Our democracy is in urgent need of resuscitation. And I don’t mean just voting, as important a privilege as that is. The trip to the ballot box should be just the beginning of our democratic contribution, rather than the end. But we’ve got confused. We’ve mistaken politics for Parliament and democracy is fast becoming something we watch on TV rather than something we do.
I mean democracy as in people power – the ability of people to influence events and shape their future on a day-to-day basis. Polling earlier this year showed that 75 per cent of people feel they have no control over what happens in their neighbourhood or in Westminster. The disaster at Grenfell Tower showed the catastrophic effects when people cannot get their cries for help taken seriously by those in authority. This is powerlessness at an epidemic level, and it is debilitating for those living with it and dangerous for us all.
A pervasive feeling of being ignored can be found in housing estates, workplaces and neighbourhoods across the UK, and to turn this around we need a step change in our attitude and ability as citizens. We need another great emancipation. Why don’t we just take power for the people?
But if you think that looks like one big angry protest that turns politics upside down, then think again. The one-off marches with wide and grandiose aims almost never achieve them, unless they are part of an ongoing strategy. It looks more like all of us taking on something local, something specific, and winning.
When we first started working with people on the Beckhill estate in Leeds, there was a lot of “they never listen” and “we’ve been promised this and that but nothing ever happens”. There had been some small improvements made and some efforts at consultation, but the over-riding experience for people was that change was something done to them, rather than that they did for themselves.
We started working through the local church and primary school under the banner of Leeds Citizens, and found some individuals with good local relationships and a bit of spark – people who were fed up of waiting and were up for trying to make it happen themselves. They started knocking on doors, not with a clipboard saying we’ll solve your problem, but with a challenge: “what do you want changed and will you join the campaign to make it happen?”
With this approach, the team grew in number, diversity and confidence and started mapping out specific priorities: repairs to steps, new bins and improved pavements. The campaign developed into several local events, negotiations with councillors and officers and a trip to the full council to make a presentation. Within six months the issues were won and the contractors came in to make improvements that people had moaned about for years. The physical changes to the estate were modest (but still real and positive), but the changes to the people who had made them happen were transformative.
If powerlessness breeds cynicism and mistrust, an experience of power breeds hope and gets people hungry for more, which means that while it might start small, it doesn’t stay small. The Living Wage campaign began locally, just trying to persuade one hospital in East London to raise pay for cleaners. Now that campaign has built up enough momentum to win hundreds of millions of pounds for hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers. And its changed government policy by using the method of community organising, which is a practical set of tools for ordinary people – without special status or money – to build and use power.
There are hundreds of examples like the Beckhill estate, where this approach has brought about change and built the capacity and confidence of people. It has the potential to reinvigorate our democracy. But that relies on people like you getting active beyond the ballot box or the one-off protest, and building people power in your community, workplace or neighbourhood.
Matthew Bolton is deputy director of Citizens UK and lead organiser for London Citizens. His book How To Resist is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)