The Director of Public Engagement at Parliament challenges Puffles the Dragon Fairy to make Parliament Week 2014 happen in Cambridge. Cambridge people and institutions: Are you up for the challenge?
Don’t believe me?
Aileen Walker is the Director of Public Engagement at the Houses of Parliament, a lovely person who I’ve met on a number of occasions both with and without dragon fairy in tow. Puffles was with me earlier today on what was Puffles’ fifth visit to Parliament. That means Puffles has been to Parliament more times than many residents in Cambridge. Which can’t be right. Parliament belongs to the people. I quite like the principle that everyone should have the chance to visit Parliament at least once in their lifetime and see it from the inside. You may not like some/many of the people inside it (such as this chap), but the building itself is a work of art and is worth seeing from that perspective alone.
“How do I get to visit Parliament?”
By contacting your MP (see here) and asking very politely if they could arrange for you to have a tour of Parliament. And that’s it. No entrance charge. This is only for when Parliament is in session. When Parliament is in recess – ie when they are on holiday (or for the hard-working ones, in their constituencies which is more than people generally think), they run tours which are charged for – see here.
“How come Puffles gets to go?”
MPs and peers often host events in Parliament. Many of these events are open to the public – all you have to do is to sign up. The Hansard Society (see here) and Parliament Week (see here) host events that you can go along to as well, just like Puffles!
“So…what are we going to do for Parliament Week in Cambridge then?”
It’s more a case of inspiring local institutions to put on events and persuading the many current and former politicians, MPs and peers that live in Cambridge to take part. And there quite a few in Cambridge.
It shouldn’t be beyond the influence of Cambridge University and societies to organise something. Part of the joke is that the transport links between Oxford and London are so good because so many former permanent secretaries (top civil servants) at the Department for Transport used to go to Oxford and wanted a fast route back there for college dinners. The reason why the M11 got built was that in a break from tradition, one former permanent secretary at the DfT went to Cambridge and realised there was no motorway from London to Cambridge…so he changed that. (Hence why it might seem like the M11 ends in the middle of nowhere).
I’m more interested in Anglia Ruskin University and the sixth form/further education colleges – and not because for ARU and the three big sixth form/FE colleges in Cambridge, I used to study at all of them over the years. Following a conversation with some officials at Cambridge City Council recently, they asked me to consider outreach work at Cambridge Regional College – where I did my teacher training in late 2011. And with good reason. Hills Road and Long Road Sixth Form Colleges are seen to prepare their students for university – university outside of Cambridge. It’s a well-trodden route – one that I went along myself. But with CRC students, the council officials’ contention was that students there were more likely to stay local due to the nature of the courses they were studying, and the close vocational links with local employers.
Challenge for Cambridge Regional College
Yeah – why didn’t I get a hoodie for my teacher training course?!? Actually, they run a very interesting uniformed and public services course there – see here. Could CRC incorporate a visit to Parliament for students that successfully complete the courses? Sort of as an additional incentive?
In terms of events for Parliament Week itself, I don’t know enough about CRC’s student intake in terms of what would and what would not work for them. What do the staff think might work? Or the students? Or local residents? Would Cambridge Regional College be interested in becoming a partner organisation for Parliament Week? (See here).
Challenge for Anglia Ruskin Students Union
You’ve got access to some of the best conferencing facilities in the city. A similar challenge applies above: What sort of event would work best for your students? What do the students think? What sort of event could work that could bring students and the resident population together? Note too that for the European Elections in 2014, at least one of the candidates has expressed an interest in a debate with candidates from other political parties at Anglia Ruskin
Can you make this happen?
Challenge for Cambridge University societies
While the independent Cambridge Union Society has an ideal chamber for Parliament-style debates (and itself could run a series of evening events aimed at various audiences – could they do one for secondary school students?), can societies go beyond debates? Think about the various academic disciplines within a public policy or parliamentary context. What sort of event could you organised that is informative, captures the public’s imagination and also busts a few negative myths about Parliament?
Sixth form colleges and centres
I’m not just thinking about the big two, but also about the smaller sixth form centres attached to local schools in the public and private sector. What can you do within your organisations and also in partnership with each other?
Local councils and community groups
What’s your role in all of this? Is there something that can be put on that is ‘cross-generational’ and breaks down some of the silos that exist between the various communities in Cambridge?
Art, drama, music, literature
Parliament’s not all about testosterone-fuelled willie-waving – though watching PMQs you could be forgiven.
“And there is the honourable member for Eton and Harrow making noises similar to that of a constipated Giraffe in extreme paid following the intervention by the Leader of the Opposition…”
Given that The Speaker has slammed ‘public school twittishness’ (see here), I’m surprised that some class-war-minded sections of the left-wing press haven’t phoned up a few of them and said:
“Yeah, when are you going to apologise for your mis-education of lots of MPs?”
Bcoz it’s teh skoolz, ain’t it?
Actually, it was Marsha Thompson of Shout Out UK who made a very powerful contribution about what her and friends did for Parliament Week 2013. She mentioned some poetry slam – which reminded me of brilliant local (to Cambridge) poetry-slam artist Hollie McNish – have a listen:
Also have a look at Sublime Rhyme who was at the workshop in Parliament too.
So…live performances. Why not? Political public performance poetry. Or shortened drama performances of contentious and gripping Parliamentary debates? Equal marriage? The Iraq war? Tuition fees?
How about art projects? Parliament isn’t just where posh people ask loaded questions of each other despite what PMQs might show. How about taking art students around Parliament and Whitehall for a visit and inviting them to use what they’ve seen and felt for an exhibition? Or perhaps for a charity fund-raiser?
And it’s a ***big*** but.
And I can’t get away from it.
