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Can “active citizens” transform British politics?

Paul Kingsnorth
13 July 2004

The British people are disillusioned with the political process and with politicians themselves. As Stuart Weir reports on openDemocracy following the latest State of the Nation survey, people believe that they currently have hardly any control over politics, and that they should have more.

At the same time, they also appear to share a growing, worldwide realisation that a fast-moving and increasingly unaccountable global economy is having damaging effects on their local communities.

In the face of these trends, British people – again, like their counterparts worldwide – are increasingly prepared to take matters into their own hands. From the huge numbers who marched against the Iraq war to the massed ranks of the Countryside Alliance; from global justice demonstrators to fuel and anti-road building protesters; from the environmental direct action movement to coalitions of farmers targeting the price-fixing of supermarkets – the efflorescence of “extra-parliamentary politics” over the last decade, on different sides of the traditional political fence, is extraordinary.

Politicians, concerned to preserve their parliamentary seats and eroding aura of authority, react by lamenting the “apathy” evidenced by declining voter turnouts. This is absurd: the latest poll confirms what many other surveys have revealed – the problem for politicians is not voter apathy but voter anger.

Paul Kingsnorth is a regular contributor to openDemocracy. His latest article is “How to save the world: poverty, security and nation-building” (June 2004)

Political engagement in Britain, as in the wider world, is high and rising. The people have simply decided that the old ways don’t work, so they are going to invent new ones. The political classes’ response – introducing postal, email or text message voting, or inviting the inventor of Big Brother to 10 Downing Street – does not begin to address the core issue. The British people are engaged, concerned and angry: the problem for our politicians is that much of the anger is directed at them.

But if British politicians have a problem, so do Britain’s people. Their anger is often neither organised nor consistent. Where it is – when a genuine, long-term, bottom-up grassroots movement storms onto the political stage – the result can be electrifying.

The 10 million farmers and rural labourers of India’s National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements; Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), the biggest social network in Latin America; Mexico’s Zapatistas; Argentina’s popular assemblies; the mass movements catalysed by Korean trade unions – each of these has profoundly influenced the actions of their governments, in some case changed the governments themselves. Perhaps even more significant, they have changed the way that people organise themselves at local level.

And when that happens to a nation’s politics, nothing is ever really the same again.

A catalyst of change

Can it happen in Britain too? Charles Secrett thinks it could. Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth (FoE) for ten years, is the co-founder of a new organisation called Active Citizens Transform (Act), launching on 18 October 2004. Act, says Secrett, will work with Charter 88 and a number of NGOs and citizens’ groups to become something different: the catalyst of a national, grassroots movement for sustainable, long-term democratic change.

openDemocracy’s roundtable on the future of NGOs, “Coming or going: NGOs in the new political landscape” (August 2001) brings together Charles Secrett, Rebecca Wills, Ian Christie, Tom Bentley, Richard Burge, and Anthony Barnett in a vigorous dialogue

“In some ways, this came out of unfinished business from Friends of the Earth”, he explains. “There, I set up a parliamentary unit, dedicated to pushing for long-term change through parliament. We organised around private members’ bills and achieved success – for example, the 1997 Road Traffic Reduction Act. I wanted to build on that by developing FoE’s local groups into a genuine national network that could maintain pressure, build citizen activism and mobilise behind a manifesto for sustainability. Colleagues at FoE balked at that agenda, so I’m taking it forward now through Act”.

Here, Secrett implies that one motivating force behind Act is a judgment that NGOs, pressure groups, voluntary associations and charities cannot by themselves make long-term change happen.

“We are critical of NGOs, even though I have worked in them for most of my life”, he says. “What they’re doing is necessary and important, but it’s not enough. The critical ingredient of transformational politics is missing. In the case of the long-term sustainability agenda, politicians have no incentive to respond to lobbying, treading the corridors of power, using facts to prove a case; they suffer no pain for ignoring the agenda, and see no gain from delivering on it. Many campaigning NGOs have become almost entrenched in a protest politics of constant complaint, never seeing good in anything. They often view the media as the only outlet that matters. And their dedication to institutional growth can translate into a focus on bureaucracy and management rather than campaigning.”

