Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Learning from Blair's Journey and the Court of Tony Zofis

Tony Blair is one of the most skilled politicians of his generation and his Journey will be an important source for studying the politics of British governance from 1997 to 2010 (although the story starts earlier, with Neil Kinnock and John Smith), alongside books by Gould, Campbell, Mandelson, Mullen, Seddon and others. For the study of practical politics, three things stand out for me:

  • first: war is a failure of politics. Tony Blair chose to throw all his political skills to align his country with disastrous and misguided policies of America’s neo-cons, when he could have used his abilities and access to Bush to guide the world on a surer course for dealing with dictatorships like Saddam Hussein. Hindsight is easy, of course, but we need to mine the lessons of the past to avert disasters in future. 
  • second: Blair and Brown re-habilitated the public sector but failed to reform it, because their model for driving change was wrong. For an inside story it is worth reading Michael Barber’s Instructed to Deliver alongside John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector (and The Systems Thinking Review) which shows the negative impact of top-down targets and presents a radically different approach to public service transformation.
  • third: the central role of “office politics” in the past 20 years, although it may be more apt to call it the court politics of Tony Zofis (as Ted Wragg called it). The big political battles took place behind the scenes, with teams from Brown, Bush, the Security Council, Europe and other fiefdoms.
Democratic politics was marginalised during the Blair years. Tony Blair would have been stronger and more successful if he had fought Gordon Brown in an open contest for the Labour leadership; if he had engaged his party and the public in an open process of public sector reform; and if he had listened to the public on Iraq.

Of course there were many other areas of practical politics from which we can learn, including both positive changes, such as the peace process in Northern Ireland, devolution in Scotland and Wales, active support for the world’s poorest through DfID and the G8, the introduction of citizenship in schools and increased support for parents and children in the early years. But in many other areas we need to understand why so little progress was made, including issues of income inequality and social justice, health and well-being, drug and substance abuse, criminal justice, reform of parliament (including the upper house and voting systems), local government, pensions, PFI and the financial system, the Middle East, European Union and the marginalisation of the Labour Party itself. But these are now issues for a new generation of political activists, who need to study and learn from what actually happened before it becomes mythology.

Friday, 6 August 2010

What do you want to know about practical political education?

War is a failure of politics. Fifty five years after our governments dropped the first atomic bombs, killing almost quarter of a million civilians, warfare still kills, maims and terrorises millions. Humanity spent $1531 billion on the military last year, about 2.7 per cent of global income (GDP), 50 per cent more than 2000, and was involved in 17 major armed conflicts. Yet in much of the world, most of the time, most conflicts are resolved peacefully by political means. We replace our leaders through elections rather than revolt or execution. Countries change course through political clamour rather than the march of mercenaries. But violent conflict persists and many social problems seem little nearer to solution.

This Practical Politics blog aims to explore ways in which people can influence events and solve social problems. I am particularly interested in how the most powerless, marginalised and excluded people in society can have a more effective voice, on grounds of justice and because society will be better as a result. I also want to explore ways in which people can learn how to become better at doing politics.

Practical politics is about making things happen, from the micro-politics with a family, office or neighbourhood to the global politics of conflict, climate or trade. Many of the skills and strategies of practical politics apply to any level, while the specific knowledge and networks are very diverse. Both can be learnt, through experience as well as study. Politics is above all a practical art.

I’m taking a summer break to rest, write and support a new team of trainee community organisers, but I would welcome your comments on past blogs and suggestions for the kind of topics that would be most useful for the practice of politics by people who are not part of the political mainstream, and ways of enabling people to have a more effective voice. Please use the comment box below or email me at

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Cooperation for learning and empowered citizenship

As MPs debated the budget, Stephen Twigg, newly elected MP for Liverpool West Derby, hosted a reception for the Co-operative and Workers’ Education Association (WEA) to launch a new partnership to ‘help strengthen civil society, empower citizenship and strengthen democracy.’ John Hayes, MP for South Holland and The Deepings in Lincoln, and Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, proudly displayed his Co-op; membership card and spoke passionately about the importance of learning for a just and cohesive society. He spoke about a ladder of learning, for self-improvement and social mobility, and also for its own sake, enriching the fabric of life. “Community earning is at the heart of what this government is about.” Hayes pointed to a picture of Wilberforce, reminding us of his mission to abolish slavery, and said that he too was on a great mission to spread social justice through learning, and to help everyone fulfil their potential and be the best they can be. John Hayes recently responded to a letter from Democracy Matters and invited us to meet with him in mid-July, so we are hopeful about finding ways of strengthening learning for citizenship, despite the difficult financial times.

The WEA is a democratic membership organisation and the UK’s largest voluntary sector adult education provider, run through a voluntary movement of 450 branches as well as professional staff. The Co-op is also active in education, through the Co-operative College and numerous cooperative schools, as well as online resources for teaching citizenship, which I was not aware of. Many years ago I wrote a book on how to create ‘citizenship schools’, which included activities and ideas for making schools more democratic and empowering. I would love to work with schools on these issues again.

