Active citizens holding Britain’s politicians to account – why can’t the rest of the UK election campaign be more like this?

May 6, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

The UK general election takes place CUK assembly adtomorrow. I’ve spared you so far, but on Monday I went to what has to be the most enjoyable and substantive event of the election campaign – watching party leaders and ministers being grilled by an ‘accountability assembly’ of the community organisation Citizens UK in a packed Methodist Central Hall, within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament.

Citizens UK was founded in East London some 25 years ago, based on the principles of US community organising guru Saul Alinsky. Declaration of interest – my son Calum has worked for Citizens UK for around 4 years now, having joined them straight out of university.

Its approach is fascinating. I’ve been to a few of these now, and the format is pretty fixed and very effective. A lot of fun – church and school choirs are a speciality – interspersed with powerful testimony from those affected by the issues Citizens UK is campaigning on (living wage, indefinite detention of asylum seekers, awful care standards for the elderly and vulnerable and exploitation by payday lenders). It was very moving (memo to self, bring a hankie next time): asylum seekers who had attempted suicide in detention, cleaners who lost their jobs for demanding a living wage (and been reinstated after a public campaign), carers with horror stories. All presented by a mix of feisty and sharply-dressed youth leaders (suits and high heels), and older authority figures (lots of dog collars, skull caps and robes, along with the weirdly militaristic outfits of the Salvation Army).

Nick Clegg on stage at CUKThen the politicians are allowed onto the stage, one by one, given precisely 4 minutes each to pitch for their party, and then are cross examined on the detailed campaign asks on changes in policy, targets, time limits or simply a promise to engage with Citizens UK after the election. Vague or evasive answers are challenged, and promises extracted – I’m pretty sure the politicians end up making extra commitments under the pressure of the format and the crowd.

As a model of active citizenship, it is hard to beat. Standout points include:

The base of Citizens is largely religious institutions and schools, more than trade unions, political parties or other traditional players. That gives it a vibrance and a non-partisan quality, but also means it is founded on institutions that mean a lot to the lives of normal people. It feels relevant. These institutions are where values are formed, and social capital is built. I found myself wondering whether they’ve missed any other long term, collective institutions – sports fans maybe?

That coming together of faith, education and politics felt like a completely natural fit – building together a moral narrative for a just future. What seemed odd was why it is so absent in the rest of politics.

The optics of the hall were striking – 2200 activists including cleaners working in government on rock bottom wages, refugees and asylum seekers, care workers: the kinds of people who appear fleetingly (and usually tokenistically) in the rest of the election campaign, only this time their issues and views dominated. Brilliant – it felt like the Britain I know.

Relentless positivity, from the opening song (a bunch of achingly cute school kids singing Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’). We were told ‘we do not boo or heckle, but we do cheer and applaud when we hear our views reflected’ and everyone stuck to that. Well almost everyone.  A lone heckler of David Cameron’s stand-in, Sajid Javid, was promptly hushed by the crowd, but sure enough, the Guardian headline read ‘Tory minister heckled over detention of asylum seekers’. Sigh. The Guardian diary piece on the event was much better (and funnier).

Even more striking was that all the politicians were first congratulated on promises kept and progress made. citizens UK party repsImpressively, several commitments extracted from a similar event in 2010 had been met – ending child detention of asylum seekers, taking action to cap the interest rates of payday lenders. Nick Clegg in particular (beleaguered Lib Dem leader, in coalition with the Tory government since 2010 and facing annihilation on Thursday) looked rather startled to have praise showered upon him for a change. Everyone got flowers.

A huge effort to remain non-partisan – a choir singing God Save the Queen, liberal use of quotes from Winston Churchill (“it is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions” – not bad eh?). It was probably the most civilised event of the election, as well as one of the most substantive.

Carefully crafted ‘asks’ to the politicians which are designed to be significant but within the bounds of political possibility, arrived at by shuttling between the Citizens UK grassroots and the decision makers. Example: a time limit rather than indefinite immigration detention. For its full 12 page election manifesto go here.

Overall, the tone could not be more different from the hectoring, finger-wagging tone of most election events (and I fear, many activist campaigns), and felt far more effective in engaging the decision makers and winning some small victories, while at the same time empowering and organising people and communities who too often remain on the margins of political life. The fact that it got two out of three party leaders to show up 3 days before the election is testament to its pulling power (and the expressions of polite disappointment at David Cameron breaking his 2010 promise to show up here were exquisitely done).

For a feel of the event, here’s video highlights starting with the Sajid Javid (Conservatives), Nick Clegg (Lib Dems) at 22 minutes, and Ed Miliband (Labour) at 48m. Check it out. I think it’s fair to say that Javid started well, but then messed it up, whereas Clegg and Miliband smashed it.