Is it inevitable that politicians are held in low regard and that political debate is reduced to personalities or fleeting soundbites? Is there an alternative to disengagement and cynicism?
A politics of respect and engagement is possible – and the London Citizens Mayoral Accountability Assembly held this week was a great example of this. With only a few days to go to the London Mayoral and Assembly elections, 6,000 Londoners came together at the Copper Box venue in Stratford’s Olympic Park this week for one of the high points of the campaign.
As well as the two leading candidates, Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) and Sadiq Khan (Labour), the many presenters and witnesses stood on a central podium the size of a boxing ring with thousands of assembly members on all sides adding to the sense of 360 degree visibility and accountability and involving us all in a type of public ‘town square’ politics.
Part educational activity, part political debate, part carnival, part community performance, the assembly was above all a celebration of democracy and participation. The work of London Citizens and the movement it is part of is founded on a belief in listening to people’s ideas and building change from the bottom. It starts from a commitment to taking politics seriously and a respect for the democratic process and for the people who stand for election and ask for our votes. It asks citizens to be more than consumer-voters and to think of themselves as capable of exercising power and contributing to change. It is also about creating a meaningful bond between us and those we elect.
One participant summed up the event brilliantly in just 3 words: positive, powerful, participatory. There was strong positive affirmation of London Citizens’ core campaigns, of our diversity and our shared values. The ‘no booing or heckling’ rule ensured that participants expressed their support in positive ways. The sheer commitment and energy from the various speakers and participants gave us all a sense of the shared power we represented collectively. The diversity of the participants and the organisations they represented; evident from their stories, banners, costumes and uniforms, showed the breadth and depth of participation represented by this assembly.
This kind of assembly is a key event in community organising as practiced by London Citizens. It is about doing politics out in the open rather than behind closed doors. The organisations of civil society; schools, colleges, universities, community and faith groups from across the city work together to agree their priority demands and then develop a campaign to make the strongest possible case for these to elected politicians or candidates. The core of the event is the negotiation between the assembly and the candidates around the key demands. Rather than simply listening to the candidates present their programmes in a hustings, the idea is to engage them in dialogue and ask them to pledge their support for the assembly’s priorities in front of the assembled citizens who will hold them to account.
London Citizens is a big tent but this doesn’t mean that it generates innocuous ‘lowest common denominator’ campaigns which don’t challenge the status quo. Its demands focus on some of our city’s greatest challenges and they are progressive and innovative:
- A Good Development Standard including 50% affordable housing in all new developments.
- 1,000 new homes to come from Community Land Trusts.
- A London Living Rent, applying to over 10,000 homes by 2020.
- A Rogue Landlord Taskforce for London.
- A London Living Wage.
- Partnerships between education and employers to provide ‘good jobs’ for young people.
- Resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees in London by 2020.
The proposals have been developed by many thousands of people over many months. Instead of slogans or soundbites, they represent the culmination of painstaking evidence gathering, personal testimonies and collective debate and discussion. Thursday’s assembly was just the tip of a substantial social movement which has put housing at the top of the agenda for London.
Unlike most party political rallies or meetings, this assembly included many young people who are not yet able to vote, giving them a real sense of their potential power as citizens. By participating in community organising and in this assembly these young people are not just learning about citizenship or democracy, they are actively practising them.
Of course, such assemblies are not the only mechanism for making policy or holding politicians to account. They are just one of many expressions of civil society and people’s collective desire to shape their world. London Citizens wouldn’t claim to offer a complete programme for every aspect of London government, that’s not the purpose of community organising. Developing a coherent and winning programme, selecting candidates and getting them elected is the task of political parties, but they don’t do this in isolation from civil society. The membership of a vibrant and responsive political party will be debating the same ideas which are being raised in groups belonging to London Citizens and they will share many individual members.
The commitments which both Sadiq and Zac made to continue working with London Citizens, if elected, are clearly not their only bond to Londoners. Whoever becomes our new mayor will need to be accountable to all Londoners and will need to demonstrate this in many different ways. But the pledges made at this assembly represent important threads in the fabric of accountability and participation and are all the stronger for having been made in such a public way to representatives of so many community organisations.
After Thursday’s election, we should build on this by involving more schools, colleges and community groups in keeping alive the debate about the future of London, including through involvement in London Citizens and its constituent groups. London’s citizens should be active in their community and faith groups, trade unions and political parties and take politics seriously – developing their ideas through practical involvement with others.
David Robinson has suggested an ‘Ideas for London’ body. This agency would be dedicated to ‘unearthing and developing great new ideas from London’s citizens and from cities across the globe’ and could act as a stimulus and an incubator for the new ideas we will need to improve our city.
If, as someone said at the assembly, “there is a divide between the city we have and the city we want”, then we all need to step up and play our part in bridging that divide. The first step, of course, is to use our vote on Thursday 5th May.
Young people discuss the future of London (March 2016)
A better future for London (May 2015)
Barack Obama community organiser (May 2014)