Events like these are perhaps more important for informal conversations and connections, so I came away with several opportunities for promoting learning for democracy and bringing people together round issues as diverse as monetary reform, economic democracy and citizesnhip.

Several people remarked – with a nod to the green screens and budget debate - that financial austerity will make closer cooperation and sharing of resources even more important. Coincidently, in today’s Education Guardian Michael Bichard writes about the obstacles to cooperation between local agencies – inflexible frameworks and funding, narrow targets, costly auditing procedures, and over-cautious governance. His point was that if cuts are to be fair, they need to involve people at the front line and that agencies need to work together to ensure that services are tailored to local and individual needs.

The renewed partnership between the Coop and WEA is long overdue and should lead to many fruitful and perhaps unexpected innovations to meet the needs of the diverse communities they work with. And significantly, both organisations have positioned themselves to make a positive contribution to the ‘Big Society’ philosophy of the Coalition Government. That’s political skill and astute understanding of what their members and customers want.
Titus Alexander

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A vision for practical political education

A few people make things happen, many watch what happens, and the rest don’t know what hit them: my vision for practical political education is that one day most people understand how the system works and make things happen to the solve political and social problems they face.
Political events like the budget, elections and party conferences involve intense lobbying by business, professions, major charities and other interests because they know the difference politics makes to them. Firms pay good money for lobbyists so that politicians and civil servants understand their industry and interests. Likewise, large charities, unions and pressure groups employ campaigners to make sure that their concerns are taken into account. They don’t always get their way – consider the cancellation of Heathrow’s third airport or the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters foundery – but their case will have been considered at a high level.

But many people barely know what’s happening until too late. Jobs come or go; local services improve, struggle or disappear; anti-social behaviour may be intolerable or invisible, but most people feel they can’t do much about anything.

People can, in fact, have more influence about issues than they realise. But it does take knowledge, skill and, above all, contacts. Being part of an organisation that shares your interests is often the key to making a difference. A lot of the information is fairly easy to find, and the skills can be learnt as you engage with the issue. But it takes organisation to involve people, engage your MP, the media and the people who decide what is to be done about your issue. It may not be easy, but taking action often means that your concerns are taken into account in some way, even if you don’t win everything you want.

My main point is that the more organised, powerful interests have more influence on what happens than the majority. In practice we do not live in a democracy, because most people did not vote for the Government (that’s just they way the electoral arithmetic works nowadays) and between elections people feel they have little effective power about anything.

But even without reform of the political system, there are many ways in which appropriate practical political education could help people have a more effective say. They need not be powerless.

So what would it look like?

1st, every community association, civic society, faith community, school governing body, housing association, parish council, local authority, chamber of commerce, trades council, Womens' Institute and other civic body sees the benefits of better political understanding and is not afraid to hold political discussions or even short courses about issues that affect their members and community and what to do about them;

2nd, learning providers, such as adult and community education services, the WEA, learndirect, unionlearn, further and higher education colleges, as well as libraries , museums , the Parliamentary Outreach service and even public services are willing to run practical workshops for people to understand what’s happening and how to influence decisions if they want. People can also find courses and tutors through The School of Everything.
3rd, government and the media encourage people to take part in practical political education, just as they have done for adult literacy or support for enterprise skills over the past 30 years. This would mean, for example, that government websites have a “Citizens Action" link:to advice and support on how to make a difference, including mysociety webtools to help them influence their elected representatives, just as many sites have “Business Advice: For business advice and support services visit Business Link. There would be media campaigns, like On The Move for adult literacy in the 1970s or the annual Adult Learners’ Week now.

To support this provision, every parish, town or district would have an independent “democracy hub” or “social action network” to support and promote this provision at a local level; university politics departments and organizations like the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, Citizens Organising Foundation, ACRE, WEA or NAVCA would train and support facilitators (tutors); and there would be conferences and fairs like Charity Week or Business Start Up at Earls Court where political education providers meet, promote new methods or materials, and develop their craft.

This provision would be paid for through a mixed economy, just as adult and community learning is today – part subsidized by local and national government, part funded through fees, and some sponsored by foundations, charities or companies. Public funding would play a significant role for people on low incomes, through Individual Learning Accounts and mainstream education provision.

Although practical political education is challenging for local and national governments, they support it because effective citizens can help to make better decisions and solve social problems faster. Community action could enable the political system get to grips with persistent problems like drug abuse, domestic violence, run-down estates, gross inequality, family breakdown and more. It would bring issues into the open sooner and test assumptions behind major decisions. And it would help to ensure that the poorest and most included in society could learn how to have and use their voice, so that political decisions take account of all citizens, not just those who can employ lobbyists.

This is an achievable vision: 30 years ago, adult literacy courses wre far and few between, often run by voluntary organisations or even taught by volunteers; now they are part of mainstream provision, available almost everywhere. Business training and support is almost unniversal, so that anyone who wants to set up a business can get advice, training and support to increase their chances of success.

