My wife Ruth and I have just returned from honeymoon in Amsterdam (and Bristol) which was lovely. Now we’re back to civilization, she has started her second full year of teaching secondary school and I’m about to start the part time MA course in Planning and Sustainability at Kingston University (details here).
Meanwhile, I’ve expressed my interest in standing to be a councillor in Kingston and am finding out more about the processes that this could involve, such as party selection boards, hustings meetings and writing manifestos to be judged by party members.
I’m wondering how much people know about these processes, and how much they might be offputting to people who are interested in politics, but don’t necessarily define themselves as supporters of a particular party. When I started getting interested in trying to be a councillor, the only way I could find much information on what this was about and how to do it was via a local party. (Since then, in fairness, the picture has brightened, with local authorities including Kingston holding all-party, open ‘Be a Councillor’ sessions and putting a relevant section onto the Council’s website.)
The London Councils seminar I attended in Westminster six months before this, though, was heavily party-based: though representatives of all the main parties were there, they all seemed to have solid commitments to their party (or had been actively head-hunted by them to stand for Council) and didn’t really explore how they came to make their choice of who to stand for. There were no independent or minor party candidates on the discussion panels.
Surely these difficulties in finding information – and, more importantly, in relating that information to everyday life and experience within the local community – are contributing to the growing perception that politics is a separate practice for a different (and not particularly highly regarded) sort of people. More and more, it seems that active people who don’t feel they fit into this political group or type are deciding to use their energies in other ways, such as through the pressure groups and single-issue campaigns that have continued to multiply and expand while party membership has steadily fallen.
Why is this important? Because it really annoys me when commentators – usually in relation to foreign affairs – imply that representative democracy is some sort of panacea. It’s just the best compromise we’ve been able to come up with. Because of our country’s history, the main objective of the system has been to avoid concentrating power in the hands of an individual; it’s done that (just about) but it has not given power to the people. We live with some seriously ludicrous situations – such as the observation by Giles Edwards, whose ‘British Politics Unravelled’ guide I’m finding really useful, that if 13,501 swing voters had voted differently in the 2005 general election, New Labour’s 66-seat House of Commons majority would have been reduced to zero. I’ve been following the Vote For A Change electoral reform campaign with interest.
But to my mind, electoral reform, though undoubtedly desirable, doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Real politics isn’t about placing people we don’t know in positions of power – however equitable and finely-balanced the system by which we do this – and then arguing about how they should do their job. Surely it’s about normal, interested people helping each other to make decisions about how things can be improved in their community – whether that community is as small as a social club, as large as a borough like Kingston or as massive and complicated as a whole nation. It seems to me that anything that gets in the way of this – like the continual sniping in the local papers, distrust in ‘politics’, or the feeling that one needs to have rather flexible principles or be part of an elite in order to get involved – needs to be looked at carefully.
To end on a more positive note, I think that if any of the main parties can overcome these obstacles to genuine democracy, and have a genuine and principled interest in doing so, it is the Liberal Democrats, of which I’m a member, and that was one of my main motivations for joining. I hope to think and write some more about possible ways forward for a more participatory democracy on this blog over the coming weeks.