Tuesday, 15 February 2011
Citizens UK and the myth of consensus politics
According to its website, Citizens UK is “the primary broad-based organising movement in Britain and Ireland", enabling "communities to work together for the common good.”
Inspired by Chicago thinker Saul Alinsky, the group has a solid achievement to its name in the form of the Living Wage Campaign, which has to-date pulled over 6,500 families out of working poverty. In the UK over 13 million people live in poverty - around one in five. The campaign calls for every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life. An important part of the campaign has been to highlight the fact that it's not simply those on benefits who are poor, but that there are hundreds of thousands of people in paid work languishing in poverty due to low wages. Such a campaign should be applauded by the left, not least for raising awareness of an issue ignored by successive governments in their reluctance to confront powerful employer's organisations.
Having recently had the pleasure of listening to a talk by an enthusiastic member of Citizens UK at City University, I came away feeling both encouraged and uneasy. Encouraged by the stories of people at the bottom of society getting involved in politics - they do care, they just feel alienated from the parliamentary process - but uneasy at what appeared to be yet another attempt at non-confrontational, no-content progressivism. Citizens UK's raison d'être is ostensibly the "common good" of the local community. While rhetorically music to the ears of most people, this style of politics shies away from asking the really difficult questions. Outside of 19th-century religious notions of welfare, nor do they propose any genuine solutions.
There is a well-founded suspicion on the left that behind such rhetoric about consensual politics are the poor being told they should not demand too much in the way of help from the powerful. Unfortunately for the Citizens UK model there are groups in society who's interests are directly and irreconcilably opposed; and it is only through confrontation that such conflicts of interest may be resolved. It is simply not enough to say the wealthy can be persuaded their best interests lie in paying out higher wages or increased taxes - much of the time, they don't.
However good the intentions of Citizens UK may be they also unwittingly accept the proposal of the right that the state has somehow failed the poor, when in reality much of the state's inability to provide adequately for those at the bottom is due to the rich being increasingly permitted to contribute as little as possible in taxes. The state compels poor people to abide by laws protecting the property of the rich, but when the idea of compulsion is evoked to collect the taxes of the wealthy, the trend is increasingly moving towards a form of volunteerism. No mention of this on the Citizens UK website of course. Their approach seems to be to take Alinsky, strip out any radical Marxist content, add religion to the mix and repackage it as an antidote to the ills of the poor - an oxymoron of change at the bottom without threatening the interests of the top.
It comes as little surprise then to find on the Citizens UK website an endorsement of the big society. After all, they fit very nicely within the big society narrative - that of do it yourselves, because we don't care. Rather than challenge this outdated 19th-century dogma, Citizens UK are attempting to work within it. That should not sit comfortably with anybody opposed to the notion of consensual politics and the idea of community empowerment as detached from society as a whole.