Suited to a new politics

Young, concerned professionals don't stand in local elections any more. What's the point? They want to do something. Even if their shoes get muddy. By Jim White

Just on the corner of a cul-de-sac in the Holmefield estate in Bradford, as if placed there by the BBC central props department to give a visual clue about what kind of place this was, lay a dead cat. How it had died was unclear, but it was unlikely to have been run over. Down this cul-de-sac there weren't any cars. In fact there wasn't much of a road - the tarmac had been torn up by resident entrepreneurs, to be sold, someone said, as hard-core. The gardens of the tumbledown 1950s semis had lost all their fences (used as firewood ages ago, apparently) and had merged into the broken road in a stew of mud. A few ancient electrical appliances stood rotting, and a couple of gutted trucks rested on bricks.

Through this epitome of urban deprivation a group of some 40 people, professionals in suits wearing name badges on their lapels, picked their way, stepping lightly to ensure they didn't dirty their office shoes. Jovially warned not to talk too loudly in posh accents about what a dump this was, the party none the less found it hard to camouflage its arrival. One elderly man, coming out of his front door with two snappy dogs on a lead, summed up the unexpected descent of a group of haves on the land of the have-nots when he stammered: "What the bloody hell are you lot doing here?"

The party was there at the suggestion of Common Purpose, a nationwide organisation whose aim is to encourage professionals halfway up the career ladder ("future leaders" in the jargon) to get involved in their communities. In Bradford, this year's crop on the Common Purpose course were visiting a place which few could have visited before; a godforsaken corner of the town marooned on the wrong side of the ring-road, out of sight and mind, a place that surprised the visitors with its decay.

"No, I'd never been here before," said one participant. "And yes, I was pretty surprised. Shocked if you like."

They weren't there simply as tourists; the hope was rather that they might return to their building societies and banks, law practices and financial institutions with a better knowledge of their community. Perhaps next time a candidate for a job turned out to be from that estate, they might give them a more sympathetic hearing than local prejudice tended to allow.

That, plus a realisation that life need not be like it was in that particular corner of Bradford. Leaving the cul-de-sac, the party moved on to the neighbouring streets on the estate. These had been completely refurbished through the efforts of Bradford City Challenge, a joint initiative involving government money, council land, housing association expertise and local enterprise. Gardens had been created, houses rebuilt according to residents' specifications, pounds 17,000 spent per place. From dump to des res, thanks to a bit of targeting and local co-operation.

The 40 on the tour were impressed. Some of them, who had never considered the idea before, were impressed enough to follow the example of Tim Ratcliffe. A 43-year-old solicitor who took part in Common Purpose's first course in Bradford three years ago, Ratcliffe has subsequently got himself so involved in local affairs that he now spends half his working life volunteering his time to various agencies.

"I always had a vague feeling of wanting to do something for my town," he says. "It wasn't a matter of giving money to other people, it was a question of rolling up the sleeves and doing it yourself. I was in the market for a role and this organisation provided it. And how."

Common Purpose was started in 1989 by Julia Middleton, who then worked for the Industrial Society. Her aim, she says, was not to promote flakey notions of do-goodery, but to help channel the desire of people of her age (she is now 37) to get involved, to show them how idealism could be targeted: a bit of do-somethingery, as it were.

"I was educated to believe that democracy isn't just about being elected, it is a wider thing which we seem to have forgotten, it's about you and me being part of things," she says. "The trouble is, too many people of our generation are not recognising that fact; I think we've forgotten what democracy is."

In Bradford, they were getting a crash refresher course. The 40 middle- ranking executives (and their employers) had been persuaded to give up a few days of their time and spend it finding out about how their city works. The estate visit was part of housing day, which also involved touring housing association premises and spending the evening failing to come up with a better way than the existing one of allocating council houses to those on the waiting list. Similar days are spent on crime and business, voluntary organisations and grants. It is, in short, a sort of mini diploma in social responsibility, with the emphasis always on how the graduate might get involved through voluntary organisations or co-operative ventures and effect change.

And what is really surprising is how keen the participants were to follow up and do just that. True enough, for some, like the building society executive who didn't realise how much building work mosques were doing in the city and thought they might be in need of one of his competitively priced mortgages, it was merely an opportunity to do a bit of networking. No harm in that. But a good proportion of the party were surprised to find that something could be done and that there was an opportunity for people like them to do it.

"At the end of the year's programme, I felt guilty I hadn't done anything before," says Tim Ratcliffe. "I haven't got any sweeping ideas about how to change the face of Bradford, but what I have learnt is that lots of people doing a little bit makes a much greater difference than one or two grand gestures."

