I’ve just caught up with the news that Citizens UK will be staging a “fourth debate” next Monday May 3 with David Cameron, Nick Clegg and “a senior Labour representative” addressing their 2500-strong Assembly. This will focus on six issues in a People’s Manifesto. Citizens UK say:
Although they won’t debate with each other on stage, it will be the last time before the polls that all three leaders address the nation from the same stage.
And unlike the prime ministerial televised debates which millions tuned into but which involved almost nobody, at the Citizens UK assembly the candidates will be responding to an agenda which reflects the priorities of ordinary people.
There will be music, powerful testimonies and political negotiation. This is a people’s assembly – of the sort many thought no longer existed.
Three days before the nation goes to the polls, the leaders will be quizzed on their commitments to specific policy pledges – on wages, housing, immigration and the recognition of civil society.
I don’t think many other people have heard about the debate – I picked it up from a private Twitter message, and Citizens UK have only just started their blog, together with a Twitter account. There’s more here about the Assembly with a pop-up link to the manifesto.
Unlike the TV debates, seen by millions but directly involving very few people, the CitizensUK is a rare and powerful example of authentic democracy:
* 2,500 people drawn from member institutions
* negotiating with the party leaders
* on their own “peoples’ agenda”.
That agenda – on wages, immigration, housing, financial regulation – is the product of countless meetings and local assemblies held by member institutions of the various alliances which make up CitizensUK, of which the largest and oldest is London Citizens.
The alliances have come into being through the patient work of community organisers over many years, bringing community institutions together around common values and shared interests and concerns.
Each alliance – London Citizens, as well as new organisations in Milton Keynes, Oxford and elsewhere – is governed by the leaders of its member institutions, which pay dues and have an equal vote in choosing and prioritising the changes we call for.
In this way, CitizensUK has since 1996 earned the right to be called a leading voice of civil society. By attending our assembly, the party leaders are recognising the significance of civil society in modern Britain.
The CitizensUK agenda represents not the interests and values of individuals alone, but calls for change arising from associations of people who have learned the arts of democracy through training and public action. It is the result of listening to the priorities and concerns of member institutions, which are in turn close to ordinary people – -especially the poorer and more vulnerable in society. The agenda has been voted on, refined, debated and pursued over many years. In its six points, it captures the priorities of civil society.
Unlike a hustings, there will be no questions from the floor. An individual question represents an individual concern. Rather, the assembly chairs – leaders in the community institutions – will hold the party leaders to account to our agenda, after listening attentively to their vision of why their Government would be best for civil society.
Unlike a debate, the discussions among leaders of citizens’ organisations have taken place prior to the assembly. A citizens’ assembly is an opportunity publicly to negotiate. Citizens UK is non-partisan, and willing to work with anyone committed to democracy and the common good.
We are the antidote to the broken society. We build trust and understanding. We organise people to tackle problems at the level at which they are best tackled – hence, for example, the CItySafe campaign, which creates safe streets by building relationships between local institutions and shops.
But we do ask the state to act where Government must take responsibility – capping interest rates, expanding mutual lending, ending child detention, etc. And we call on the market to take responsibility by, for example, paying a living wage, capping interest rates or enabling a pathway into citizenship for long-term undocumented migrants. In this way we hold both state and market to account, in the belief that a stronger civil society helps both to function better.
We are the antidote to political apathy. Our practical understanding of politics, the pragmatic way in which pursue goods by building relationships with those with power, our training in the methods of community organising and by means of large assembly halls crammed with committed, thoughtful people who hear testimonies from those most affected by the issues we care about – in all these ways, citizen politics has re-energised British democracy.
I first met up with the team behind Citizens UK back in 2005, and blogged about it here, writing:
Inspiration, challenge and good cheer are not experiences I always associate with the annual general meetings of nonprofits, however worthy – but I found them all at last night’s London Citizens event. It helped that we were hosted by the American University of Notre Dame, in their fine building just off Trafalgar Square.
Some of the University’s law students are volunteers – or interns as the Americans say – with London Citizens projects.
It was these projects that provide the inspiration. They ranged from a campaign for a living wage that persuaded Mayor Ken Livingstone to set the London level at £6.70; an ethical framework for the Olympics; and a review of the procedures of the immigration service at Lunar House, Croydon, that engaged the attention of senior civil servants and the Minister. The fight to keep the traditional feel of Queen’s market, Newham, in the face of development pressures is ongoing, with a Citizens’ inquiry unpicking the planning issues.
They are an impressive organisation whose methods are based on those of Saul Alinsky (interview here and Wikipedia entry). They focus on face-to-face organising and building alliances with existing civil society organisations – particularly churches and trade unions. They have clearly captured the imagination and commitment of David Cameron, because he visited them before announcing his Big Society plans, and the controversial pledge in those plans to fund training for an army of 5000 community organisers is based on the expectation that Citizens UK will do that work:
We have influenced the party platforms and manifestos in a number of ways. The Liberal-Democrat commitment to a form of regularisation follows Nick Clegg’s meeting with representatives of our Strangers into Citizens campaign in 2007. The Labour manifesto commitment to a living wage and curbing interest reflects the influence of London Citizens. The Conservative vision sees community organising as vital to realising the “Big Society”, and looks to CitizensUK to do the training.
Citizens UK promise tweeting from the Assembly, but it isn’t clear whether it will be open to mainstream media. I think it is amazing that they have, in effect, turned the tables, and got at least two party leaders to turn up and respond to their manifesto. Hope someone has a video camera in the front row.