Ten years from now anyone who wants to campaing about something, has an idea about how a public service can be improved, or is concerned about an injustice, or sees a threat to their community, should be able to get expertise adivce and learning to understand the issue, how the political system works, and what to do to make a diference.     
Titus Alexander

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Lessons from Young UpRising

UpRising is an inspiring leadership programme for young people aged 19 – 25 from diverse backgrounds in East London run by the Young Foundation. Last night about 50 young people celebrated a year of learning and campaigning at a reception on the 30th floor of Clifford Chance, overlooking the East End and Docklands. Bonnie Greer gave a passionate speech and a panel of young people reflected on their experiences, which were uplifting – read more about what they did here.
The UpRising programme develops practical political skills through seven elements
• monthly learning sessions
• a weekend residential at Roffey Park
• support and advice to set up a community campaign
• one-to-one mentoring
• learning visits
• networking events
• placements

Input is provided by a wide range of partners (I contributed a learning session earlier this year). The UpRising leadership programme was initiated by Rushanara Ali, then Associate Director of the Young Foundation and now MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

Reflecting on the programme, one participant said one of the most valuable elements was mutual support and making contacts within centres of power - "The high walls of the establishment are soft and ready for change."
The programme is recruiting for next year: to learn more email or call 020 8709 9029. A new programme is also being set up in Birmingham.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Open source national budgets: put a spot light onto the Star Chamber

The Prime Minister wants to carry out spending cuts (“deficit reduction”) in a way that “strengthens and unites the country” while the Treasury team promise to give the public a role in the process online and through public meetings. This could dramatically change the way Britain is run, so before the suggestion is smothered by cynicism, stifled by official caution or trampled on by the tough old boots of political realism, let’s encourage the Coalition to be bold and trust people to see the power struggles between the Treasury and spending departments.

So I have three suggestions:
  1. let cameras into the Star Chamber: it would make riveting viewing and transform people's understanding of politics.
  2. allow MPs to discuss the plans and budgets for each Department, through Select Committees and a substantial debate in the Commons Chamber
  3. encourage schools, colleges, local media and civil society associations of all kinds to involve people in the budget process.
Such breath-taking radicalism would show that people really are being offered an "invitation to take part in the Government of Britain."

The British Government was top of the league for financial transparency in 2008, according to the Open Budget Initiative, but may be over taken by President Obama’s commitment to “transparency, public participation, and collaboration", while the US Congress subjects Departmental budgets to more detailed scrutiny than the UK Parliament.

 The Government’s commitment to online consultation, public meetings and putting information into the public domain is welcome but not enough. We need active engagement of people in poor and marginalised communities, the users of public services as well as its staff. The Institute of Directors (IoD) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are actively lobbying on capital gains tax and pensions tax relief, while public sector unions are preparing to battle for their jobs, but many local communities will only notice when their taxes rise (probably through VAT), services disappear or charges increase. In many cases there may be cost-effective solutions, where local ingenuity, cooperation and haggling could create better way of doing things. Let government, business and the unions put their case to the people about the detail of spending, taxes and charges, and perhaps people can re-invent government for themselves.

Putting the Star Chamber under the spotlight of cameras will provoke public interest; providing detailed information online will enable greater understanding; scrutiny of Departmental budgets by Parliament increases opportunities to have a say; while encouraging discussion in the places where people meet could bring deeper, lasting change – and a powerful example of practical political education.

Titus Alexander

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The politics of footpaths

Most of us take footpaths for granted – unless we are disabled, or want to go on forbidden routes. My mother had a stroke last year and is totally dependent on others. This weekend we went to Bowhill Country Park near Selkirk so that she could see the magnificent rhododendron blossoms and my six-year old son could enjoy the adventure playground with the longest scariest slide I’ve ever seen.
Pushing her wheel chair round the loch among magnificent trees, reminded me of the campaigns for the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005 which mean that all service providers must take reasonable steps to give disabled people access to facilities, including the countryside.  In many cases this would not be commercially viable, particularly as many wheelchair users like my mother only pay a concessionary rate, but the law overrides commercial considerations and has opened up many places, buses and trains to wheelchair users as well as baby buggies. We could get my mother's wheelchair into a taxi, take her to the circus and enjoy the countryside in a way that would have been almost impossible ten or 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago I visited Berkley California and was stuck by how many wheelchair users there were in the streets. I wondered where they came from, until someone told me about the Independent Living movement started by Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-dependent people in the 1960s. In Britain wheelchair users were almost prisoners in their own homes, barred by steep steps, narrow doors and inaccessible loos, and you hardly saw them.

Anyone who thinks politics is unimportant should consider the difference which campaigning has made to basic things like wheelchair access to facilities which able-bodied people take for granted.

Long campaigns for wheelchair access, for freedom to roam the open countryside, public footpaths and protection of rights of way are all part of the complex politics of footpaths which improve everyday life for all.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

How to help politicians work for you

They come into office promising to be our servants, but soon the pressure of events, inertia of institutions and more powerful forces take over. They work for you, but they can’t read your mind and many others are also making demands. You need to get to know them, let them know what you want and show them how you can help them win bigger battles for a better society.

