Our Director Angus Ritchie blogs on the need for us to be active citizens in the run up to, and beyond, the election…
Would you like to have more power? The word “power” usually produces a pretty negative reaction, especially among religious people. Our first thoughts tend to focus on the ways it is so often abused. But power is simply the ability to make things happen. Unless you think the world is just perfect as it is, you are going to need some power to change it for the better.
As we approach the election, the depressing and disengaged mood of so many voters flows from their sense of powerlessness. Although we live in a democracy, many voters feel like spectators as our life is shaped by external economic forces. What would it take for these economic systems to be placed at the service of a truly common good?
I am writing this blog on the way back from meetings with religious and civic leaders in Scotland. North of the Border, although the referendum is over, political debate continues to be dominated by the question of whether independence is the key to political and economic renewal. Whatever your answer, there is no doubt that the public are being engaged, and voters feel real power is in their hands.What would it take to generate that same level of excitement and engagement – that sense of ‘people power’ – across the whole of the UK? At the last election, there was much talk of the importance of civil society, and the role of active citizens and communities in working for the common good. The political classes seem to have grown tired of that conversation. When did you last see a news story about the ‘Big Society’ (to use Mr Cameron’s term) or ‘Good Society’ (which was once its Labour counterpart)?
Politicians and commentators may have changed the subject, but civil society has not gone away. Indeed, it has been the source of some of the most exciting changes since 2010. Whether or not it has hit the headlines, ‘people power’ has making a very practical difference.
Over the last five years, the Living Wage campaign has grown from strength to strength, attracting support from across the political spectrum. It was not born in any election manifesto or party conference, but in the churches and mosques, schools and trade unions of Citizens UK. Those same organisations have spent the last six years campaigning for a new law against exploitative lending – a campaign which has attracted a powerful range of allies, and led on to Britain’s first anti-usury legislation for over 150 years.
These two successful campaigns have required civil society to engage with businesses as well as politicians. The Living Wage has been rolled out by negotiation and not by legislation. And the campaign against exploitative lending has involved more than just an anti-usury law. Churches have been working with the business world to develop and support alternatives, including Credit Unions.
It’s not a coincidence that the people worst affected by poverty pay and exploitative lending are at the heart of these successful campaigns. They know the difference between solutions that just sound good and ones which will actually make a difference. Politicians and commentators can ‘move on’ from one issue to the next, but local people live with the good or bad effects of policy changes for decades. To take just one example, Violet had to cash in her life savings when the small amount of money her granddaughter borrowed from a payday lender mushroomed into an unmanageable debt. That experience has made her an active member of Citizens UK’s “Just Money” campaign. As well as an anti-usury law, Violet is working to turn her local church into an access point for the London Community Credit Union, so that people in her neighbourhood are encouraged to save and have access to affordable credit when they need it.
The televised election debates are all very well, but these issues need the active engagement of citizens at the sharp end of social injustice. There’s far more to ‘people power’ than a once-every-five-years ritual. We can’t just sit in front of our TV screens, weigh up the options, and then cast our votes – before turning on our TV sets to see who (if anyone) has won the election. The debate at St Paul’s Cathedral on April 29 is an exciting opportunity to discuss what it would take to renew our common life. Under the dome, we will be bringing together leaders from civil society and finance and asking them: “How do we get politics and business working for the common good?”
The purpose of this public debate is very different from the TV debates between the party leaders. The aim is not to decide which speaker is the most compelling in some kind of political beauty parade. Rather, the aim is to help each one of us to be informed, active and powerful citizens, not just on May 7, but in the months and years which follow. Come along – to be part of the conversation, and part of the action which needs to follow!
Angus is chairing the Public Debate at St Paul’s Cathedral entitled Beyond Election Day: Power, Money, Government and Responsibility. For more information, and to register for tickets, please visit: beyondelectionday.eventbrite.com
This blog originally appeared on the St Paul’s Institute website.