Community-based politics versus think-tank-based party politics
There have been a number of articles that got me thinking about this. The top three to mind are:
- Joss Bailey - Communication breakdown: how Westminster politics can repair its public image
- The Economist – Fantasy Politics Revisited
- Tim Montgomerie – What would the new parties be?
The implosion of political parties is not without precedent. In the lifetimes of many readers, the collapse of the Italian Christian Democrats in 1990s (see here) brought to an end the post-war cold-war fragile structure of Italian politics, and helped create a vacuum on Italian right wing politics that led to the rise of Berlusconi. In the more distant history, the collapse of the Liberal Party (See this chart) shows an astonishing decline in the first half of the 20th Century.
Broken feedback loops
For me, all the main political parties have broken feedback loops. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blogpost, we’ve got a 19th Century political structure facing a 20th Century mainstream media shouting at a society living in the 21st Century. And I don’t mean with the third, that the entire country is now made up of London-based ‘so-shall meejah luvvies’. Rather, they are saying: “Get out of 1995!”
Part of the problem is that the only time politicians accept the voters/the public are right is when they have been voted out of office, or have been rejected by voters on successive occasions. That’s when you start getting the soul-searching – as described by Sadiq Khan here. Yet all too often, such soul-searching has happened within party circles rather than with greater involvement with the general public. Hence what party members might state are the problems may not actually be what the general public feels. Feedback that I’ve had from local politicians from the main parties is that those that are active in their communities have a very different outlook to those that tend not to engage with the general public. Door-to-door campaigning…who would do that in the current poisonous atmosphere.
Community-facing vs canapes-facing politics
Whether it’s the Young Conservatives meeting and tweeting on the #YBFX hashtag (it’s worth a look for supporters and opponents alike – see here) on their annual gathering, or that of Labour and Greens at #ChangeHow (same applies – see here), both sides of the Commons’ chamber have become too comfortable with what I guess can be called ‘canapes’ politics’. I’m in this strange position of having one foot in my local community in Cambridge (I spent today at the Christmas Bazaar of my former primary school were I’m now a governor) and another foot in canapes’ politics-land. They are two ***very different*** worlds.
With this world, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and are networked to. The world is full of talks and conferences, with the evening ones often having drinks’ receptions following them. You get senior politicians, academics, think-tank types and lobbyists (corporate, charity – it makes no difference) going along to these events in the attempt to influence the policies of the government of the day. They are often held in plush settings – Central London hotels having set up smooth operations for such things.
Although you are nominally invited, most of the public are not told about these things – because they are held in London and because they are simply not connected into the networks where these events are advertised. Think too of the Westminster jobs’ portal where many vacancies are advertised -> see here. How many of you outside of London were even aware that such a portal existed?
Think also of the partisan think-tanks that set themselves up along the lines of academic policy institutes. Chief executives, directors of policy, directors of communications, research fellows, press officers – all very glamorous and important-sounding job-titles. But how transparent are such think tanks? (Have a look here). What about the media links? Think about the interviewees booked to appear on telly news or on panels. Who decides? This was one of the things that got many Radio 4 listeners – women in particular – angry about the people booked as ‘experts’. This led to the founding of The Women’s Room. (See here). Again, who has what relationships with which insiders in media companies? This is an issue that applies across the political spectrum. On what basis is an interviewee/commentator being commissioned/hired, and how transparent and proper is that process?
It’s not as glitzy as the bright lights of Central London, but at the same time it’s much easier to see the difference you can make. In my case today I was at my school’s Christmas bazaar. By leaning on the police, the fire brigade and the Mayor of Cambridge, for the first time in the school’s recent history we had a police car and a fire engine (with PCSOs and fire fighters) along with the mayor coming along to meet the children and the parents. We also had Father Christmas too. The school is a primary school. You can imagine how much fun the children had. All in all it helped raise the profile of local public services and allowed the community to meet the human faces behind the engines.
I remember when I was younger that a visit from the Mayor was a very big deal. Having a fire engine calling round for an outreach visit was unheard of. If you’re trying to educate children about civic society and public services, what’s more likely to spark their imagination: Being stuck in a classroom with photocopied handouts (as we had in my day – things are a lot different now with multi-media facilities) or bringing a massive fire engine round to the school?