Now is the time for citizens, community groups and activists to connect with their elected representatives in the Town Hall and Parliament. All professional lobbyists, journalists, campaigners and interest groups will be doing the same, but constituents have one powerful advantage: the vote. Politicians are elected to represent you. Most want to do good for their constituents (it helps their career and gives them an independent base). If there are strong local feelings about an issue some politicians will even defy the party line to support their constituents.

Many years ago I was secretary of a community resources centre, in an old church hall near the centre of a Conservative-run town. We were seen as a hot-bed of radicals, hosting the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), Communist Party Jumble Sales, lesbian discos and a thriving punk rock scene. In fact, most of what we did was to support a flourishing mainstream community sector - printing neighbourhood news letters, providing meeting space and encouraging self-help groups across town. Then one day a newly elected Conservative Councillor asked to rent our rather small, shabby little meeting room for surgeries. Some regarded the Council with deep suspicion and Conservatives as the enemy, but after much debate we agree that the Councillor had a democratic right to hire a room and be available to constituents. Not many came, so we had plenty of time to talk with him. We argued for pedestrianisation of the town centre, cycle lanes, gay rights, smoke-free rooms in pubs and much else. We rarely agreed, but it was a political education on both sides. So when fellow Councillors attacked the resource centre in the Council Chamber, he defended us on the grounds of freedom and when National Front supporters burnt the building down he was first on the scene to offer support.

Sine then I’ve worked with politicians from many parties. Most want the best for their area, people and the country, but with very different convictions about what that means. Most have been willing to listen to a well-made case, and some have changed their minds and even reversed a decision as a result of persistent, patient efforts. Those in power, of whatever party, are more likely to stick to their guns and defend the settled view of their government. But show and tell a politician something that makes a difference or solves a problem about which their view is not yet settled, and they will be your greatest champion. Indeed, if politicians see or hear something that fits their agenda, it may be trumpeted as government policy and rolled out before you know it. Then you watch your cherished project mangled by the political and civil service machine, puffed up in speeches and ground down in bureaucratic detail. So be careful what you wish for, because politicians are more pliable than you might think.

And these early days are the right time to make a good impression and create a warm, working relationship, whatever your polictical differences. Officials provide politicians with data and plans about how to carry out their manifesto commitments and respond to problems. But politicians also depend on the public, pressure groups and the media for information about what matters to people, what can be done about problems and additional information or different interpretations of the data.

So here are some questions and suggestions for things you can do to help them work for you:

Who matters most?
First, who matters most? If you are active in your community, a campaigner or you work for a voluntary organisation, you probably know where your most important political relationships are, but I only found out by accident after several years as a community activist, so here are a few questions to help find out who could help you most:

a) where do your funds come from, who decided what you get, and who makes the policy about how that is made available?

b) which departments or agencies influences the demand and nature of your work?

c) which departments or agencies may have an indirect influence on your work or concerns, such as the Treasury, health, welfare or education.

And d) who do you think might simply be sympathetic to what you do.

Sometimes it is obvious where the main relationship will be, but often you can get more leverage by working with another agency that is indirectly connected to your issue. For example, if you work on domestic violence you main point of contact my be Social Services, but the police, Primary Care Trust and Treasury could all have more influence on what happens. The big investment in Sure Start under the Labour government was a result of someone in the Treasury recognising the long-term benefits of investing in the early years.

Don’t under-estimate the role of chance and personal chemistry in changing a politician’s point of view: who would have thought that Iain Duncan Smith would become a champion of social justice as a result of visiting Easterhouse Estate with Christian Socialist Bob Holman?

Then think about specific ways in which local or national government may help or hinder your work (see 2nd point in previous post, on 17 May). Even if you have no current concerns, it is still useful to develop a relationship with your councillors, MPs and MSPs (Scotland), MLAs (Wales) or MEPs: see About Your Representative for the kind of things they can help you with.

These questions will help you decide who may be particularly useful, in terms of their position in the Council or Government, but don’t neglect your constituency MP, councillors, MSPs, MLA or AM

Find out who is who by looking at the membership of relevant council committees on your Council's website, who are the relevant government Ministers or membership of select committees in Parliament.

Find your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs at and find out more about your MPs interests, views, voting record and who funds them at They Work for You

Remember that it is also important to make constructive relationships with permanent officials and MP’s staff, including Special Advisers who act as sounding boards for Ministers.

Make your position clear
Second, look at how you communicate your core messages about who you are, why you exist, what do, what you offer and what want from others. Many groups and campaigns have lots so much information it overwhelms newcomers, so look at everything again through the eyes of an outsider and the new political class. Go through current leaflets, brochures, documents and your website, weeding out jargon, unnecessary words and language addressed to the previous political regime.

If you don’t have a campaign summary, create a page or two to tell people where you are coming from and where you are going, including:

• why you exist: the problems you address and/or opportunities you create

• what you do, illustrated by a story or picture as well as relevant numbers if possible

• evidence of benefits: what you have achieved and any costed benefits to society

• where you work or who you work with, particularly if you cover a well-defined area or group

• how you came about: your story as a campaign or organisation

• who you are: people, including volunteers, prominent supporters and head person, governing body or executive

• how you are resourced, including funding, voluntary effort and gifts in kind

• what you want: a short specific statement of what you want from government or others: be specific about who has the power and what you want them to do

• potential benefits: what could be achieved as a result of getting what you want

• endorsements: quotes from supporters and beneficiaries

Include in it a one-line summary or slogan to communicate your main purpose or create curiosity.

