We need to invest in active citizens

Tom’s post – If we want active citizens we need to invest in the skills of citizenship – appeared on the blog page of Civil Society Futures in September 2017.

 

Citizenship’s a wonderful thing. The very word empowers; it places identity on a plane above being a mere consumer of goods and services, a statistic or a ‘subject’ whose will is subjugated to that of some higher rank. It’s also a collective concept – citizens together – which, being inclusive, confers dignity.

But it’s also too often an abstract concept, along with the rights and responsibilities which attend it, absent from the vocabulary of those ‘just about managing’ or downright struggling. In those communities where qualifications, opportunities and confidence are low ‘citizenship values’ are too often not even of academic interest.

As a Member of Parliament I used to represent over 20 local authority wards, of which one was in the 5 per cent most deprived in the land and two more in the bottom ten per cent. In that most deprived ward disability and other benefits were the largest source of household income. Other deprivation-linked metrics – obesity, smoking, failure to breast feed, low educational attainment – were the worst in the county. The social housing estate at the heart of the ward was purpose-built; that purpose being (in the early 60s) to complement inner city slum clearance by hiding the community on a greenfield site away from established centres of population.

When a colleague from a solid working class seat said that there was ‘no tradition’ of advice surgeries in his patch, and his office received far fewer letters than mine, I plotted on a map the addresses of constituents who’d approached me for advice. Those from communities in most need, I saw, were least likely to contact their MP. My first thought was that the ability to describe difficult concepts in written English, a great tool of engaged citizenship, is often lacking in deprived areas.

To this day this isn’t an issue of native language. This community was (and is) mostly white and English-speaking; many of whom, on rare forays into writing paragraphs, would be embarrassed, shamed or let down by their inability to communicate – and they knew it. Needless to say, their understanding of democracy was, let’s say, ‘incomplete’. Their analysis of their community’s problems was perceptive but their ambitions for putting things right were limited. They had little faith in the ‘powers that be’; they weren’t active citizens – other than occasionally collaborating with neighbours where need or common interest and capacity allowed.

On that estate of 1,600 homes public services did exist: a doctor, a community centre, a nursery, primary school and library. The private sector consisted of four small shops and two pubs (one of which has since closed) and many of those employed there lived elsewhere; there was no local employment to speak of, nowhere to build skills, create useful experience, develop team working or create a sense of achievement. Business is largely absent from deprived areas – so too (as IPPR North has pointed out) is voluntary sector infrastructure.

In short, it’s as though citizenship had been designed out of the estate.

After generations of status quo classes C2DE, who live on such estates, are stirring – but not in a good way. Low electoral turnout, reflecting a genuine lack of engagement, is commonplace in such wards. When they do vote they tend to vote Labour. Or do they? The 2017 general election saw a massive 12 per cent swing to the Conservatives amongst C2DEs even though it was they who’d borne the brunt of seven years of austerity, falling buying power, benefit and service cuts. It was an ‘against’ vote, against the party which purported to represent their own interests – and (being in Opposition) had failed to improve them. In 2016 a bare majority of Britain voted for Brexit. Even Brexit supporters acknowledge that many of them voted not for ‘a new role in the world’ but against the establishment generally, officialdom, ‘them’ or just to protest the lot they had been cast in life. ‘Europe’ was a bogeyman. It’s no coincidence that the strongest correlation with voting in the referendum was with educational background: those with fewer qualifications were much more likely to vote ‘leave’.

When we talk of citizens collaborating to complement, extend or even replace public sector provision or private utilities – perhaps as an energy-purchasing consortium or simply for their own fulfilment and enjoyment – we’re generally talking of communities led by the middle class. In such places organisational skills are commonplace and resources are bestowed upon resourceful people. The language spoken has a different cultural context than on the deprived estate: it’s richer, more expressive, a more useful tool. Rational concepts like risk or consequences of actions are freely employed in planning and decision-making, fields in which the middle class have more experience. In short, whilst both working and middle class areas might appear to be dormitories their skills, capacities, confidence and ambitions are poles apart.

Citizenship isn’t just a matter of one’s relationship to a community or a social hierarchy, nor simply a measure of participation – but also of values. It reflects access to social capital, communication skills and the wherewithal, physically and intellectually, to work both collectively and with outsiders to achieve change. Culture and values cannot be imposed from without but do need feeding, nurturing, promoting. Empowerment and engagement cannot be created overnight.

Many today believe that our society must change in a way which is more devolved, more locally provided for than at present, and so it must; the era of ‘big is beautiful’ in public services is over. However, simply passing responsibility down the line assumes levels of citizenship capacity at the grass roots which the most needy communities simply cannot deliver. Three things are needed to create community confidence in such places:

  • Basic skills, especially literacy, need to be prioritised as never before, in both children and adults.
  • Brave decisions from Government and local authorities to share power – even give it away – to local communities; a long term, phased, organic process not driven by some arbitrary timetable.
  • Investment in early intervention in education, health and welfare (when programmes such as Sure Start are cancelled progress is not just ended but reversed).

Even Britons who share a common language are today far from equal in what they are able to achieve. For stability, security and shared prosperity this must be addressed; otherwise those who struggle today will be left even further behind.