Civic Engagement (3)

I meant to return to the theme of participation and have now found the time to read Paul Skidmore in Prospect.

Skidmore argues that neither top down reform or bottom up discontent is likely to impact on civic participation. Top down because the constitutional fix will be seen as exactly that, a fix. Bottom up because the groups that are channeling the political aspirations of so many people are not set up to do so. 

In a passage that could have come from the keyboard of Paulie over at  Never Trust a Hippy Skidmore argues that NGOs:

are issue based and depend heavily on targeting national government through the media, these organisations tend not to have strong local roots or to offer their members the same training in the civic disciplines of organisation, negotiation and coalition-building [as political parties]. The effect is that their relationship with their members is closer to that of retailer and consumer than citizen. For many, direct debit, not direct action, is the extent of their participation.

He goes on to point out that value based organisations tend to be less willing to compromise and more likely to claim “betrayal”.

Political parties don’t get off any lighter; they/we have forgotten how to listen, and are fearful of giving real influence to their members.

So far, so much triangulation: Power isn’t offering a solution, but there aren’t the forces for mass participation being developed in the voluntary and community sectors.

The solution – lean more heavily on those who are already engaged – school governors, tenants groups, the amenity societies, and give them more formal recognition in representative democratic structures.

He’s under the impression that innovation and a new civic flowering are being stifled by “stonewalling” councillors and officials.  Which is something I thought should be tested against my experience as a councillor in Lewisham.  I’d say the picture was mixed:

  • Almost every time I was asked to represent the community I served for 9 years to the council it was to stop things rather than to initiate them.  Sometimes I agreed with the aims – reducing the anti-social behaviour associated with alcohol in Blackheath Village – on other occasions I was more ambivalent – for example in a lot of the planning cases I spoke at. 
  • My experience of working with residents on the Heathside and Lethbridge – to redevelop the estate – was more fruitful.  The people who were active on that estate were clear what they wanted to achieve and had the right level of skepticism and trust to ensure their interests were safeguarded.  Watching and helping that group of people take an active part in choosing the developer, hold the housing management team to account and lead their fellow residents was just great.
  • On the things I did as a Cabinet Member, I had a frustrating time with the NDC where the ideas their board wanted to pursue on the Environment (at least initially) didn’t match the things that I was doing, and on one occasion I felt was running counter to good practice.

I never saw myself as a stonewaller, rather I hoped I could work with the grain of what active groups and individuals wanted to achieve.  It wasn’t always possible, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have been any better had their been the threat of local referenda hanging over us.

What this critique of the current situation doesn’t explore is an understanding that occasionally councillors and officers have to withstand quite intense pressure by (relatively) small groups to achieve objectives that they judge to be in the public interest.  I can’t remember how many planning meetings I’ve left with abuse being showered down on its members as decisions didn’t go the way that objectors wanted, but it was more frequent than you might expect.  On every occasion there were complaints about “democracy” as though just having more people in the room on the night should have been enough to swing it.

That said it always seemed to me that this pressure is an absolutely legitimate – apart from the stuff about hoping you die of cancer, etc. – way of making sure that our politicians really want to take the controversial decisions they sometimes take. 

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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1 Response to Civic Engagement (3)

  1. Pingback: Ideas for reforming local democracy - defining the issues « Someday I Will Treat You Good

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