A short campaign brief or position statement like this is as important for your own people and supporters as for politicians, but it should be seen as a reminder of your main messages, rather than as a means communication – for that you need to speak in person with whoever you want to influence.

Build on common ground – particularly if you are far apart
Third, think about the most positive way to start a relationship with politicians, particularly if you think they have very different views or oppose what you feel strongly about: they work for you and can represent your views, even when they disagree with them (and you could even win them round). You would never start a relationship with an employee by attacking them or making aggressive demands before you meet.

It is almost always more effective to show people something, where they can see, hear and speak with people involved in the issues you care about, so if you can organise a visit, tour or event to which they can come, so much the better. Politicians like to be useful, so give them something to do, like cut a ribbon, launch a project or book, give prizes, give a talk, debate with young people, plant a tree – the more memorable and distinctive the better, but it has to be a positive memory, with a photo opportunity if possible.

Thinks about what you can offer them: every organisations has unique insights and experience which can help a politicians understand an issue. Human stories are often more powerful than dry facts, but back up your stories with powerful, memorable evidence. Many MPs rely on voluntary organisations or even pressure groups for information on specific issues – but you must be reliable, or they will never trust you again. Once they trust you, they will ask you for evidence or arguments when your issues come up, invite you to meetings or advisory groups, all of which can help further your cause. You may also be able to help them speak with constituents they would otherwise have difficulty reaching – think of the popularity of mumsnet before the election.

Don’t be dishonest, flatter to deceive or conceal your views if you have genuine differences, but start by seeking common ground and building bridges rather than barricades. If Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists can work together in a coalition government, then anything is possible in practical politics.

Even for a relatively small organisation, it is worth creating up a database of contacts with politicians and officials you deal with. Keep them informed of what you do, invite them to functions, tell them when you agree with something they’ve said or done, and they will be much more likely to hear when you disagree with them and take action for you when you need them.

But above all, keep sight of your purpose and the reason why you want to politicians to understand what you are about, and empower your members and supporters by sharing this information with them.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Responding creatively to the deficit

Some people make things happen, some watch what happens,  while many just don't know what hit them. Community groups and campaigns are about making things happen, which is what practical political education and this blog are about.

One urgent issue facing many communities and learning providers now are the coming cuts in public spending. I've been through many rounds of sharp cuts in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, on both sides of the cutting table, so here are a few hard-won survival tips that may be useful now.

My experience of cuts goes back to the mid 1970s when the IMF imposed spending cuts and I was a young, part-time adult / community education tutor and member of the university trade union anti-cuts committee. The cuts united blue and white collar workers on campus for the first time and we met with Shirley Williams, Secretary of State for Education, to stop cuts to the university budget. She listened intensely and described her dilemma of choosing between schools, colleges and universities. The universities won back some cash, but £1m went to the famous adult literacy campaign, On the Move: which goes to show that in the midst of cuts there can be creativity.

In the early 1980s, I lived and worked in the privatising borough of Wandsworth. Comrades on the Trades Council observed that those unions which engaged with the Council over cuts and contracts often gained more than those who went for outright opposition. I was also part of a community study group which compared spending and services in Wandsworth and Lambeth, looking at the complexity of the issues behind the headlines: more money did not always mean more or better services, but small p politics made a big difference in who got what.

After 1986, I was on the other side, as a senior manager for adult education in the ILEA, making deep cuts year after year. It was a terrible, shameful time. Endless large meetings of numerous full-time staff hammered out the criteria and processes for cutting classes by part-time tutors. Looking back, we could have cut management jobs without reducing services for the community. This was one of many times I’ve seen public sector managers subtract value when greater creativity and closer involvement of the community could have aaded value, despite the cuts. It is not easy to see what matters from the inside, when you are working flat out, doing what you believe is right. But self-interest is a powerful distorting lense. Professionals naturally believe they know what's best for people (and sometimes they do), but spending cuts should not be decided by a battle between professionals (managers and tutors in this case). In a democracy we are accountable to the people and a strong, independent Board representing learners and the community could have done a better job, but they relied on us as managers for advice on what to do.

Then in the 1990s I shared responsibility for community education in a London borough. Every year we had to offer up cuts of 10, 20 or even 25%. Then my whole team was made redundant. A few survived by creatively changing what they offered and how it was funded, but most went on to do other things. We all flourished in different ways. It wasn’t the end of the world. Although my income dropped by more than half, the freedom of self-employment brought its own rewards so that in real terms I was better off.

Throughout this time I was involved in community projects or campaigns, at different times seeking funds for new projects and trying to get services to address race equality, the needs of parents, the environment, international development or other issues.

So the following points draw on wide experience of public spending cuts.

A tale of cuts foretold
We’ve known cuts are coming for over a year. In March Alistair Darling warned that Labour’s cuts will be "deeper and tougher" than Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said Britain faces "two parliaments of pain" to repair the state's finances, with hefty tax rises and spending cuts of 25% until 2017.