Years ago, people like Tim Ratcliffe would have taken another route to satisfying such nascent civic-mindedness. They might have been standing as candidates in elections like tomorrow's, in the hope of attracting enough votes to win themselves a seat on the local council, where they could do their bit. Nowadays, however, fewer and fewer people like him, with ambition or a desire to change, are putting themselves forward as candidates; the dearth of quality candidates is a running sore in local politics. What's the point, the able argue, with local councils shorn of power, money and responsibility, emasculated to the point where they are little more than haggling shops, ersatz Houses of Parliament, a sort of care in the community service for the power-crazed?

The experience of those taking part in the Bradford Common Purpose course is not untypical; it is replicated across the country. While it has become a commonplace to accept that the young are disenfranchised by party politics, focusing their energies instead on single issues such as roads or animal liberation, it is less frequently documented that their elder siblings are equally unimpressed with the concept.

"Action comes from finding common ground and working on it," says Julia Middleton. "People have grown to realise that party politics is more about finding differences and exploiting them."

Everyone on the Common Purpose Bradford event who I asked expressed the same opinion: why get involved in local party politics when nothing can be achieved by it?

Worryingly for the parties, these were talented people with pride in their communities. Typical of them is Anil Singh. A keen student of radical Asian politics in Bradford in the early Eighties, he is now Director of Manningham Housing Association and strictly non-party; he'll talk to anyone who can help his operation.

"I'd previously had the ambition of changing the world through politics," he says. "I ventured into housing by accident, but since I have, I've learnt one important thing. A project like mine can make an impact, however small; shouting off about the injustices of capitalist society doesn't.

"The tragedy of the state of British politics is that it is tied up with in-fighting. Instead of focusing on the need to regenerate our inner cities, it is concerned with apportioning blame for the state they are in. I'd like to be involved in policy, in shaping a genuine future for our community, in seeking solutions. That's why I'm not a member of a political party."

This might well be music to the ears of the Conservative Party, which has presided over the castration of local government over the Past 15 years, deliberately undermining the recruiting ground of its rivals and breaking up the sources of power to prevent the creation of oppositions- in-exile in the town halls of the nation. The problem is that many of their own side have grown equally uninterested, switched off by the pointless powerlessness of the town hall. Tim Ratcliffe, for instance, a Rotarian and commercial solicitor from a tradition of civic-minded Torydom, prefers to do his bit on the board of his local TEC, or by helping a retraining initiative on the city's estates, or on the board organising the Spirit of Bradford centenary celebrations for 1997.

"I think it's fair to say I wouldn't have done any of that without Common Purpose," he says. "I vaguely felt I wanted to do something, but I just didn't know how to go about it."

If only the political parties had thought of telling him, a few more people might be voting tomorrow.

Could you be a good citizen?

Common Purpose operates in 27 towns and cities, including London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Brighton and Swindon. Its groups, made up of 35 potential leaders, are selected by advisory bodies made up of senior decision-makers, such as chief constables.

Common Purpose's selection criteria are lengthy and sophisticated, but you might assess your own fitness for involvement in good causes by answering the following questions:

1. A spate of car thefts in your street confirms your suspicion that the area has finally "turned bad". Do you:

a) Fit new five-bar locks to your front door and seal the cat flap?

b) Contact rural estate agents the next day?

c) Drop notes to your neighbours about forming a residents' association and liaising with the police?

2. You are disappointed that your child's school does not have a drama group. Do you:

a) Say you might help if someone else organised one?

b) Do nothing, believing that it is the school's job to do it?

c) Contact the headteacher and say you will organise one?

3. Your town is planning its 500th anniversary celebrations next year. An organiser wants you to attend a few planning meetings on Wednesday evenings. Do you:

a) Say sorry but you're not much good at organising?

b) Lie, saying that on Wednesdays you attend your firm's computer course?

c) Make yourself available, believing that any project that reinforces civic pride is a good thing?

4. Drivers are urgently required to help take 300 disabled children on a seaside outing. It will mean giving up a weekend on which you have theatre tickets. Do you:

a) Decline, but offer pounds 10 for petrol?

b) Hide behind the sofa when your do-gooding neighbour comes round to ask you?

c) Swallow hard and make yourself available?

5. A young man applies to you for a job. He seems well qualified, but you notice from his application that he lives on an estate where your car was vandalised last month. Do you:

a) Ignore your prejudices and employ him?

b) Suggest that he seek experience elsewhere - and ask him if he knows anyone flogging BMW 5-series hub caps?

c) Ask him about the area he comes from: does he think it has problems that your firm might help with?

How did you score?

Mostly a): Your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak.

Mostly b): You are an appalling misanthrope - have you no shame?

Mostly c): You have the makings of a model 21st-century citizen - go to it.

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