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.