Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett talked about the importance of educating people about how democracy and the state functions, at an event in Cambridge today.
In the run up to both the 2014 European Parliament elections and the 2015 general election, the then Green Party leader Natalie Bennett was a regular and dare I say welcome visitor to Cambridge as her presence and participation from where I was standing increased the coverage of politics and the elections in the local news media.
Interviewer Jon Vale, then of the Cambridge News, has gone onto greater things – now working for the Press Association in Westminster.
She stood down as party leader at the end of her constitutional term limit of 2×2 years, replaced by the dual ticket of Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley. At the 2017 general election she polled nearly 4,000 votes in Sheffield Central, in a snap election that saw the Green Party’s 2015 record vote of over a million squeezed back to just over 500,000 – but still a party record. (Almost twice as many as they polled in both 2005 and 2010).
The importance of democracy education
As we’ve seen in the newspapers of late, editors have been whipping up their readers into a frenzy against universities over the political opinions of academics that they do not like.
A number of people reminded their followers that when fascist dictatorships seize power, one of their first victims as a cohort are academics. And as many people were quick to remind their followers, the above-mentioned publication has got form when it comes to sympathetic reporting of such regimes (or inflammatory reporting against those fleeing such regimes) over the past century or so.
Natalie said that this generation of teenagers is the most politicised and politically aware she’s experienced in a generation. That doesn’t come as a surprise to me – my generation that turned 18 around the time of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 became one of the most depoliticised and apathetic in comparison to their successors today. Again from what I observed, both Tony Blair’s decision to take the UK into the Iraq War in 2003, and then Nick Clegg’s decision to break his promise on tuition fees put two significant cohorts of young adults off of politics. Despite the scale of the protests – and note it takes a hell of a lot to get the British people off of their feet to protest against anything in very large numbers – the decisions of both men showed to a huge number of people that trying to participate in democracy made no difference.
With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader by Labour, The Green Party has faced a squeeze both in terms of votes and also a loss of activists who switched from The Greens to Labour – in particular in the run up to the 2017 general election. This was something Natalie mentioned in a short interview after the event.
A short interview with Natalie Bennett outside Selwyn College, Cambridge.
“On citizenship, democracy and educating the public – haven’t we been here before?”
After the Second World War, Pelican Books published a number of fascinating books about how the state functioned.
These books were cheap and very widely available. They are still cheap-as-chips today in charity shops. In Cambridge, both the RSPCA shop on Mill Road, and the charity shops on Burleigh Street have a number of editions that, amongst other things give rise to the impression that in days gone by we were a more literate/well read society.
The books pictured in total cost me under a fiver. Bargain.
“So…why not simply reprint these ones?”
Because for a start they’ll need a refresh – not least the local government one where the relationship between the central and local government is very different.
That said, the principle of having a common-branded set of cheap, widely available books/ebooks available to all is a sound one. But that alone is not the answer – rather it is part of one. Given how society has evolved since then – in particular younger audiences, something online and interactive might be more suitable.
How state and civic institutions function
The way I see it with these books is that in principle they are like a user-friendly guide to how organisations function – similar to the Haynes guides on how cars and things function. They don’t make a judgement on which car is better, just as these guides don’t make a judgement on which political party the reader should vote for.
What about people already in work or who have finished formal education?
This is the one thing that I’ve yet to see any of the political parties address comprehensively. For example the final point in the democracy part of the Green Party’s manifesto covers citizenship education for young people, but not for the wider population that, like myself had no citizenship education at all. In some senses it’s similar to sex and relationship education and how since 1997 and the arrival of the internet, there has been a significant improvement not just in content but also how information is communicated.
Going beyond more than one institution in delivering democracy education
It’s all very well saying “Well the council should do it!” or “The Government should do it!” – especially in an era when ministers like the idea of stuff being done so long as they don’t pay for it. In more recent times my own thinking has moved beyond which institution should do what, and more towards how people, communities, organisations and institutions in an easily-identifiable area can work together to improve where they live. Yes, that also means institutions and those with more resources taking on more of the burden vs those with fewer resources.
Again, going through one of the old blue pelican books, some organisations in times gone by – in particular the large employers – took it upon themselves to run their own civic education classes. Whether such an approach would work today I don’t know. Remember the time the books highlighted above were first printed in was in a time when we did not have a comprehensive television service. It was only in the 1960s that local newspapers in Cambridge started publishing the TV schedules. So ‘how’ we as a country could go about delivering comprehensive democracy education to adults generally, I just don’t know.