I have a personal dislike of apocalyptic political rhetoric, I do not think it
is an exaggeration to say that we have an ongoing crisis of
representation in this country. Recent years have demonstrated a
significant decline of trust in government and other social and civic
institutions. In a recent Hansard Society study, only 42% of those surveyed
expressed interested in politics, the lowest level ever recorded in the
nine-year Audit series. There is widespread public sentiment that politicians
will first and foremost represent the needs of their party over and above the
needs of the nation.
The key issue here is
that the concept of ‘the political’ has become narrowed to mean
either Westminster decision-makers or devolved elected representatives. But in
fact, politics in its most fundamental sense
is about participation in society, whether this relates to tribal rituals of
gift exchange or ancient Athenian processes of law-making. What we need are
renewed ideals of civic participation which include the whole of society and the
relationships which contribute to this. The issue here is not reconnecting
people with politics, it is reconnecting people with each other.
the ordinary citizen outside the Westminster bubble, the main concerns are the
economy, job security, the quality of schools and healthcare – speculation
about leadership contests or shifts in party ideology are often just pastimes
for for policy wonks and the press. In tough economic times, there is also the
danger that political narratives serve to pit social groups against each other
– public sector employees against private sector workers for example, or a
cohort of young people facing insecure job prospects against an older
generation facing an insecure retirement. Our current politics propagates
competing self-interest rather than mutual social goals.
‘crisis of representation’, I am not solely referring to politics in terms of
constitutional representation. This government has implemented a number of
promising localist initiatives designed to increase accountability of local
representatives, such as elected mayors and local police commissioners.
However, as shown by the recent British social attitudes survey, initiatives
such as these may increase confidence in responsiveness, but also give way to
concerns about undue political power to individuals.
party politics can act as a channel for participation. But so can a multitude
of other membership groups, faith bodies, voluntary activities, sport, women’s
institutes - the other conduits through which people can make a difference and
achieve change which is relevant to their priorities. Being an active
member of society does not just mean being represented, it is about
participating in social and economic processes and being able to achieve
tangible results relating to things which matter. This is a point about
decision making for everyday life.
no means am I suggesting that the political party system should not exist. But,
in a society where new media opportunities and instantaneous access
to knowledge mean people are increasingly involved in social causes, we
need to be aware of all the other productive ways to bring people together
over shared interests and concrete goals. Party politics – ie. engagement with
Westminster and local government - should not be prioritised over other forms
of social and economic participation. A more meaningful account of citizenship
also means extending representation and participation to issues such as
employment, financial institutions and community activity. We need businesses
which engage with local residents and give employees a genuine stake, and
market structures which enable people to be producers and owners rather than
consumers of goods and government services. Co-operative business models,
democratised financial intermediaries, mutual models for education and
healthcare, and community-owned assets all map out the potential for a
resurgence of the civic.
‘Politics’ in the partisan and constitutional
sense has an important role to play in achieving consensus on long term changes
needed to solve the most pressing problems today. Whilst party politics can
platform these issues, it is changes in society which will realise them.
This article has been published in the ResPublica Fringe magazine, a collection of articles and essays from our party conference partners.
Caroline Macfarland is speaking at ‘Is the Party over? Reconnecting people and politics’, a
ResPublica public fringe series co-hosted with the Fabian Society and
CentreForum at Liberal Democrat Party conference: Saturday 22nd
September, 8.15pm – 9.30pm, the Grand Hotel, Brighton; Labour Party conference:
Sunday 30thSeptember, 12.45pm – 2.00pm, Manchester Town Hall and Conservative
Party conference: Tuesday 9th October, 10.30am – 11.45am, the
ResPublica Marquee, the ICC Birmingham (secure zone).