Charles Secrett has spent most of his life working in NGOs, and knows what he’s talking about. But what is Act actually for, and what can it do that the existing kaleidoscope of groups, organisations, and networks aren’t already doing?

The answer, says Secrett, is a long-term vision that amounts to “a reasonable revolution” – a phrase which will make many a Marxist choke on his cornflakes but which he is happy to defend.

Its components will be the six aims at the heart of Act’s forthcoming manifesto:

  • reinvigorating parliament to make government more accountable to MPs

  • creating a new, written constitution

  • strengthening local government and politics through serious devolution of power

  • defining a list of economic, social and ecological rights to which every citizen has a claim

  • strengthening and enforcing environmental protection

  • reforming international bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation so that they create, rather than undermine, sustainable development.

It’s an ambitious list – and, at first sight, a curiously mixed one. Is it really the sort of agenda that a social movement can be built around? And if so – crucially – how?

“We are trying not to create ideas but to fuse the ideas that already exist – in powerful, poetical and political language – into an agenda that makes people respond: “yes – that’s what I think, that’s what I believe in”. We believe that many people are at that stage – almost. But they support organisations that haven’t yet found the means to create that sort of transformation throughout society.”

As for the ideas themselves – they all connect, and in the most radical way, argues Secrett:

“The Earth Summit in 1992 produced the first real, robust statement of what sustainability actually means in political terms – the original Agenda 21. These documents are as revolutionary as anything that Marx and Engels, or Adam Smith, proposed. Because they say on every single page that we can’t have a sustainable society unless we have grassroots decision-making, with public policy decided on the ground, at local level, by communities and citizens, not just by experts and the elected and elites. This kind of democratisation of decision-making is a core part of what this new politics needs to be about. Act is about catalysing a new social movement from the bottom up.”

Secrett’s key partner in the initiative is Ron Bailey, who ran FoE’s parliamentary unit, and who has long experience in community activism – organising in favour of measures like the Road Traffic Reduction Act or (his current campaign) a proposed Local Sustainability Bill. Bailey and Secrett will together be responsible for taking Act to “the people”.

They envisage a five-year programme involving a rolling thunder of town and village meetings, local gatherings and all the groundwork that will be needed to create a national network of involved, local campaigners working around their manifesto. Two things, says Secrett, will be crucial to make this work.

First, the people involved in Act must be genuine representatives of local communities, from across the political spectrum, not simply the usual core of environmental or social “activists” who are already working on such issues.

Second, Act must be genuinely grounded; not a “linear structure” of local groups answering to a head office, but an “organic, living, growing” social movement, of which Secrett, Bailey and their team act merely as catalysts.

“It’s about energising democracy at the local level”, emphasises Secrett, “because it’s no use worrying about global structures until you’ve got the grassroots right.”

The next wave?

Act’s formal launch in Britain in October will be a key test for Charles Secrett’s argument. Perhaps its most vital initial challenge will be to convince people that this really is something different. The response of the veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell, asked if he’d like to become a founder member of Act, may be indicative; “It’s not that I have anything against the idea’, Dalyell told openDemocracy. “Charles did sterling work at Friends of the Earth. I just don’t see why there’s a need for yet another pressure group.”

Secrett, naturally, thinks that Act can convince people that it is more than this:

openDemocracy’s debate on social movements develops from the experience of the Countryside Alliance and the issue of fox-hunting in Britain, and involves Roger Scruton, Adam Lent, Tim Jordan, Sophie Jeffreys, John Jackson

“Social movements come in waves. Take the environmental movement: the first wave was bird charities, then animal welfare charities, then wild species charities, then habitat conservation. Then, in the 1970s, came environmental campaign groups, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace; then the direct action movement starting, evolving from around Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and spreading in the early 1980s to more radical groups like Earth First! in the United States. Then came community-based direct action, and its multiple spin-offs.”

“We see Act as the next wave – taking political action, real action, at local level around a long-term, agenda, and welding together an enormous coalition of existing organisations and their members. I suppose what we’re looking for is the philosopher’s stone: a peaceful, democratic but effective revolution made up of citizens and communities, working with organisations for real change. That’s what we’re trying to catalyse. And I think it can be done.”

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