The rise of do-it-yourself democracy

Disillusioned with conventional politics, 'stakeholders' in local communities are organising themselves; Thistledown people are working class and strikingly idealistic
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The Independent Online
A big political idea has to address a big fact, preferably the dominant fact of the age. Our big fact is globalisation, both the wealth it can bring, but also the fear that powerful world markets will turn us into thistledown people, blown about by forces beyond us - people without gravity, without a stake.

Tony Blair's stakeholding was clearly meant to be a response to this general feeling of voter insecurity, to reassure people that political action can help to tie them more securely into their jobs, communities and country.

The argument about stakeholding has, thus far, been partisan and abstract. But I have some news. I have met stakeholders. For the past few years they have been organising and training across the country, and no one at Westminster or in the think-tanks seems to have noticed. This is probably because these stakeholders have no nationally known leaders; they operate at a level below the attention of the essay-writing classes and have little interest in the conventional politics which obsess us.

Those I have come across are gathered under the umbrella of the Citizen Organising Foundation. There are about 60,000 people involved so far, from inner-city areas of Merseyside, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Bristol, north- east Wales, Sheffield and east London. They are overwhelmingly working class, have very little interest or past involvement in party politics and are strikingly idealistic.

Their organisations are partly made up of what they call ''faith communities'' - local churches, mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples - alongside community groups, tenants' associations and so on; their literature includes a heady mix of Guru Nanak (''the test of learning is action'') and John Stuart Mill (''the only government which can fully satisfy all the necessities of the social state is one in which the whole people participate''). Any attempt to describe them as left-wing or right-wing would, so far as I can see, be futile.

What do they do? It is early days: the oldest was founded only five years ago in Bristol. But they have held hundreds of meetings, trained scores of local leaders, changed the policies of supermarkets and building societies, forced local councils to clear illegal tipping sites, campaigned on homelessness and repossession, persuaded businesses to move and helped to alter policing tactics.

How do they do it? By being legal troublemakers, picketing, jamming up offices, haranguing company directors and local politicians. From Bristol to the North of England, they have filled halls and given MPs angry meetings to contend with, of a kind most politicians rarely encounter.

Being local, they campaign about things that Westminster never hears about. Take one example. It may seem trivial that the Merseyside Broad- Based Organisation has persuaded the supermarket chain Kwik Save to change its mission statement and attend meetings of local people to discuss traffic, play areas and opening times wherever it has stores.

But Kwik Save is the supermarket chain with stores in more inner-city areas than any rival - 676 out of its 1,000-odd outlets. How it behaves matters hugely to the people dependent on it. Nick Goss, its marketing director, told me that the company has now been contacted by other broad- based organisations requesting meetings about its activities; he seemed to think the community politicians in Liverpool had done his company a favour.

The Citizen Organising Foundation is funded by, among others, the Church of England, mosques, the Cadbury family and corporate donors such as Allied Dunbar. But the local organisations raise most of their own money and have a strong presumption against state or local authority funding. They believe many conventional charities have become hopelessly compromised agents of the state, and that raising their own money matters.

One leader from east London puts it this way: "Here, most people spend their money on the lottery as a way of trying to get out. What we are saying is that if you put a bit into local civic organisations instead you won't escape from east London, but you will change things around you.''

This is the voice of modern self-help. And however down-to-earth the campaigning has been, there is an ideology at work. The founders of the movement, local religious leaders and former social workers, see themselves in a tradition that goes back to the Victorian friendly societies, the early trade unions and the co-operative movement. They are highly conscious of thinkers such as Amitai Etzioni, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Putnam and others who have made "communitarianism", "social capital'' and "civic society'' fashionable.

All this would be mildly interesting - but no more - for national party politics, were it an isolated event. But the broad-based organisations described above are only one bubble in the pot. There are other, self- proclaimed, communitarian groups. There are inner-city enterprises with similar aims, like the radical Phoenix Centre in Birmingham. There is the great growth of single-issue campaigning. There are local economic experiments such as the "Lets" barter systems. There are the more assertive tenants' groups and the anti-crime initiatives.

What do these examples of the "new politics" share? Disillusion with conventional parties and Westminster debate; an impatient determination to "do it for ourselves''; and, with the exception of some of the more eye-catching roads or animal-exports confrontations, a low national profile.

This is a ragged and anonymous happening, difficult to write about and utterly lacking the glamour or resources of conventional politics. Why should it matter to Blair or new Labour, or any other Westminster politician?

It matters because as globalisation starts to bite, almost every serious political thinker appears to be investigating the web of social relationships below the level of the state - religious groups, clubs, societies, campaigns - and concluding that this social capital is important both to economic success and to sustaining decent, low-crime communities.

This is an intellectual reaction to Margaret Thatcher's notorious neo- liberal claim that there is no such thing as society, just families and individuals; but it is also a reaction to the previous statist tradition of the left. And this is where it re-enters the debate about "stakeholding''.

Broad-based organising is not going to replace party politics, eradicate the need for progressive taxation or substitute itself for the welfare state. It is not powerful enough, nor rich enough. But if the big question is globalisation and the insecurity it brings, then a revival of community self-help and local political action is part of the answer. There is a world Westminster doesn't know about; and in it, the thistledown people are joining together.

A Blair government which failed to address the new politics, including these stakeholders in some of the bleakest parts of Britain, would be making a huge mistake. To avoid that, Labour would have to be pluralist - prepared to devolve, reform local government, consider different kinds of democratic tools, including referendums, and generally behave in a more modest, less Big Brother-ish way than it has ever done before.

Can it? Will it? Early next month Blair is to give a speech on why political reform matters for stakeholder economics. Tens of thousands of active, idealistic and suspicious community politicians already know part of the answer. They, too, will be listening.

The Citizen Organising Foundation can be contacted at 535 Manhattan Buildings, London E3 2UP.

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