Sunday, January 25, 2009

Progressive London: power, democracy and the left

One of the key themes of Progressive London was around the nature of the democracy we'd like to see and the relationship the left should take with the rest of the population - specifically the electoral left.

I think this was best summed up in the first session I attended by Lib Dem Assembly Member (!) Mike Tuffrey who explored ideas around whether we're looking to take power, or disperse it. As to whether there were firm suggestions on the balance between empowerment and what I suppose we'd call "good governance" I think there was generally a split between those who thought elected representatives should be more in touch with the electorate and the smaller number of people who promoted the idea of people having a direct say in their communities.

Part of that discussion is, of course, about economic and social exclusion which combines these two related ideas. Council housing may not be participatory democracy but not being crushed by your rent or mortgage certainly puts you in a position to participate. Likewise initiatives like the London Living Wage, turning London into a city of sanctuary for refugees, the sustainable communities act, distribution of information on rights, challenging the monopoly of the right wing press, and a whole host of other issues don't constitute democracy but can help give it meaningful content.

One Labour councillor (Paul Dimoldenburg), describing how ineffectual many of our structures were, highlighted the fact that without money they have no power, and therefore why should people engage with consultations or bodies that, in reality, have no real weight. However, where I'd disagree with his very interesting thoughts, is that essentially representative democracy is a passive relationship, and improvements in transparency and accountability are good - but I'm sure they really deepen the ability for people to run their own society.

I'd look towards a more participatory solution which often happens through civil society, which is something Green councillor Romayne Phoenix talked about, and is not simply about "them" listening to us but about us making decisions for ourselves. Not that being listened to is a bad thing - half the anger over the Gaza crisis or the third runway came from the idea that people were not represented by their government, or, it turns out our "unbiased" BBC.

Why do so few people take part in consultation exercises? Because they think, often rightly, that they will simply be ignored - that these procedures take place in order to get through decisions that have already been taken - often by unelected officials.

If you counter-pose this to things like the transition towns movement civil society's job is to not wait for the government to green light their ideas but to make things happen for themselves - as Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan ambassador, said "in Venezuela we're not dreaming, we're doing." That's empowerment, but it requires the ability to actually take part - to understand that we can't have everything done for us.

Eric Hobsbawm was interesting when he discussed the fact that full time politicians, by the nature of their work, become disassociated with those they seek to represent, if they do indeed seek that. But I've always been slightly uneasy about this idea of 'losing touch with the people' because it seems to imply some sort of homogeneity - I mean how can you represent equally the views of the racist and the anti-racist?

One of the refreshing parts of this thread that ran through the day was that there was a light touch to it - without anyone claiming to have all the answers worked out already. It's for that reason that the breadth of the platforms (which did make me wonder sometimes) was a very useful tool in drawing that out.

Of course there were lots of aspects that could have been explored far more thoroughly, in particular the role of trade unions in a democratic society - but as a starting I thought it was a worthwhile enterprise.


Charlie Marks said...

I don't think Hobsbawm meant representation of opinion socio-economic interests. It's possible "represent" both the racist and the anti-racist as a politician by working for affordable housing, environmental protection, workers' rights, etc.

Jim Jay said...

You are right of course that a government with more equitable policy helps many people who don't like it ideologically, and on the left we hope that those opportunities we have to make a difference will win people to us as well as improving the state of the world.

But I think part of the debate around politicians being out of touch is about whether they do things that many people don't agree with. (Even if EH didn't mean it this way)

Actually a better example that I should have used was squaring the interests of racists and immigrants, but there's also the fact affordable housing is good for the poor but it isn't good for slum landlords - you can't represent both... and I'd argue we shouldn't try.

Anyway - that was a bit of a ramble - not had enough coffee yet...

noel said...

It seemed from the conference that there are alternative narratives - moving from the “what worked” under Ken (living wage, congestion charge, etc) to the “what matters” (fairness, care & solidarity) which…well really matters lot in how we frame our responses to the recession to Londoners out there who are really feeling the bite.

But is it enough to bring together politicians from across the “progressive spectrum” to show our solidarity on issues like Heathrow or the living wage which portray that alternative narrative to the government? Is it enough to congratulate ourselves on getting such a massive turnout at the conference? People will be fairly interested in a range of issues but there’ll be one issues that really drives them - whether it’s Gaza or civil liberties - these wedge issues were all represented…but there was no mechanism for people to take these forward from the grassroots…like "transition towns"!

It slightly astonished me when Ken talked about all the networking to get this conference off the ground, but surely this should be the start of something not just the ultimate hangover cure from the elections?

At our “young london” workshop, the room was packed out - with people but mainly with ideas - mentoring scheme for young people to get into green jobs, youth mayor for London with a capacity building budget, making CRB checks portable, a virtual youth club and cooperative schools. To be honest, with an hour an half and with four exciting speakers that we were keen to listen to as well, as well as competing against other heavweight sessions at the same time, we were scared that either no-one would turn up or not many people would want to put forward, let alone work out together what campaigns we should take forward for young Londoners.

To be even more honest, the winning idea, making CRB checks portable to enable more people (young or old!) to take part in volunteering, isn’t something that we may have thought of on our NEC, but we committed to campaign on idea that won most votes and that’s what we’ll do. In fact, we’ll support people who want to take forward the other campaigns put forward.

Why? Because if you give people an inch, they’ll give you a mile…oh, and because we enabled people to give us their email addresses so we can get in touch with them in doing this. It’s pretty basic, but if you ain’t got their contact details, how are you going to build a progressive coalition?

Anonymous said...

Taking part in improving ones area means turning off the TV, putting on ones coat and getting out to meetings that are set up to engage with neighbourhood issues.

I do this for our local SNT ward panel. The police consult twice a year with the public to find out what 3 or 4 crime issues they want the police to deal with. The panel requests action, stats, feedback, updates from the police at each meeting and we can report concerns on specific problems we've noted in our neighbourhood. As far as local democracy goes this works quite well.

I agree that grass roots action can work, as long as pressure is constantly put on the council to listen and better still, provide needed resources. Councillors will unfortunately normally only listen if they (a). know you (b). like you or see you as a pit bull that won't go away till listened to (c). in a marginal seat. All three can almost guarantee success.

I've been working to have our local park spruced up/transformed for years. It looks like funding might be about to fall into place. The process has taught me a lot about local engagement; never let councillors off the hook, the journey is important, getting to know lots of other people in your neighbourhood is important as a network establishes itself (keeping a watch on the council etc), doing something for ones own area rather than bloody moaning!

The day of talks here in London sounded like another talk shop but I hope I'm wrong. There's plenty out there already to get on with; doing is better than talking I'm sure you'll all agree!

Barkingside 21 said...