People can play their part in the governance of the nation
Neil Jameson, The Guardian
As the general election draws near, all the main parties espouse their desire to give power to the people. The chief secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, has said that ‘the debate about power and how to create a country of powerful people is the real question in modern politics’. The Tory leader, David Cameron, has pledged a ‘massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power – from the political elite to the man and woman in the street’. And the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has described liberalism’s starting point as ‘the fairer dispersal and distribution of power’.
What the political elite has not always understood, however, is that such ‘power to the people’ is complex and unlikely to happen if it only means a world of disparate good works, extensive volunteering, and neighbourhood improvement schemes initiated and controlled by the state.
Philosophers offer us clues as to why the giving of power, or ’empowerment’, is so difficult for any elite. John Stuart Mill wrote: ‘That which people get for themselves is so much better than that which they are given.’
That is why ‘taking power’ and learning how to take and handle power is much more liberating for the human soul than magnanimous gestures from government. It is possible for governments to provide a sympathetic climate for this to happen, but, ultimately, we have to learn to do it for ourselves. The real challenge is for civil society to wake up, realise our capability and power, and take the responsibility to organise ourselves better.
Cameron has repeatedly said: ‘Big society is the alternative to big government’, and that the future role of a Conservative government is ‘galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal’. This is to be welcomed, provided it is recognised that mature engagement and social renewal must lead to a new concordat between the people and their elected representatives. If you give people power or, even better, if they take power, then they must be expected to come up with their own solutions and have the possibility of negotiating them into public policy.
At Citizens UK, which helps communities across the country to organise, member communities in London consistently vote our campaign for a London Living Wage – currently set at £7.60 an hour by the mayor, Boris Johnson – as their number one priority. We are proud that, over the last 10 years, this campaign has channelled more than £30m into the pockets of low-wage workers and lifted 25,000 people out of poverty.
We act together because these workers are in our member communities; they are contract cleaners and security guards, tidying up and protecting the capital. London Citizens members voted in 2001 to initiate the UK’s first Living Wage campaign because of concern about the pressures that an unregulated market was putting on families and neighbourhoods. We won better wages in four east London hospitals, then focused on our new neighbours setting up their stall in Canary Wharf and the City. The global banks and finance houses, had the profits to pay a just and living wage – and, to their credit, that is what they have now done, with just a little nudging and negotiation from the natives.
The principle of building a Living Wage obligation into procurement has now become mainstream across most of the capital’s banks and law firms, and has been picked up by major charities such as Barnardo’s, students – who, with workers and academics, have successfully lobbied for it on university campuses – and local authorities. Last weekend, London Citizens launched the next phase of the campaign in Oxford Street, to encourage the hospitality and retail sectors to catch up.
Since 1996, it has revived the tradition of ‘assembly’ as the way of conducting politics and public business, holding the power-brokers accountable. In November last year, more than 2,000 London Citizens gathered at an assembly to play their part in the governance of the capital and the nation.
This was a London Citizens assembly like no other. At the Barbican Centre in the City that night, delegations of member groups sat together – schools next to students’ unions, next to mosques, next to Pentecostal and Catholic churches, next to trade unions, next to residents groups. This was civil society at its best and most diverse. They shared the air of anticipation and were proud that this was their event, with a cast of hundreds and put on by their organisation.
London Citizens had hired the hall, had spent a year putting together their agenda – and they meant business. At the end, a gospel choir sang us on our way, with agreements in place, an agenda ratified, and thousands of people – including many young people – feeling that politics was a great thing and that they wanted more of it.
This was an organised political event with the serious intent of sharing civil society’s considered response to the economic crisis with the power-brokers of the nation – the bankers and the politicians. We came to the heart of the City of London to meet the Corporation of London, the embodiment of financial power. At a time of crisis and of loss of trust, we were seeking a working relationship with our neighbours – the grandees of the corporation, the bankers, the livery companies, the aldermen, the lord mayor. We also invited the main political parties to consider incorporating our proposals into their manifestos.
These proposals combined a call for a 20% cap on unsecured loans with a challenge to the government to set an example on wages by building a living wage into all its contracts, and the use of 1% of the bail-out to recapitalise local communities through endowments that support local, mutual forms of banking and investment in community land trusts.
London Citizens and this dynamic assembly did not just happen, nor did the 150 groups and communities that are members just show up by accident. Behind this event is the story of Citizens UK, to which London Citizens is affiliated.
I trained as a professional community organiser in 1989 in Chicago, at the same time as Barack Obama. Since then I, and a growing number of fellow travellers, have spent 20 years fine-tuning and teaching the slow and patient art of organising and reorganising communities that form the fabric of civil society – and encouraging them all to work together for the common good.
In the 19th century, William Wilberforce would not have won the battle against slavery without Thomas Clarkson and hundreds of local people who organised with him. The early trade unions and friendly societies were built by community organisers and leaders such as Ben Tillett, Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx.
This year, Citizens UK has launched Europe’s first professional Guild for Community Organisers, and Queen Mary, University of London, starts the first master’s course in community organising, aimed at future community organisers as well as teachers, nurses, and union and religious leaders who are keen to know how to develop the strength of their institutions and ensure that they serve the needs of their members.
To protect our independence and ensure ownership by our members, Citizens UK neither seeks nor receives government money. London Citizens relies on annual dues from member groups and the generous support of charitable foundations and trusts. We have a diverse and talented team of 20 committed, community organisers, working mostly with London Citizens and supporting similar citizens alliances in Milton Keynes and Oxford, and those developing in other major cities. Our Citizens for Sanctuary national campaign has built local groups focused on asylum issues in 18 UK cities.
Citizens UK is keen to work with the government and the market on the strengthening of the ‘polis’ – the public life of the city. We organise in order to play our part in the governance of our cities. We all need to live in peaceful, well-integrated and fair communities. This is not done easily, or quickly. It requires exceptional people to organise and to lead. As Michael Sandel, the US philosopher and author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, says: ‘The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends.’
The next government will need architects, builders and informed citizens if its aspirations for a redistribution of power to a strong and active civil society are to be realised. Our religious and educational institutions, community associations and trade union branches have deep roots and committed leadership. They look forward to and welcome the chance of working with a new government that takes seriously and respects the talent, energy and creativity that organised citizens can bring to public life.