Despite the brilliance of the organisers and the speakers – which very talented and diverse women were conspicuous by their presence, there is a massive pair of elephants in the room. One of them is called The Conservative Party, and the other one is called The Labour Party.
“Those are funny names to give to elephants inside a room!”
With good reason.
There are some superb initiatives going on at the moment trying to re-engage people with politics and democracy. But they are not joined up. The whole picture is incredibly fragmented.
“Explique S’il vous plait?”
For me, ideally what you want is a seamless link from the relationship between citizen and essential daily public services on one side, with influencing micro-public-policy on the other. Everything else is somewhere in between. Whether getting people to register to vote, to finding out what Parliament is all about to lobbying on a particular campaign they are passionate about.
“Where’s the gap?”
Campaigns to encourage people to vote are inevitably and understandably tied up by charity law or the need to remain ‘party politically neutral’. Inevitably this means they have to keep a safe distance away from political parties even though in the grand scheme of things they are encouraging people to engage with politicians who are members of such parties.
But as I argued in this blogpost there is a whole host of work you need to do with public engagement before you even encourage people to register to vote, let alone vote in the first place. We found this out the hard way with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. (See here). Before you even look at elections, you’ve got to start with the very basics of the individual’s relationship with basic public services. With under-16s, the basic question is:
Why are you at school?
That’s your conversation starter. Who says you have to go to school? Under what authority? What happens if you don’t go to school? Why are there consequences if you don’t go to school? What right do those people and organisations have to impose those consequences on you if you don’t go to school? Where do they get their power from?
…and so on, and so on.
Why do people come and collect your bins every day?
What would happen if they didn’t collect your bins every day? How did we get to this arrangement where you pay money to your council to get your bins collected every day? Where does your rubbish go to after it has been collected? How is the money collected?
…and so on, and so on…
This then puts the context of the citizen having a say about where their tax money goes towards – representation with taxation. This then brings in the idea of the existence of political parties with different outlooks – which then compete for your vote.
Having encouraged people to register to vote and having explained the existence of Parliament and what it does…
Well…I can’t help but feel that Parliament Week (again, not through the fault of the organisers) risks raising people’s awareness about debates, but not about how their input can have an impact – ie make a difference.
What’s the point of coming up with incredibly well-evidenced, well-thought-out arguments about a given policy only for a minister to turn around and ignore you? This for me was the legacy of Tony Blair over Iraq and also Nick Clegg’s concessions to the Conservatives over tuition fees. It depoliticised two generations, demonstrating that actually political engagement doesn’t make any difference at all. Blair’s alleged comments about Hutton in a recent court case (see here – but ***please don’t comment on the accused until the trial is over and the verdicts have been given***) along with this article in LabourList, speak volumes. At least Nick Clegg said ‘sorry’ – and had the proceeds of the song going to a local hospital.
“So…where do we go from here?”
This brings me to my third point about open policy (see here) – which I like. During my civil service days me and Puffles were flying around Whitehall following UKGovCamp 2011 trying to persuade anyone who would listen to us that Whitehall needed to move towards a much more open and transparent system of policy-making. This included allowing correspondence and representations from wealthy and/or vested interests to be open for public scrutiny ***before*** policy decisions were made.
“Sorry old bean – you made a splendid argument and all that but the minister’s chums in banking and/or union baron chums threatened to flush his head down the loo if he followed your recommendation. But just between you and me on an unattributed basis, hey? The party line is that the minister is doing the right thing because he is right? ‘K?”
You can’t have evidence-based policy with prejudice-based politics. You can’t have open policy systems with closed political party policy systems.
So…where ***do*** we go from here?
For me, I see the sequence like this:
Blank 1 – ‘Bite-the-ballot’ – blank 2 – ‘Parliament Week’ – blank 3 – ‘Open Policy’.
There are three blanks – two of which (blanks 2 & 3) need to be filled in by political parties.
Blank 1 I’ve mentioned before. This is primarily a long term ‘citizenship education’ issue.
Blank 2 is around how the general public can influence candidate selection (especially in safe seats) and party manifestos – especially in an era of low party membership. Low membership makes it easier for small well-organised sub-groups to have disproportionate influence on political policy. Labour and the Conservatives in ‘safe’ councils where there is little official opposition. Or in the case of the London Borough of Newham… (have a look here). That’s not necessarily Labour’s fault in Newham’s case. Other political parties need to ask themselves serious questions as to why an entire London borough has chosen to return an entire council of councillors from one single political party.
Blank 3 is primarily around giving MPs and peers much more freedom from party whips – even going so far as to separate legislature from executive. Parliament must have greater ability and authority to amend or veto government policy without fear or favour. It is an inherent conflict of interest for ministers to be members of a body (parliament) responsible for scrutinising an institution (government) that they are part of.
That’s not to say we should give up.
Quite the opposite.
How we go about achieving change…well, different people will have different ideas and dispositions on this. For me, one of the most important things is that whatever people try, they analyse what they did and try to improve on what they did rather than trying to repeat past mistakes. (A continual criticism of the far-left with A-to-B marches that inevitably get ignored). Another important thing is finding the sort of action and activism that works for you. For some people, that might be pounding the streets going door-to-door canvassing. For others it might be running a stall, For others it might be running an entertainment event as a fund-raiser. For others it might be online. For others it might be scrutinising policy detail and feeding back to elected representatives. For others it might be turning up to council meetings regularly and haranguing councillors. Or a variety of these. For others, it might be non-violent direct action. For others, it might be very violent direct action – thinking of the scenes on TV of late in Ukraine. (I don’t recommend violence – it breaches Puffles’ house rules, is a symptom that politics as a process has utterly failed, and violence freaks me out anyway). Essentially, find out what works for you.