Maybe now is the time

Here’s New Start‘s Clare Goff on the demise of the community empowerment bill (via Julian Dobson):

‘Maybe now is the time for fresh ideas to revive the collective voice and rebuild politics from the grassroots up.’

Absolutely right. Quick thoughts on the democratic turmoil, starting with three angles on those expenses:

Some people (including one who really should know better) have suggested that the issue of MPs’ expenses is ‘not that important’. These are the ones telling us that we’ve all fiddled our expenses haven’t we?

Well no, we haven’t. For a start several million of us have never had expenses to fiddle, and I suggest a high proportion of the rest of us haven’t done so. Especially where public money is concerned. So if you have a conscience problem, don’t dribble it on the rest of us.

Then we have those telling us that continued exposure of this systematised greed risks ‘making it impossible for people to regain their confidence in the democratic system.’ The archbeak’s piece in the Times is in my view not as bad a piece of thinking as you might suppose from the broadcast headlines – but still, it’s a bit feeble to tell us to stop pointing out where the cracks are in democracy just because we might make them worse. The cracks are the problem, not the publicising of them.

There’s a third angle which claims that our political system is less corrupt than many others around the world, so stop making such a fuss. Duh.

And those holding any of the above viewpoints are, I suggest, part of the problem.

Three significant themes seem to be missing or understated in the debate so far. First, clarifying the connection with the unregulated greed of financiers which led to the recession; and understanding the extent to which all this greed was given room to grow in the fertile soil of Thatherite individualism, and has been shamelessly tended and nurtured under new Labour.

Secondly, emphasising that many claims made ‘within’ the crooked legalities of the parliamentary system reflect a decline or absence of acceptable values. Where is the discussion about values in public life, where the code of behaviour which MPs could reasonably be expected to sign up to?

And thirdly, returning to Clare Goff’s point, we need to be linking this to the crisis of democracy at local level. The current shambolic state of Westminster is an opportunity for a fresh and vigorous exploration of a new kind of democracy. It will have to be a conversational democracy with a strong local dimension, and inclusive social media have an obvious role to play in helping us shape that. I want this debate to be wide open with low expectations of particular practical conclusions – let’s have many thousands of flowers blooming so that creativity can take its chance.

But we must also take careful account of the alarming proportion of young people who betray a profound sense of detachment and have never inhabited a democratic culture. Speaking to one group last week I had the sense that their experience of influencing the decision-making processes that affect them has been so scarce that they might feel threatened by almost any form of empowerment. All their relationships are shallow, they have difficulty with conflicting ideas, and they have little experience of organising, being organised, self-organisation, or organisations. They have been failed.

I can’t be the only one to see a connection here. This is about the long-term neglect of everyday democracy, and it’s payback time.

(And to be perfectly clear, I am very definitely not categorising all or even most young people in this way. See previously egKids these days‘).

[Cross-posted from the Neighbourhoods blog].

Steady state on citizenship stats

The England Citizenship Survey for April – December 2008 was published the other day by CLG (pdf, Excel data). Overall, despite the onset of the financial crisis, attitudes to and participation in politics don’t seem to have changed much.

A few headlines:

  • Only one fifth of people (22%) feel that they can influence decisions taken by national government, though two-fifths (39%) think they can influence decisions taken in their local area. 2001 (an election year) had higher numbers, but since then these figures have been stable, only moving a point or two each survey.
  • Also stable were statistics on participation. 10% of people had engaged in ‘civic activism’ (being a magistrate, school governor, councillor or in other way being directly involved in decision making). 20% had taken part in a consultation or completed a questionnaire about public services. 38% had taken part in a demonstration or protest, signed a petition or contacted an elected representative.
  • Taking part in demos, signing petitions or contacting elected representatives was least prevalent among the 16-24 age group. Only 23% of them had done that during the preceding twelve months, compared to 38% for the population as a whole.

