The greater the alienation and subsequent disengagement from the democratic process – and that’s what we’re talking about – the more likely it will be that the divide that we see emerging between those who are interested in and playing their part in public life and those who are not will grow. A growth in those who are making decisions on behalf of a growing minority who do not trust, see the relevance of or have any real awareness about, politics and the process of democracy.
How best to communicate, to develop much greater honesty about where power lies, the extent and the confines of influence, and therefore what can realistically be expected from formal politics, must be the challenge of the years ahead.
The consequences of not facing up to this will not simply be even greater disillusionment and separation from the public sphere, but also the danger of a very real divide which could so easily turn disengagement into despair, and a dangerous resentment of those who are committed to taking on difficult decisions and complex worldwide changes.
I should confess that the University of Sheffield have invited me to work with Professor Matt Flinders in the Department of Politics on the establishment of the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. This is all about engagement! As many of you know, the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick was my tutor and mentor who, when in Cabinet, was able to engage in his own lifetime passion to develop an understanding of citizenship and politics, and how democracy does or does not work.
It might be worth me spelling out what I see as being three very different approaches to political thinking (at least in the democratic sphere).
The first is the politics of ‘government’, placing emphasis on what government itself should and therefore, must do. This (at least in caricature) is about a top-down approach, where garnering votes is the key exercise and where political parties ‘promise’ to carry out commitments made in their manifesto in their term of office. It is in essence about ‘who governs’, and is often a reflection of a nostalgia for a bygone era. Such a view takes little account of the enormous changes in where power lies, where government has influence rather than determination of change, and the pluralism that is the essence of modern society.
The second view of politics is that it is about those things which have to be done by the state but where disengagement, so far as practicable, should be the essence of government. Confined to those things that historically government have had to take on, such as the defence of the realm, security and foreign policy. And although this is no spelt out explicitly, facilitating the role of private enterprise, withdrawing from economic and social activity wherever possible and placing emphasis o the role of the individual and their relationship with market forces, rather than with formal political engagement.
The third of these pen portraits is the politics of ‘enabling’. This is about giving people a sense that they can be part of the process of decision-making, of understanding and therefore working together to deal with rapid economic, social, cultural and therefore global change. Seeking through the power still remaining to elected government, to enable in the day-to-day lives of individuals and families, participation – no matter how small – in decisions determining their lives. Influencing, of course, elected politicians by both participation in public life (and voting) but using the resources and structures of formal political processes to deliberately engage people in being part of the solution – and not merely the onlooker in a spectator sport.
Bernard Crick in his seminal work In Defence of Politics described the political process as a messy business. People having to compromise, listen and respond to others, to working for the long-term changes that they espouse, rather than the short-term fix of the self-delusion that the world is very different to the one currently inhabited!
He also was committed deeply to seeing formal political processes as a counterweight to those other major forces of powerful vested interests, international global capital, and unfettered markets which not only exploit but also undermine the sovereignty of the individual never mind that of national governments.
But his other key element was that of participation – that citizenship (as discussed in the forums of ancient Greece) and therefore full adulthood and enfranchisement comes from involvement and therefore an acceptance of both responsibility and duty.
The problem of course facing all of us is very simple. Those who need to make common cause most, are least likely to engage!
Those who know all about where sources of power lie, who themselves seek to exercise influence and who almost universally are the ones benefiting most from the processes of political engagement, too often deliberately or inadvertently end up dissuading others from taking seriously the political process.
Politicians of course can too often be seen as falling into this category, by their behaviour, by the pursuit of self-interest or, quite simply, by overpromising and therefore ‘letting down’ those already disillusioned with compromise and democratic dialogue.
Contradictions abound. Those who espouse ‘small government’, often emerge as the champions of government interference with individual lives, or the use of public resources to benefit those things ‘they’ hold dear. The Tea Party Movement in the United States is the most obvious example. Espousing freedom for the individual, so long as they conform with the particular form of social behaviour (anti-abortion, anti-gay) which they believe to be acceptable!
Against federal spending, unless it brings defence contracts to their particular community!
The language is anti-political. ‘Liberty’ for the individual and ‘tax breaks’ for the big corporations! It is all about using the political process to further a particular outlook on life.
Which, of course, is what political democracy offers to all of us. The chance to try and make a difference, to shape the world a little, in the way we believe is right for ourselves, for our family and for those around us.
Which is why i’m so strongly in favour of reinforcing and developing the role of civil society. This is not anti-politics. It is about participation and engagement at every possible level.
From volunteering at local level to campaigning on national or international issues.
About government reinforcing the best in all of us. Not the selfish or individualistic, but our tendency to want to join with others on changing the world for the better.
This can be seen in people wanting to clear up the local park or cleanout the stream, or lay on football for local youngsters or set up a youth club. Whatever it is, it is about people engaging with each other to benefit each other. It is why government (and the collective use of our resources) can genuinely engage with people where they are at.
And that means their immediate and most pressing concerns. The cost of living, of food, home and of course of heating. Whether they have a job (full or part-time) and a retirement income that they can look forward to living on.
This is of course top of politicians agenda. And they want government to do something!
But even here the political process, the engagement of people in democratic change, has to be more than simply top-down promises. Helping people to help themselves is as much about engaged politics and common purpose as is macro-political action. The two go hand in hand. Preventing the exploitation of individuals and families by vested interests (often transnational) whilst at the same time helping to mobilise people to be able to come together to act as that counterweight that Bernard Crick talked of.
