At election time every politician faced with a drubbing claims to have no time for opinion polls. For the rest of us, the general view seems to be that consultation is all very well but there’s a lot of it about and nothing much seems to come of it. More cynical people talk about government by ‘tick box’ or ‘focus group’.
And to be fair, there may be something in this. After all, in the absence of any wider legitimacy with the electorate, and a very shaky popular mandate, how else is the political elite to know what we are thinking, or to have a hope of re-connecting with us? Chancellor Gordon Brown expressed this anxiety in a recent piece in the Guardian, with his worries over ‘low turnouts, youth disengagement, falling party membership and a long-term decline in trust’. Elsewhere, Labour’s 2005 election supremo Alan Milburn observed: ‘People are becoming disengaged because they are disempowered’.
Just last month two reports – both, funnily enough, called Power to the People – echoed these sentiments. One by Progress – a self-styled group of ‘Labour Progressives’ – is concerned that David Cameron’s Conservatives will succeed in portraying them as ‘out of touch with the aspirations of Modern Britain’. The other report, from the Power Inquiry, and backed by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, thinks that citizens are ‘rarely asked to get involved and rarely listened to’. It goes on to recommend reducing the voting age to 16, and exploiting the apparent success of the Make Poverty History campaign to engage young people.
In a similar vein, the voluntary and community sector have latched onto the issue, seeing it as an opportunity to enhance it’s own role. According to Oxfam, it ‘is up to charities like us to … keep young people engaged’. A survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations comes to the same conclusion. As ‘local councillors [are] elected on turnouts of 20 per cent and MPs on less than 50 per cent’, it is clear that young people are choosing charities over politics to find their grass-roots, as it were. The Home Office Citizenship Survey for 2005 confirms that 16 to 19 year olds are involved in more voluntary activities than any other age group (although ‘volunteering’ can simply mean doing something to help someone who is not a relative).
Make Poverty History also inspired Oxfam’s ‘I’m in’ campaign to recruit a million new volunteers. The most interesting thing about it is the accompanying survey of 16-25 year olds. The questions that Oxfam asked reveal the preoccupations of the ‘engagement’ industry even more than the answers.
In 2006, pledged the respondents, two-thirds will sign petitions and join email campaigns and nearly half will attend rallies and other similar events. If all this ‘activism’ can be decided in advance, and apparently regardless of the particular causes or issues in question, then what is the motivation for being involved in it – whatever ‘it’ might be?
It is perhaps, at this point, worth reminding ourselves that there is nothing inherently good about just getting involved. The Hitler Youth spring to mind, closely followed by flash-mobs, the crowds outside court who throw things at paedophiles in police vans, and the audience that turns up to boo the Big Brother contestants on eviction night. At times the involvement imperative – as I like to call it – seems, like flash-mobs, to be an end in itself.
But in the end what are we supposed to gain from the experience? For all the grand rhetoric, participation tends to involve getting ‘real’ (ie, not worrying our little heads about the big abstract stuff that politicians talk about); getting ‘local’ (eg, joining the residents committee and throwing noisy neighbours off your estate); or getting ‘personal’ (that is, treating your local community as a kind of self-help group). Oddly enough, volunteering initiatives seem to entail all three.
2005 may have been the Year of the Volunteer but there will be no let up, it seems, in the promotion of activities – any activities – that facilitate community involvement, on whatever grounds. According to the Respect Action Plan ‘there is no better example of respect than voluntary activity’ because ‘it brings people together, helping to create common values and strengthening our society’.
But the Home Office website reassures us that ‘it’s not just about helping others – you can also help yourself’. Last year, a Barnardo’s press release on Make a Difference Day claimed, ‘it’ll improve your love life, and your chances of getting a job’ and ‘you’ll be helping vulnerable children. Now there’s a line to prove your sensitive side’.
The same goes for the rest of us. We are no longer just being asked for our views about this or that, but are being mobilised as newly ‘active’ citizens participating in our ‘active’ communities, as the Home Office would have it. In her foreword to People and Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making, home office minister Hazel Blears says ‘Public participation has become key to achieving goals as diverse as sustainable development, social inclusion, and democratic renewal.’
It is certainly true that the need to involve us is now seemingly all-pervasive. Increasingly public services only seem of interest to reformers if they play a role in the civil renewal agenda. But this leaves the big political questions unresolved and puts in their place management by delegation. In their introduction to Together We Can, the government’s involvement action plan, Blears and her boss Charles Clarke, rather give the game away: ‘the best ideas often come from the people at the sharp end’. In other words, we haven’t got any so it’s over to you.
It is their isolation, not our failure to participate or the lack of opportunities to get involved, that is driving this agenda. It is borne not out of social exclusion, apathy or civic illiteracy but political exhaustion, drift and disorientation. We are in danger of trading the narrowness of the ‘consumer-citizen’ for a far more intrusive and coercive notion of participation. Far from enriching democracy these initiatives are at best a distraction.
In the absence of people actually claiming power, rather than being ‘empowered’ – not a prospect the authorities would in reality embrace – those in charge must resist the urge to reach for their clipboards. It is only when they come up with ideas that begin to grapple with the fundamental issues about the way we live our lives, and the way society is organized, that a public life worth participating in will truly emerge.
Holding up a mirror to society will not take us beyond what already exists. If we are to breathe new life into politics, we need to break free of the orthodoxies of empowerment, participation and civil renewal, and have a real debate.
This is an edited version of a speech given at the session ‘Constructing Communities: Consulting or Faking Civil Society’ as part of the Future of Community Festival, held at Central St Martins College of Art and Design.