By Gillian Klein
Where better than the House of Commons for Practical Politics: Lessons in power and democracy to make its first appearance? Hot off the press, it was delivered to its author, Titus Alexander, in the Gladstone Room. Titus was running a seminar on Skills for democracy, which he’d organized in preparation for the World Forum for Democracy 2016, a global satellite event in Strasbourg this November.
Beneath the dark, imposing portraits of powerful men that adorn the splendid chamber, the first three speakers expressed their concern over the disappearance of Citizenship Education from the curriculum and from schools. James Weinberg of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield identified problems of CE’s definition and delivery, the dearth of subject specialists, confused purpose, and the post-16 education reforms that had so diminished the status of Citizenship in schools.
There were currently no real opportunities in schools for discussion of events such as Brexit, said David Kerr of University of Reading. He had helped write the Crick Report that was intended to enshrine Citizenship Education in secondary schools – but now, he told us, Citizenship is no longer even mentioned by Ofsted.
David Blunkett, Education Secretary from 1997 to 2001, observed that ‘we are at a moment when democracy is very fragile’, linking Trump, Putin and Boris Johnson with the anti-government movement across the world. A movement that’s ‘dangerous’, he said, because it doesn’t set out a programme of political involvement. Lord Blunkett called on universities to instigate outreach programmes, and to mobilise people who want to know and debate current events and politics that affect their lives. He wants to educate for political involvement right through life, to involve ‘the BBC and people here’ – and he’s fulsomely endorsed Practical Politics.
The mood of disappointment departed with Lord Blunkett. And I could swear I saw the richly garbed grandees in the paintings shift in their ornate frames and stare in amazement at the next speaker to stand up on the platform. Samira Musa of Bite the Ballot took a different line: ‘if we take politics to young people, they get involved’. Using games like DeCafe and Verto, launched before the mayoral election, young people have found the skills needed for democracy.
CEO of the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) Ruth Spellman showed that the venerable organization is radical still when she remarked in passing that it is women who are the ‘educators in the home’. The foundation of democracy, she said, is about ‘enabling people to think for ourselves and make decisions about the lives we want’. She too calls for political literacy in the curriculum, but seeks to reach people in their place of work.
Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, spoke about this charity dedicated to campaigning – currently against fracking in Yorkshire. The Foundation offers training in campaigning at a time when knowledge is so lacking about parliamentary process and about how change happens. Campaigning has become seen as a problem – ‘the government has had a chilling effect’. Next, Sarah Allan described the way people work at Involve – ‘not the gut-reaction of focus groups but deliberative engagement in community policing, juries, participatory budgeting’. Involve offers both resources and mentoring to enable civic participation.
Ashok Viswanathan deputy director of OBV (Operation Black Vote) since 1996, works for 1. Political education; 2. Political participation – getting the vote out; and 3. Political representation. OBV has long had a Shadowing scheme, first of MPs, then the Shadowing Justice scheme where hundreds of ‘shadows’ have themselves become magistrates.
Rosemary Bechler, openDemocracy Editor, gave us ten good reasons to support the agenda presented in Titus’s preparatory seminar for the World Democracy Forum – where his book will be launched. She introduced 10 of the 70 young people (50 of them female) whose videos oD is presenting to the WDF in a Citizen’s Newsroom. They describe their battles against inequality and injustice in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Argentina, Malaysia to Serbia. There is nothing better than ‘voice’, she said, for ‘encountering the Other in all its glory’. Here indeed, in one, admittedly grand room in the House of Commons, was a model of Practical Politics in the different voices, telling us, albeit briefly, what they care about and are striving to change.
Which gives you a flavour of what Titus Alexander means by ‘Practical Politics’. He is part of – a voice for – a groundswell of people, most but not all of them young, who believe that political literacy and practical democracy can help them make the choices that will shape their lives.
Titus Alexander is founder of Democracy Matters and a Fellow of the Bernard Crick Centre for Understanding Politics at Sheffield University.
Practical Politics: Lessons in power and democracy by Titus Alexander, published 1st November 2016 by Trentham Books at UCL IOE Press