Now we know there at least £6bn will be cut this year, an emergency Budget in June and deeper cuts from 1 April 2011. We have been well and truly warned, so now we can prepare.

So what to do?
Spending cuts redistribute roles and responsibilities as well as resources within organisations and sectors as well as between services. Whether this is good or bad depends on how they’re done. Usually some groups suffer while others prosper. During the 1980s, unemployment soared, inequality widened, public services crumbled and almost a generation of young and old were hit particularly hard. But that doesn’t have to happen.

Britain is the world’s sixth richest country. We waste a lot, including many talents of our people, energy, food and the environment by mis-using resources. We need to be more frugal and equitable to live responsibly on this finite planet, where most people live on less than €2 a day, thirty times less than in the UK. We have room for manover.

All public spending decisions are political battles about how to create and distribute income. At times of financial constraint we all need to look more deeply at what, why and how the state does things. This is a chance to stop doing things that cause harm and find better ways of doing good. Defending the status quo is not an option, because saving one thing means sacrificing something else. With an annual short-fall of £163bn, some taxes have to rise, some spending has to go, and many things have to be done differently or not at all. We can choose whether to be part of the decision-making process and promote our priorities, or leave it to someone else and cope with the consequences.

The following tips and questions may help you respond to the deficit. The questions are most relevant for community and voluntary organisations which get some public funds, but they may also be useful for public service users, staff and governing bodies.

1st, Be very clear and precise about your own purpose and priorities:
- What is most important to you, as a person, for your organisation, and as a citizen?
- Does everything your organisation does meet your purpose and priorities, or are there things it could stop doing?
- What do you want from state spending, for yourself, your organisation, the people you serve and the country? Are there things which could benefit from being done differently (or not being done at all)?

2nd, How could spending cuts, tax rises or innovation affect your purpose and priorities?
Speding cuts could affect communities and the voluntary sector in many different ways, such as:
- increased demand for help, if more people loose their jobs, get into debt, loose their home, become depressed, turn to crime, get into drugs, families break up, etc;
- an increase or reduction in volunteers or activists able to do something;
- a cut the income available from public or private sources;
-  or an increase in income for grants or contracts to meet specific needs in your community or area of work;
- greater competition or cooperation between individuals or organisations;
- they may stimulate innovation, so that new organisations or technologies emerge which do what you do better, more easily or more cheaply;
Look carefully at what is actually happening in your area of work and how spending cuts could affect it; what are the threats and opportunities for your priorities? Tax rises may also have negative or positive effects on what you do, so you need to look at these as well.

3rd, Be pro-active: don’t wait – find out what might happen, prepare thoroughly and take the initiative.
- Study the thinking and planning in government and agencies that affect your work, purpose and priorities, including the manifestos of the political parties locally and nationally, influential think-tanks, and national pressure groups.
- If you get and want to continue getting public funding, look at which public spending priorities it meets (these are currently expressed by local priorities of the Council, Local Strategic Plan, and Primary Care Trust or national priorities, as set out in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement, and  Public Service Agreements (PSA) indicators (bearing in mind they could be modified or scrapped).
- Join or form coalitions with others who share your purpose and priorities, both locally and nationally;
- Build links across sectors, with trade unions as well as local business, grassroots community activists as well as public services: although you have different interests, priorities and ways of doing things, you probably have a shared interest in wanting the best for your area and may find creative ways of doing things better;
- Get to know and stay in touch with your local councillors, officials and Members of Parliament, make sure they know, understand and support what you do (Contact your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs through Write to Them)
- Identify possible spending cuts or tax rises which would help your cause, because this could relieve pressure to cut or raise taxes elsewhere: for example, cutting subsidies or increasing taxes on pollution or anti-social behaviour could raise revenue and create benefits.
- Look for ways you could do more for less and meet needs more creatively.
- If you represent a coalition or people who could be seriously affectived by the budget, prepare a detailed budget submission to make your case for specific areas of spending, cuts tax rises, tax cuts or innovation, and get it to the people making the decisions which affect you (see next point) as soon as possible.
- Don't get sucked into competition with the public sector: co-operation can serve the public better if we focus on meeting needs, using resources better and enabling people to take control over their lives.
- Campaign for your specific aims and priorities, not against cuts: be specific about its benefits and how it contributes to the objectives of the government, department or agency the funding comes from.
The coalition government has made a lot of progressive commitments, which you

4th, Get as close as you can to the cutting table: for every budget line there is an official and politician responsible who will make the incision. Find out who they are, what pressures are on them, what are their interests and priorities, and how could you help: they may welcome pressure to defend things they also believe in.

All spending cuts involve a twin track - the big, broad headline decisions at a national or town-hall level, or the specific details which affect your area. It is worth keeping an eye on both, but focusing on the one which will have most effect on what you do. National alliances and pressure groups can focus on the big picture, but they are also stronger when they draw on local activists and examples. At a local level it is often easier to know who is actually making decisions and to be creative about where the money comes from. For example, if health spending is ring-fenced, then look at the health benefits of your work and you could get extra funding from the Primary Care Trust. For example, during the 1980s, local authorities cut youth services but some police forces funded activities for young people because they helped with crime prevention. Be creative.

