Despite a bounce following the loss of the last general election, Labour’s membership, like that of all the major parties, continues to be an issue of real concern.
Just over one per cent of the British population are members of political parties, one of the lowest rates in Europe. Meanwhile, campaigning organisations such as Oxfam and Amnesty International continue to reap the benefits of 21st century global communication technology to harvest millions of supporters.
I became involved in local politics after returning from working and living in Syria, where meetings of over four people had to request permission from an authoritarian government whose rule has now turned into a bloody civil war. I felt a responsibility to involve myself in politics and take advantage of our political freedoms as I’d witnessed firsthand the realities of an undemocratic alternative.
Yet beyond the real issues that I’ve met on the doorstep and within the council chamber, a more existential problem, I believe, is the sense of apathy towards politics and distrust towards politicians. Addressing the increasing disconnection between our democratic systems and its participants is therefore a critical issue that I believe organisations like Progress can play a key role in addressing.
The Progress campaigns on Labour primaries, High Speed Two and the myriad ideas within The Purple Book have attracted the attention of audiences beyond the political bubble. The strategy board is an excellent new idea that can bring in a host of new perspectives and capacity for Progress to significantly expand its campaigning remit.
One of the key lessons I’ve learnt as a councillor is how important an imaginative and connected approach is to translate campaigning on issues into political realities. Gang crime, for example, is a significant challenge in Kilburn, and in Brent we’ve worked to bring together a platform made up of safer neighbourhood teams, neighbourhood watches, residents’ associations, councillors from neighbouring wards in addition to parliamentarians and London assembly members to discuss and action a more holistic approach to the problem. We’ve also looked to connect to local and national media to highlight both issues and actions.
Normal residents are often unaware of the overlapping bureaucratic and jurisdictional labyrinth that surrounds local services and how it connects all the way up to national politics. This is, I believe, an untapped space for Progress to host new thinking on how Labour councillors, traditionally seen as the ‘frontline’ of the party’s politicians, can be used to drive a membership campaign nationally. Connecting bigger picture national issues to local party organisations can energise the base and drive a focus on improving the health of Labour’s democratic mandate.
Showing how Labour councils are different on issues as diverse as the living wage, affordable housing, recycling rates and quality public services, while highlighting the hypocrisy within large parts of the government’s localism and ‘big society’ agenda can harness a growing public anger as to the direction in which the country is travelling.
I realise that I have posed more questions than I have answered in this piece, but hope that I have set out the kind of vibrant democratic horizon for which I believe we should be aiming. Put simply, radical thinking on addressing Britain’s democratic deficit can give a better purpose and direction to our politics and, if elected to the Progress strategy board, I will fully commit myself to this purpose.
James Denselow is a candidate in the councillors’ section in the Progress strategy board elections 2012. You can find out more about all the candidates at the dedicated Progress strategy board election microsite
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