The Citizens UK gathering in Westminster Methodist Hall on Monday which brought together all three party leaders was something quite breath-taking. I’ve written before about how their events combine extraordinary spectacle and political theatre with a high degree of discipline and the projection of real grassroots community power. There were 2, 500 people in the hall from over 150 organisations, including mosques, churches, schools and ethnic groups and a small number of trade unions.
It was billed by Andrew Marr and others in the media as the “fourth debate”, but it wasn’t a debate in the traditional sense like a hustings with questions taken from the floor. It was in reality a highly structured conversation between civil society, organised as an assembly of citizens, and the politicians who aspire to represent it. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown were each challenged on where they stand on the Citizens UK Election Manifesto, six policies drawn up democratically by its members over the course of 1000 one-to-one meetings.
All the media reaction has focussed on Brown’s speech, supposedly the “speech of his life”, which has won him plaudits for the uncharacteristic energy and conviction it displayed. You can read or watch the speech here. To me it felt hackneyed and vague - and his claim to be the citizens' comrade and "brother" would have sounded more convincing had he not dilly-dallied about coming and only agreed at the last minute. But it did go down well with the assembly who gave the Prime Minister the biggest cheer of all three leaders and loudly heckled and chanted his name at a protestor who interrupted the speech. I’d like to put this reaction down to sympathy for a doomed man harshly treated by the media, but it was more than that. There was, dare I say it, positive enthusiasm for Gordon Brown. And this clearly made him more relaxed and confident than he’s been all campaign, strutting around the stage and cracking jokes.
During one moving testimony a cleaning lady who works in the UK Treasury where she cleans Brown’s old office was brought on stage, along with her family, to give “testimony” to how hard it is to live and support a family on the pitiful wages she receives as a prelude to asking Brown to support the London Living Wage of £7.60 an hour. Brown didn’t agree to pay the Living Wage though he promised to “review it” and comforted the woman’s daughter who had started crying.
Another dramatic moment you wouldn’t find in the TV debates and won’t read about in the coverage was when Brown attempted to leave the stage after answering some questions on the economic parts of the Citizens UK agenda but everyone from our section of the assembly – the “Citizens for Sanctuary” section – started shouting out “what about child detention?”. He tried to fob us off by asking us to “write a letter”, but our section refused to be deterred and he was asked by the moderator to say where he stands. He again banged on about his moral code, saying “no child should suffer” but said nothing about abominable institutions like Yarl’s Wood where children are locked up in appalling conditions for no other crime than having parents who entered the country illegally (see the exchange between Brown and Clare Sambrook below). It was disappointing that it took an intervention by the assembly to get Brown to answer this question. There was a feeling that he’d been let off the more difficult and emotive question of child detention by the the community leaders interrogating him and handed the economic ones he's more comfortable with. One woman next to me said she thought it was a “fix” for political reasons. I don’t know about that, but it was noticeable how there was less forensic questioning of the politicians on the six-point agenda compared to the Assembly in November where Cabinet-level figures were being grilled.
A word on David Cameron and his “Big Society”. The Tory leader put in a polished performance, telling the assembly that “I talk about the Big Society, you are the Big Society”. He said he would “throw open public services” and ask charities and community groups to run them. If the Tories are elected on Thursday, he said, “you will be in power on Friday”. The assembly listened respectfully to Cameron and applauded his speech, but it strikes me that the Tory leader is dangerously confused on this issue. He confuses the means of Citizens UK, and citizen organising in general, with the ends. Civil society is organising politically and demanding political commitments to help the poor and the dispossessed not because it wants to supersede the state and take its place in the delivery of public services, but because it wants the state to fulfil its obligations.
Just look at the Citizens UK manifesto - a cap on interest rates, a living wage, community land trusts etc – they want the state to intervene more in the economy, not less. Cameron emphasises civil society because he wants to cut back the state and absolve it of its responsibilities. He bangs on about the “Big Society” but he lacks any clear account of how civil society will step in to take the role of the state. He says that if elected he will fund 5,000 community organisers with training provided by independent third parties such as London Citizens/Citizens UK. But will Cameron like the policies they come up with? If these 5,000 are anything like traditional community organisers, they’re going to be giving voice to the poor and the powerless. One imagines they will be coming up with redistributive, dare one say it, left-wing policies. At least Cameron’s allies at the TaxPayers Alliance get it - even if they don’t like it - with a panicky blogpost warning that the organisers will come up with “radical left-wing” policies and “controversial objectives”.
Nick Clegg gave the assembly much of what they wanted to hear with a promise to cap interest rates, develop community land trusts and end child detention. This must have been one of the few non-Lib Dem gatherings that erupted in applause at his promise to regularise the 600, 000 people living and working in the UK illegally and it was noticeable that Brown and Cameron were far less keen on playing dog-whistle politics over Clegg’s amnesty pledge in front of an assembly of such a diverse background.
The Citizens UK meeting felt like a profound and historic occasion for civil society and our politics in general with the party leaders literally brought face-to-face with some of the poorest and most desperate people in our society. Another first for this election. It was a shame that at times the party leaders weren’t as vigorously questioned over their policies as they might have been: sometimes they got away with promising to set up a “working group” on the issue where experience of previous assemblies would lead one to expect they'd be pinned down and forced to make a commitment by their interrogator. But of course there’s a balance to be struck here and it was a fantastic achievement just getting them to turn up. Citizens UK won commitments from all the party leaders that if they become PM they would meet with them every year and attend several assemblies over the next Parliament – and this was the most important commitment as far as they were concerned.