Several sets of officials and politicians are usually involved in any specific decision:
- a service manager, politicians or a voluntary board directly involved, usually cutting under pressure from above;
- senior figures locally or nationally who set the budget for services, including the one that concerns you
- Finance Department or Treasury which imposes the overall budget on everyone and tries to balance the books, and the new Office of Budget Responsibility which will provide independent analysis of public spending..

5th, be creative: there are many different ways of meeting the threat of cuts – fight, flight or insight:
you can
- defend the status quo
- propose alternative cuts and or tax rises
- diversify or seek alternative funding
- do things differently

A ‘whole systems’ approach to improving public services while often reducing costs by putting users at the centre and empowering staff to respond to demand. For more details visit The Systems Thinking Review or read John Seddon's book, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, or The Illusion of Control from SOLACE.

6th, always have a fall back (or two): when seas are rough, fisher folk mend their nets

What’s your contingency plan if your budget is cut completely? Do you seek a merger, go completely voluntary, pull back to a tiny core of self-funding activities or develop new, income-generating activities?
If you re-trench, how can you retain and develop the skills, tacit knowledge, relationships and potential to grow again when things improve.

7th, take people with you: when you have difficult choices to make, let people know what’s happening, set out the options and criteria for making difficult decisions (whether it is to a fight a particular cut or to pass it on), and invite innovation.

Austerity is often a time of innovation. Now is the time to find new, better, smarter ways of doing things. Even without the deficit, demand for public spending is rising – decent pensions for all, support for carers, health care and many tough social problems urgently need more attention. Ultimately the only way to make the money go round is to use it smarter. That's how we make things happen, even at a time of spending cuts.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Welcome to the Unofficial Ministry of Practical Political Education

We accept David Cameron’s invitation to join the Government of Britain as an Unofficial Ministry of Practical Political Education (UMOPPE, may be pronounced umph). The Ministry will not take any party line, but will be guided by Nolan’s seven principles of public life as essential elements of practical politics: accountability, honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, openness and selflessness , as well as the six principles of practical political education:

1. pragmatic: start from where people are and help them achieve what they want;

2. pluralistic in funding, forms of provision, content and values

3. participative to develop confidence, communication skills and critical thinking

4. practical, to include techniques, knowledge and analysis relevant to active politics

5. peaceful: all violence is a failure of politics

6. pro-poor: prioritise provision for individuals and areas on low incomes.

Society benefits from effective participation by all citizens in the political process. When some groups are excluded or neglected, their difficulities may become a burden on society or erupt in violence. The better off can pay for lobbyists, campaigners and pressure groups to promote their interests, but the poor, marginalised and disaffected also need an effective voice. Learning how to organise as citizens and influence decision is therefore essential for a truly democratic society.

David Cameron has said he will be honest about what government can achieve and that “real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future.”

People are more likely to be fired up when there is hope and real potential to make a difference, or when there is anger, a sense of injustice.

Three simple things which government can do to enable people to mobilise effectively are to:
  1. encourage and fund adult, community, further and informal education providers to run accessible and affordable practical political education so that all citizens can understand how the system works, get their voice heard and influence decisions;
  2. support community organisations, learning providers and local authorities set up local, independent ‘democracy hubs’ to provide information, training and support for effective participation in decision-making at all levels (thus carrying out the Duty to Promote Democracy in a more creative and cost effective ways);
  3. encourage all civil servants to become “civic servants”, in the words of the Conservative Party manifesto, so that they can respond positively to challenges from citizens and provide independent, impartial advice on how citizens can influence the political process better.

We welcome David Cameron’s letter to the Democracy Matters Alliance at the start of the election, and we will following this up with national and local government in due course (watch this space).

Meanwhile, I suggest three priorities for civil society and community educators over the coming year:

  1. find creative and imaginative ways of helping local communities and vulnerable groups to really understand what’s happening and learn how to influence decisions about spending, saving, taxation and innovation in services that concern them; 
  2. work together to share experience, skills, knowledge and learning materials to improve practical political education, using this website as a resource centre;  
  3. re-think assumptions and pre-conceptions and look carefully at what is actually happening, listen carefully to what people are actually feeling; and study how our global political economy actually works, in your local area, region or nation, the UK, Europe and across the world.
The UK is the world’s sixth richest country. It is not short of money. We spend more on pets and entertainment than most countries can spend on food, health care and education. The question is, how do we as a society create wealth, raise taxes and distribute income in ways that everyone can flourish without wasting our planet. These are difficult political questions, about which all citizens can have a say.

This Unofficial Ministry of Practical Political Education has no paid staff, head quarters, budgets or targets. We rely on the collective effort and inspiration of our members to make things happen – with added umph. But we are very happy to be an unruly and responsible part of the Government of Britain.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fixing our broken politics

Voters didn’t trust any party to govern alone and have sent MPs back to fix our broken political system. But it will take time to learn how to govern when no party has total control, and longer to sort out our constitution. Meanwhile, the City threatens to overrule the electorate. Our archaic voting system can’t compete with the constant poll of fund managers who promise retribution on any government which does not bow to their demands. As John Cridland, CBI deputy-director general, has warned “we are not in control of our destiny.”