Community politics requires a lot more effort, and taking many more risks, than canapes’ politics
That’s not to say the conferences don’t have their place – they can be essential at unpicking the difficult policy details, or bringing lots of people together in one place. The problem is that the delegates that attend them all too often come from a small section of society. The structures also make it easier for wealthy and/or partisan interests from whichever part of the political spectrum to ‘capture’ a policy area, while at the same time excluding those that are unable to attend such events. It’s a safer, ‘exclusive’ form of doing politics and policy but it has had the impact of excluding too many of the rest of us.
Community-based politics means going to places and meeting people that you would not normally choose to socialise with. Ditto with being a community activist as I am today. Prior to becoming a school governor I hardly ever spent time with people who had children of primary school age. Being on a school governing body has changed all of that. You also get to see the impact of decisions made far away in Whitehall circles. At the same time, you also get to see how your own seemingly small actions can have a far greater impact on people’s lives. As the Mayor said to our head teacher, many people are not aware of, or tend not to think about inviting local civic leaders to their events, or tipping off the local media about what is going on. Yet think back to when you were younger – being in the local newspaper as a result of taking part in a community event was a big deal. To many of us, it still is – despite smaller circulation.
Changing the negative perception of politicians – one person at a time
Personally I don’t think the negative public perception of politicians and politics serves anyone other than the already powerful. The lack of public participation in politics – especially at a local level makes it much easier for louder voices and fringe interest groups to take over local political parties – impacting on things like selection of candidates. That’s why for me it’s all the more essential that we have open-primary-style selections in areas that are traditionally safe seats, given that we’re not going to get voting reform anytime soon. Up the road from me in South East Cambridgeshire the Conservatives (in a traditionally true blue seat( had an open primary recently. (See here). Thus we now have Lucy Frazer QC as their candidate.
I switch off when politicians are in party-branded broadcast-mode
I don’t know about you, but when I see slogans such as “Retweet this if ‘boooo!!! Tories/Labour’” or “Only our party can do good stuff” or trying to take credit for something that was delivered by a cross-party consensus. Eg equal marriage. When political parties throw mud at each other, everyone gets dirty in the minds of the public. The lessons from Joss Bailey here apply to all holders of political public office.
Prejudice-based, principle-based or evidence-based politics?
You remember the headline:
This in part reflects the tightrope that politicians have to walk. Yet policy based on strong prejudice and weak evidence is still bad policy. Prejudice and principle in the context I am using are not necessarily the same thing. In terms of principle, I tend to think about a person’s disposition and world-view. For example the parents with several children on low incomes may take a different view towards the funding of health and education services compared to an affluent single male with no children who has a successful business. Prejudices can be changed too – think of work done to bring people from different communities together. Think too of why campaigners against faith schools feel the way they do about segregating children on grounds of their parents’ beliefs – and the wider impact this can have on segregation by ethnicity.
At the same time, ‘evidence-based policy’ is a phrase easier to day and harder to deliver. Not least because you will never have enough money to do the research needed to account for all of the evidence bases, let alone have the time or the necessary skills to analyse them before making a decision on how to act. Even with all of the past evidence in the world, past record is no guarantee of future performance. You will always have imperfect evidence-bases in public policy. How do you account for that?
So…where do we go from here?
For me, politicians – especially at a local level – need to decide how they respond to how citizens are choosing to engage/disengage with politics. Politicians from various parties have told me that in order to influence policy, I need to join their party. Understandable if I were a ‘tribal’ type, but I’m not. Me and Puffles aside, politicians need to think over a much longer time horizon rather than to the next election. How can they build positive working relationships with people in their communities where they can act on the positive suggestions citizens make on how to improve their communities – or even support their existing work.
At a recent event in Cambridge on skills for young people, we had councillors from the three main parties there listening and learning from a diverse audience. (See my blogpost here on the impact & impression this made on the audience). Personally I’d like to see more of this, with parties recognising that at such events they have more to gain by jointly attending such events and listening to the people that come along to them. At least that way they can raise the profile of politics in a positive manner. Because without that face-to-face presence, it’s understandable that citizens feel excluded from politics and public policy.
If more politicians can show they are prepared to invest time in community activism, perhaps citizens are more likely to reciprocate. But that is something that will take years. For young, ambitious politicians that want to climb the political ladder quickly, such a prospect may not sound appealing. Yet for me it’s essential. And that’s one of the challenges for political parties: How do you persuade your ambitious types to get some grounding in community politics?