There were some interesting results in the breakdown by ethnicity:

  • White people were by far the most pessimistic about their ability to influence events, but were also much more likely to sign petitions, contact elected representatives or respond to consultations.
  • At national level, 39% of non-white respondents thought they could influence things, compared to only 20% of whites. At local level the figures were 51% for non-whites and 39% for whites.
  • At the same time 40% of whites had contacted an elected representative, protested or signed a petition, compared with less than 30% for every other ethnic group.
  • White people were less likely to feel a strong attachment to Great Britain than Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Overall, 86% of non-whites (91% of Pakistanis) said they felt strongly that they belonged to Great Britain, while only 84% of whites did.

Trust, marketing and centralisation

The Long Tail: See the yellow bit? That's you and me, that is...

The Long Tail: See the yellow bit? That's you and me, that is...

The other day, I posted on how the ‘level playing field’ demanded (partly) by marketeers was a significant contributor to the centralising tendencies of the previous half-century. As a short follow-up, Seth Godin picks up on the widespread and increasing distrust in big marketing. I don’t know if you would reach the same conclusion that he has though?

“…even if you have a really good reason, no, you can’t call me on the phone. Which means that even if it’s really important, no, I’m not going to read the instructions. Which means that god forbid you try to email me something I didn’t ask for… you’re trashed. It’s so fashionable to be skeptical now that no one believes you if you attempt to do something for the right reasons.

Selfish short-sighted marketers ruined it for all of us. The only way out, I think, is for a few marketers to so overwhelm the market with long-term, generous marketing that we have no choice but to start paying attention again.”

Is it really the case that marketeers need to come up with an even longer con based on ever more leveraged offers that are too good to be true?

Surely Godin’s observations should be a cause of some consolation to those of us that would like to promote a more decentralised economy? Reputation management may be a concept that has been mined most effectively by e-bay, but it’s a need that is increasingly met by the long tail – and not just the online long tail, but the offline one of personal networks.

Digital engagement, transparency and power

Kevin Harris has a long but worth-reading post over on the New Start magazine’s blog.

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now”

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

There’s a really good, detailed bit of reporting here from Friday’s Guardian about the near-collapse of local newspapers in some areas.

The starting point that Stephen Moss chose was my old local paper when I was young – The Long Eaton Advertiser. 

This bit stood out for me:

“For the older generation, these things matter. “They want to know who’s passed away,” says the barman at the Corner Pin down the road, “and to check it’s not them.” But the younger generation don’t much care. Carl and Katrina Smith, a married couple in their mid-30s, not only didn’t know the paper had closed; they didn’t even know its name – and they were born nearby and have lived in the town most of their lives. They did, though, occasionally buy the Nottingham Evening Post – mainly for the jobs. For this generation, Long Eaton as a place has almost ceased to exist, lost in a more amorphous Nottingham-Derby conurbation.

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now,” says Carl. “For us it’s more a place to live than a community.” He was an electrician’s mate and worked all over the country (until he was laid off two months ago – people are as vulnerable as papers in the slump); Katrina works in Leicester. Long Eaton is a dormitory for them; they rent a house and say they have no idea who their neighbours are.

It used to be a proper community, with the railway, the canals and the upholstery industry,” says Carl, “but look round at the shops now. You’ve got Tesco and Asda, and everything else is in decline.” There is one new shop in Long Eaton – selling Polish, Russian and Lithuanian food, to cater for migrants from eastern Europe. The shop even has free papers in those three languages, as well as Ukrainian. But they are UK-wide and won’t record deaths in Long Eaton, in any language.”

Is it the local newspaper industry that is in crisis? Or is it the very concept of ‘local’? Everyone seems to be agreed that there’s no way back for the printed local rag – is this true for the idea of locality as well?

Peter Levine – a US blogger who has a blog that should be on everyone’s RSS feed – have picked up on the Conservative Party’s expressed interest in addressing this crisis.

Levine is sceptical of the Tories ability to convert their sentiments into effective action, and is somewhat critical of the communitarian spirit that it springs from, but it’s not an unduly critical post….. why am I explaining this here? Go and read it for yourselves.