So how can we gain control of our destiny, if at all?

Adair Turner, head of the Financial Service Authority, pointed out that “British citizens will be burdened for many years with either higher taxes or cuts in public services because of an economic crisis … cooked up in trading rooms where … many people earned annual bonuses equal to a lifetime’s earning of some of those now suffering the consequences.”

This election has pushed our voting system up the political agenda, but it is only one of many flaws in our democratic systems. The unaccountable power of finance is perhaps the greatest of these. Most people and politicians don’t really know how it works, so we also need to understand it better. At a local level, most of our public institutions and neighbourhoods are largely unaccountable to the people they serve – a theme of David Cameron’s Big Society which deserves more attention than it got – while local government is largely remote and unresponsive; the relationship between nations, regions and great cities of the United Kingdom is fractured and unstable; while the governance of Europe and the world cannot cope with the urgent demands of global interdependence. These are all important themes for practical politics and this blog.

We are at the foothills of immense constitutional change. Devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London started the process at home, while the Maastricht Treaty, WTO, UN Millennium Summit and G20 have begun a slow movement to a new global settlement. Although the surging economic strength of China, India and Brazil will play a bigger role in this settlement than our domestic politics, whom we send to the World Bank, IMF, Bank of International Settlements, UN Security Council and other institutions of global governance matters, because the UK still has a seat at the top table. Our broken politics will not be fixed until we also address the accountability of the City and financial system, which will ultimately be done through global agreement.

Who we send to represent us in global politics is decided by whoever commands the British Parliament.

So first I want to reflect on the general election result of 2010. It is as if people have sussed that one party rule makes governments arrogant and unresponsive. The system that gave us a one party state supported by less than a quarter of the electorate is bust. The old politics of arithmetic, in which numbers were added up to anoint an elected dictatorship, in Lord Hailsham’s famous phrase, are over. Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia  described our electoral system as immoral, a travesty worse than the expenses scandal. Many groups have come together in a movement to ‘take back parliament. The call for democratic reform has come alive again.

Some still hark for “strong, decisive government”, forgetting the many costly mistakes made by every government in its exercise of sovereign power. All parties are covert coalitions. The confident front of collective leadership always hides dirty deals between party factions – over Europe, electoral reform, pensions, unions and more. A multi-polar parliament moves the veil out from the internal politics of the ruling party and civil service out to a wider arena of inter-party politics. This is still far from open democracy, but it should lead to better decision-making as the assumptions of one party are tested against another. Our political leaders are at least talking to each other, testing how their mandates from the people and political philosophy can work together to fix our political system and govern effectively at the same time. But all members of parliament should also be involved in this process before too long.
Those of us far outside the charmed circles of inter-party politics have an important role in fixing our broken political system:

- join the movement to Take Back Parliament: sign up, protest in Parliament Square, London, from 2pm on Saturday 15th May, and get involved in the debate about constitutional reform (or learn more about it if you are unconvinced);

- encourage people to get involved in practical politics, through a party, pressure group or campaign to make sure the politics system addresses issues that concern you;

- and join the dots between our local politics and the global system.

Voters who didn’t trust any party to govern alone cannot walk away and leave MPs to clean up the mess. We all share a responsibility to fix our broken political system. Whatever issues we care about, from traffic in our neighbourhood to democratic deficit in the absolute power of money markets over elected governments, we cannot sort them out through a broken politics.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Campaign for electoral reform

No sooner had the polls closed than Unlock Democracy, POWER2010, Vote for a Change and a host of other organisations launched a petition for electoral reform, at, and a rally at Trafalgar Square at 2pm on Saturday 8 May. Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy (and a member of the Democracy Matters Alliance) is hopeful: “The good news is, while the election result has never been more ridiculous, we've never had a better chance to change it. No politician can now pretend that our voting system is in any way defensible; we just have to make sure now that they can no longer pretend it isn't an issue.”

Seizing the moment is key to practical politics.

Why learn practical politics?

Now is the time to learn practical politics, because that’s how we the people will get the government we deserve.

What actually happens after this election depends on a ceaseless dance between money markets, government departments, parliament, press, business, pressure groups, new technology, chance and us, the citizens. There are dire predictions of austerity, savage cuts to public services, double dip recession and soaring unemployment. But it needn’t be that way. Everything depends on political decisions yet to come.

Britain is the world’s sixth richest country. How we create and distribute poverty or wealth depends on political decisions.

As a new government emerges from its party chrysalis to take the wings of power, let’s remember that most people voted for other parties, that it does not represent the country, and that a great deal of detailed decision-making remains to be done.

Citizens can have a more effective say in what happens, if they know how the system works and have the confidence, contacts and persistence to influence decisions.

This blog will reflect on events, social problems and campaigns to learn how all citizens, including the most marginalised and disenfranchised, can have a stronger and more effective voice in how the country is run.