Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Brixton Boys and the death of political discourse

What a treat to listen to John Major on Radio 4 this morning! He was born just down the road from me on Coldharbour Lane and talked about his Brixton days. He, like me , was a Lambeth Councillor – though not quite in the same era!

What I found reassuring was his welcoming attitude to immigration. He was pointing to his own experience of hard working and ambitious immigrants in Brixton. Such a change of dialogue from the nasty, divisive speeches we get these days from many politicians who want to pitch to base instincts and spread scare stories about scroungers and welfare cheats . This discourse is corrosive to social cohesion and builds on people’s prejudices, without so much as a shred of proper evidence, as opposed to pub room chatter and anecdote. Or should we call this ‘policy making by the Daily Mail’?

But political discourse is pretty dismal all round. A classic example today was the announcement of unemployment figures. For the government this is evidence of ‘the long term economic plan’ working , while for the opposition it’s further fuel to the ‘cost of living crisis’ fire. These trite clich├ęs will be trotted out ad nauseam up to the election, and most of us will find it is off-putting to proper democratic debate.  Spin as opposed to proper evidence-based (or even deeply principle-based) policy offers.

Where are the parties’ narratives on society and on the role of civil society? How about social cohesion and community? I have yet to hear an election-focused speech from either Cameron or Miliband on these issues, let alone Clegg.

And whatever happened to the ‘Big Society’ – and what is Labour's alternative?

We need better. It’s no wonder so many people find that the political parties are not the place to find the answers to many of society’s problems and challenges. It’s why so many people now find outlets for their campaigning and advocacy work through charities, and why our memberships have soared whilst the parties have atrophied. Plenty of civil society groups – like the RSPB and National Trust, to name two of the biggest – have memberships in the millions, many times the size of all the political parties put together.

You can however be sure that ACEVO will be battling away on these issues, and challenging the parties to spell out their attitudes to society and community and the role of civil society. Isn't it sad that instead of spending proper time on all this we are having to battle away at the iniquities of the Gagging Act and the vague guidance on it from the Electoral Commission.

I suspect it will be down to charities to spell out the truths about immigration and climate change in the lead-up to the election, and to inform the debate on the environment and international development and build community and radicalism in public service reform. And you can be sure ACEVO won’t allow the Gagging Act to stop us pursuing our mission or on working with our CEOs to ensure we all continue to speak truth to power, whatever politicians might think about that. When the political parties fail to debate key issues then civil society must.

While I blog, it’s worth mentioning there is a good BBC Radio 4 programme on this topic tomorrow evening. Worth listening to – even the bits of me that they will use!

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