Freezing energy bills and restructuring the regulatory framework is not contrary to but complementary in helping people through the Big Switch, for instance, to come together as trade unionists did historically, to use mutual help to achieve an objective. In this case lower energy bills.
But here is the rub. Disengagement is not simply a choice to walk away from politics and politicians. Far from it. It is perversely, a political act. As in Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’, those who disengage are passing power to those who are engaged. In essence, they’re giving up their small contribution to influencing the world around them and their own betterment to other people.
Take those in the media. Will Self, for instance, a writer and self-styled philosopher, suggested on Radio 4’s ‘A Point of View’ that anyone taking part in the formal political process as members of a party and the like, should be considered to be ‘donkeys’. He and those like him (forget even the rantings of Russell Brand, I’m talking about something far more serious and insidious), are encouraging others to give up whatever small influence they might have in favour of those who already have a voice, influence and, therefore, a say.
Take the issue of voting. Who is it and at what time of life who vote? Quite simply older people, wealthier people, better educated people, engaged people.
And who vote the least? Young people, poor people, badly educated people.
And who do politicians of all parties fear alienating the most? Who do they ignore the most? Who, when it comes down to further austerity, are in the firing line?
And paradoxically the more those who are not engaged are ignored, targeted under the austerity programme and dismissed, the more alienated and disillusioned they become. Politicians they say ‘don’t give a damn about us’!
But it is not simply a question of the growing divide between the participants and the non-combatants. The older generation and the young. This is a matter of concern for everyone.
The Hansard Society survey last year was deeply worrying.
Most concerning, in relation to the under-25s, where from 2010 to 2013, there was a staggering drop from an already dispiriting 30% to 12% who said that they intend to vote. The figure, albeit much higher for older people, is a drop from 58% to 41% of those saying they will be certain to vote at the next general election. Those able to name their MP has nearly halved!
In the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, the trust felt towards politicians to ‘do the right thing for the country rather than his/her party’ has fallen over thirty years from an already worrying 38% to a measly 18% by last year.
Some of this of course in relation to young people has to do with modern communication, how people access news, information, political discussion.
The iPhone, the iPad, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and ‘streaming’ are the modern phenomena and are here to stay. Audiences for broadcast news (terrestrial or otherwise) have dropped dramatically. Where news is accessed, it will increasingly be by mobile technology. But ‘catching’ the news via Radio 1, or stumbling upon an interesting current affairs programme whilst watching something as part of planned viewing, is disappearing by the minute. So of course is the habit of reading newspapers.
Again, whilst radio listenership goes up overall, it is dropping like a stone for the under-25s.
So the question here is not bemoaning what is not working, but identifying what might help to reconnect. How do we in this rapidly changing environment reach those who are the next generation?
That is why the relationship between involvement in any form of participation in public life, from concern about the environment, to somewhere to meet in the neighbourhood, are fundamental to the political understanding of politics.
The more we can make this part of the natural development of young people the better. From learning about citizenship and democracy in schools to the National Citizen Service programme in the transition from schooling to post-16. From the encouragement of volunteering to finding the right language to be able to reach those who have been turned off by traditional political messages.
In this way it may be possible to get across the message that yes, there are some things that only government can do. But for the world of tomorrow, such action can only be successful if they are done alongside and with the people for whom the political change is intended.
International companies that won’t pay corporation tax here in Britain have to be tackled by Revenue and Customs. But the boycott of such companies supported and encouraged could go a long way in this direction, as action through social media and 38 Degrees have proved.
The recent CSJ report shows how crucial it is to target both families and the critical mass of neighbourhoods where total disengagement (including intergenerational unemployment) has become literally disabling. The review that I have jointly been chairing in Parliament with Liberal Democrat and Conservative representatives for Charities Aid Foundation is looking both at intergenerational giving and motivations for donating money to charity.
But in the end, the two groups of people in positions of leadership have to be prepared to come together, not in some sort of cosy cabal, but in an endeavour to raise understanding, to provide information and encouragement to participation. Those two groups are politicians, and in their various guises, those working through old and new media.
Because the greater transparency, openness and an end to deference within the public arena, the greater the responsibility not to undermine what remains of trust, but to encourage healthy scepticism and to lay aside destructive cynicism.
Politicians in the past were not exposed to the transparency and openness of today, which is presumably why those who should be better informed seem to believe that the current generation are somehow less worthy of respect. Horrible histories brought up to date with a current affairs version, trashing the three current party leaders, takes us absolutely nowhere.
Yet, reaching people, young or old, takes more than the drear of traditional current affairs. So the challenge is great. How do we shake off the dreary image of grey, uninteresting and yes ‘boring’ establishment figures, whilst offering genuine answers, real challenges and a rejection of the easy populist and deeply misleading simplifications of latter-day anarchists!
For those who trash everything around them, who denounce traditional politics as some form of ‘sell out’ to make for entertaining reporting, for a lively diversion, for journalists.
They fail completely to engage themselves with the message I am endeavouring to put across today. Namely that politics isn’t about someone else – it is about you and I, the person next door and yes the conflict across the world, the geo-political threat to energy supplies, the threat to our security and the future of our nation.