I wanted to write a blog post after 'that Election'. You know, the 'shock' election where the Tories won and no one could believe it. Well, no one on Twitter, anyway. Everyone on Twitter (at least, everyone on my timeline) was numb with shock, in denial, and then angry, really angry: with the Tories, with those who voted for them ('stupid', 'selfish', all kinds of labels were thrown around), with the Labour party (poor old Ed), with the voting system, with ourselves...
And that was kind of the problem. As one graphic Venn diagram so poignantly put it, those of us getting angry on Twitter after the election were those of us who were getting each other angry on Twitter before the election, and had convinced ourselves that everyone was angry, that everyone thought like us, that everyone would vote like us. And we were wrong. We'd been talking to ourselves. There were 'others' out there who thought differently. And they voted differently.
On the bank holiday Monday night before the election, I was involved in organizing a hustings event in Hodge Hill. We managed - one way or another - to get all 6 candidates there, and about 50 in the audience. There was a bit of a buzz. It was the only hustings in the constituency, apparently, and - so I was told - quite possibly the first hustings in the constituency for about 20 years. It's a safe Labour seat, you see. Liam Byrne had a comfortable majority (and he's increased it). There was no need for a hustings, I guess. What was the point? But people came, and people were quite excited about it.
I have to be honest, it got mixed reviews. I received one letter of complaint (from someone on the fringes of my church congregation), and one or two rather angry comments via social media. One group of men walked out in the middle of it. But most of those who stayed came out buzzing even more excitedly than when they'd come in: "We must do more of these!" "Let's not wait 5 years for the next one!" "This is really important!"
The mixed reviews were something to do with the fact that we'd done things a bit differently. Quite deliberately. Let me explain...
Firstly, we'd asked the candidates to frame their opening speeches around their 'vision for a Good Society' (thanks to Church Action on Poverty for getting us going on this). It was interesting the amount of consensus, from our rather 'fresh' Green to the elderly-and-distinctly-loony UKIP (with all the usual suspects in between), that emerged - and some of the differences.
Secondly, after a period of questions from the audience (not long enough, frustratingly, for some people), the 'second half' was largely devoted to small group work, exploring 4 questions, with a critical order to them:
- What is our vision of 'a good society'?
- What can we achieve with 'people power'?
- What do we need the politicians to help us with?
- What do we need the politicians to do for us?
Some readers of this blog might recognise these questions, or at least a version of them. They are at the core of an 'ABCD' approach to community-building. They are deeply political questions (even though some of those who deploy, or critique, 'asset-based' language may choose to ignore this). But in the context of the hustings event, they simultaneously enlivened many people, and frustrated others: "This isn't what we came for!" "You're wasting time we could be using to grill the politicians!"
It's easier, isn't it, to leave politics to the politicians. It's easier for us, because we don't have to think about it - we just have to put our cross in the box every 5 years and leave it at that. It's easier for them too, because they can just get on with it, without having to worry about the people whose lives they affect profoundly by their daily decisions. They can sew it up between them, the charade of difference and disagreement cloaking the vested interests in the system that continues to profit so many of them, on both sides of the House of Commons.
But when we realise politics begins with us, with the 'grassroots', with the local, with the everyday and the mundane, then we discover there's a whole load that we can do, and change, without needing to refer - or defer - to the politicians. And we also get distinctly more specific about what we do need from them. The balance of power is shifted, the tables begin to turn.
And we also have to acknowledge our own flawedness, the reality that our grand visions for 'a good society' are hampered by our very human tendency to stuff up goodness and vision and society. And that while very occasionally, possibly, there are things that governments can do to contain our 'stuffing up', most of the time we can only deal with its effects in community with each other, face to face, shoulder to shoulder. In fact, we discover, there's an awful lot that governments - and their blessed 'markets' - have done to exacerbate our 'stuffing up', to encourage it, demand it, incentivise it: our atomised lives, our self-interest, our consuming desires, our tendency to blame and victimise the 'other', the list goes on...
So the lesson of the hustings for me is that we need to create more of these local spaces for conversation, for imagination, and for the risky, costly work of proper politics.
There's more... but that needs to wait for Part 3...