Is politics so toxic that we’re frightened to discuss it in public forums?


On our collective reluctance to deal with our democratic institutions – what can we do about it?

I was at an event last night hosted by former Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert – now the director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge – their new public policy institute.

The following morning, I went along to #VibrantCambridge along with several of the great and the good mainly from the business sector but with a few of us community activists dotted around the room too.

The common theme I noticed with both events was the reluctance of participants and speakers to address issues involving our democratic institutions. This felt like a double blow, because at both of the events, people had turned up to deal with very political issues. If debating the futures of our city, our county, or even our planet are not political, nothing is.

Often when people say ‘We’re not political’ they mean ‘Party politics is so toxic that we want nothing to do with it when it comes to dealing with our issue.’ Politicians and political institutions don’t help themselves with things like this

Ditto going all party political on the same day when there is an election coming up. All of the party political representatives in this photograph are Conservative. If I was one of the other candidates I’d be complaining to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government over the use of civil service resources on something that appears party political.

Having stood for election before, it’s not a decision anyone takes lightly. For the Secretary of State to say only his party’s candidate cares about every part of our county, is insulting to everyone campaigning in the election campaign.

“Why is it important to talk about democracy and political institutions?”

For one simple reason:

Our society is underpinned by a powerful concept: The Rule of Law. The UK as a member of the Commonwealth is bound by it. The Attorney General in 2014 made a speech on the UK’s commitment to the concept over the centuries. (That doesn’t mean they always stuck to it in their actions, as history tells us!)

For The Rule of Law to function properly, democratic and political institutions need to function properly as well. Once those are undermined, so too is the rule of law. This includes the concept of trust between institutions and of the actions of individuals too.

“Why was an audience of people interested in taking action on climate change, and an audience full of civic-minded businesses in Cambridgeshire so reluctant to talk about democracy and political institutions?”

Other than the toxicity thing, that’s something I’m still struggling with.

Not only that, historically ***we have been here before***.

Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save The Children made a speech in Cambridge in 1910 – at the peak of her social and political action in town.

She does not see how anyone who has the welfare of mankind at heart can fail to take an interest in politics”

“She drew an excellent picture of the “Superior Person,” who at the end of his life declares with fatuous satisfaction that he had kept himself pure from party politics, that the vulgar rivalry of Liberals and Tories had never touched him…and showed how such isolation and ‘superiority’ meant criminal neglect of opportunities [to make a difference]

This was from a speech about religion and politics, where she appealed to an audience of Christian men to take an interest in politics as a means of dealing with the poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Eglantyne’s research a few years before in Cambridge: a brief study in social questions (digitised here) revealed Cambridge’s infant mortality rate was 1:8. Today it’s closer to 3:1000.

“But you had halls full of people who wanted to take action to deal with big shared problems”

True – and that is a wonderful thing to see and hear.

In the case of #VibrantCambridge the main theme that came out was people either wanting to get involved in local charity work themselves, or wanting to deliver/work on a specific charitable project.

The quality of the ideas was mixed. Some were genuinely excellent and ground-breaking. Others demonstrated an ignorance of what others were already doing on the ground, or an arrogance of ‘business knows better’ than those already working on the front line who are constrained by existing Government policy, or the inertia of previous governments’ policies.

Therein lies the challenge – how do you bring in the excellent ideas into the mix in local democracy while leaving behind ‘Business attempts at doing public administration – and doing it badly’?

Embedding diversity in day-to-day work

It was a challenge I put to my table – which unfortunately ended up being an all-male one. Hence why I probably over-compensated by telling everyone how wonderful our first woman councillor, first woman magistrate and second woman mayor, Florence Ada Keynes was, and how we should build a big new conference/concert hall in Cambridge (my case is here) and name it after her. (It ended up in the news).

The first problem was venue: No public transport access.

The second – a problem on my table was lack of gender diversity. I also got the sense that the diversity of Cambridge’s business communities was also not reflected. It was more ‘suits’ rather than say Mill Road Traders. Hence Paul Smith of @CamCreatives was spot on challenging the prominent members  of Cambridge Ahead on our table to do more to engage with smaller and more informal business networks – rather than run the risk of being seen as an insular clique with eyes towards London, Whitehall and the City.

Business turning the mirror on themselves

It was Matthew Bullock of St Edmund’s who I thought gave some incredibly clear critiques – similar to Dr John Wells on the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly, that really impressed me. His challenge to the other business representatives on our table was whether they had enough information about things like travel patterns of their own staff, in order to influence decisions on public transport in and around Cambridge. This comes back to my own criticism of the Greater Cambridge City Deal not having had a ‘year zero’ to commission research and collect data/information in order to inform decisions taken later on down the line.

This brings me onto the other challenges those in business face if they want to influence public policy: Who holds you accountable for the views you put forward as an institution?

This brings me onto my final diversity point: What would the event have been like if it was held say at The Meadows Community Centre on the border of Arbury & King’s Hedges, with half of the people participating being people who live in those two wards? What sort of things would they be telling you, how would they be telling you, how would you respond?

The reason I ask this is all too often the people these sorts of gatherings say they want to help are often conspicuous by their absence.

What would this picture look like if half of the audience had been people on low incomes, young people and/or pensioners?

Public policy and community action is messy – you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and hear some uncomfortable things said about you and your sector. But then democracy isn’t a spectator sport either

This is also why sound feedback loops are ever so important. Given we were at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in one of their huge aerodromes, the military metaphor of ‘No plan – however carefully prepared, survives the first contact with the enemy intact’ seems particularly apt. Hence I’d be interested to see what audiences of politicians, public sector staff, people from the voluntary sector, the elderly, and students and children make of the ideas that a predominantly business audience came up with.


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