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Politicians must engage and empower communities

The annual party political conference season is upon us once again. There has been and will be much talk and many warm words about the importance of communities, the value of voluntary action and the contribution of the voluntary and community sector (VCS). The words echo around all the conference halls, although there will be significant differences between the parties in what speakers expect them to mean and how the words can be translated into practical policy.

It is vital that politicians across the political spectrum recognise the need to be unambiguous about the words they use to discuss and even to exclaim the role of community in social and economic advance; and the VCS’s roles as the voice of communities and society, and providers of services – both contracted and otherwise, and advocates for change.

It is equally important that politicians respect the independence of the sector and its right to challenge privilege, public policy and injustice. These roles and rights are vital to a strong civil society and to ensure progress.

The contemporary political discourse about localism, decentralisation and economic growth all too often seemingly omits or downplays the importance of growing social capital and the contribution communities can and should make towards these wider agendas. This has to change. This autumn’s party conferences ought to have provided the platforms for this – but have they?

Political renewal is essential too. There is a great deal of (perhaps, too much) cynicism about and dismissal of the power and importance of politics across the country and across ages and social cohorts. This has to be recognised by national and local politicians and they have to understand it in order to address it. The recent political energy in the Scottish referendum and general election, and in the Labour leadership contest, is surely to be welcomed? They share much in common with the non-party based political activism on issues such as the environment, international development and human rights. They also seem to me to have much in common with the historic tradition of community social action over the decades and centuries. A modern democracy requires a vibrant civil society and social action.

“A genuine localist agenda has to be about empowering communities as much as it is about transferring power, authority and resources from Whitehall”

We need political and social action to challenge privilege, inequality of wealth and power and centralised power. And to champion change and empowerment.

In their attempts at renewal, political parties should consider the community as their base and starting point. Top-down controlling politics is out of step with contemporary thinking and where people feel themselves to be. It also has to embrace new technologies including social media, and resonate with modern thinking and modern behaviours.

A genuine localist agenda has to be about empowering communities as much as it is about transferring power, authority and resources from Whitehall. It should be about Whitehall to town hall to village and community hall – and actually to communities.

Political parties need to be active in these communities, though they should never dominate them to the exclusion of other voices. They need to engage with trade unions inside the workplace too. They need to be responsive to the local as well as the national political mood. They have to lead but also listen and react.

It would be fantastic if this approach were to have been debated and pursued across the current round of party conferences. Better still if political leaders and politicians were willing to share some of their power with communities. In so doing, I am confident they would strengthen their credibility.

It is my firm belief that if we are ever going to be a fairer, more equal and economically successful country, it will be necessary to have a strong but smart state, greater devolution and localism to accountable elected bodies, empowered communities and an active VCS engendering social action and building social resilience. We need both state and social action, collaborating and complementing each other. Progressive politicians should recognise this more than anyone.

Democratic accountability has to be the dominant factor and this means elected politicians taking and being accountable for decisions such as law making, taxation and resource allocation. Wise politicians will wish to build alliances across civil society to support their decision making and strengthen their accountability. In turn, one hopes that civil society will be willing and able to respond through campaigning, organising and challenging as well as collaborating.

As the political landscape and political parties change, it is vital that it takes place in neighbourhoods as much as in Westminster and council chambers. The reality is politics requires strong communities, and strong communities require value driven, effective and authentic politicians.

I feel a change is happening and those that recognise, shape and respond positively will be the ones that deserve to flourish. It must not be more of the same old, staid, stale centralist politics. I sense that not all the parties will recognise this subtle point in the same way or at the same time. Such issues could, therefore, be key to the 2020 general election.

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