most wanted to avoid the stigma of being seen as political in any formal sense. Tellingly, the practice of statutory consultation is so poor that the PtP researchers did not find a single positive example in all their interviews. In areas such as Southwark where citizens seldom feel they have any say in their community, this must be a near universal experience. Most participation is driven by fury or fear rather than by aspiration and hope.
The personal is political
The PtP briefing reinforces the sense that participation in the public realm is personal. It varies over the life course of the individual and is dependent on many personal circumstances. The researchers did not however explore that if participation is indeed personal then it is also political. The capacity of the individual in their social setting and networks to join in determining the future of their community is fundamentally influenced by social and economic factors. Some are global, others more local but the impact of wider socio-political pressures on participation cannot be denied. Any political participation is engagement with power and as such has a deep link with oppression and exclusion.
Politics of the everyday
UK citizens shy away from being ‘political’ and some even see voting as too loaded with political baggage and so do not vote. My own research in Southwark showed that active citizens avoided terms such as ‘activist’, preferring less loaded terms such as ‘volunteer’. However, many of those engaged in public life are in fact very political, even though they avoid the label. They are for example crossing social barriers between opposing groups through friendship; they may shape the way individuals handle difference by modelling openness and respect.
In my view, every citizen is a politician. Not in the sense that we represent other than our own knowledge and experience but rather that we are participating publically in designing our community together. Where we engage with the real concerns of our neighbours and friends, where we link together people who would otherwise be in tension, where we work with others to find solutions to the tough problems in our community – there we are politicians together. At the moment, however, the political parties have a strangle-hold on political participation and most citizens want nothing to do with such partisan and partial approaches.
Networks and politics
Participation in the end happens not through the heroic campaigns of the few but through the everyday engagement of the many. Every participant is a part of a peer network of support from family, neighbours and friends and these citizen networks are the building blocks for renewing our local politics. Linking people up with each other who come from different backgrounds and experiences – as in community organising – offers to those most marginalised the opportunity to join in for the perhaps the first time. To be political, we need each other. To act together for the common good, we need to be in respectful relationship. To recalibrate the balance between citizens and the most powerful, we need to develop trust across deep divides.
* Not in my back yard – NIMBY
Local engagement in democracy – Download the briefing paper here as a pdf file.
Pathways through Participation – http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk
Tessy Britton blogs at Thriving Too – http://thrivingtoo.typepad.com/thriving_too/