Why politics really needs civil society

Forest of handsThe Lobbying Bill is now an Act and will make life more difficult for civil society. The ball is in Labour’s court to announce that they would repeal it if elected. That may make it easier for the other two parties to catch up with themselves and realise that a less muzzled civil society is in their interest.

The problem, though, is not just with the Lobbying Bill, but the sentiment behind it: that it is wrong for voluntary groups to be involved in politics. This is a view seen beyond one piece of legislation, from criticism of the Trussell Trust, for wanting not just to create food banks but to deal with the reasons they exist, to comments from the chair of the Charity Commission, attempting to distinguish “real” voluntary groups from whatever the alternative might be.

The tension between direct and representative democracy
It comes down to the tension between direct democracy and representative democracy. Four in five Conservative MPs think charities should not be ‘political’.  However, in the same survey, only ten per cent of the general public agreed with them. It is natural for MPs to support representative democracy over all else because, well, they are it. But, ultimately, it may not be in their interests to do so.

There has always been a tension between direct and representative democracy. The idea of what is direct and what is representative is constantly shifting. Once, representation meant the divine rule of kings acting for their subjects. Now, it means choosing one person to speak and vote on behalf of your geographical area. Some, including Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, think technology will change this again and that we have reached a technological and educational point where we can all directly influence the direction of national policies without the need of a wise representative in Westminster.

In this context, the push against direct democracy in this country can be seen as incumbents being wary of changing the status quo. Certainly, those MPs that broke with their whip to vote against the Lobbying Bill, including Julian Huppert, David Davis and Zac Goldsmith, all come from the more libertarian side of their politics, more sympathetic towards the idea of direct democracy.

I think this tension is healthy. I don’t want a direct democracy where those that shout loudest make the law. Or a technocracy, where calculations of a multiplier effect decide what a government will do to its people.

Politicians get the big ideas from civil society
Other MPs only understand civil society in terms of actions like social media campaigns against them, criticising a broken promise they never felt they broke, giving them an inbox flooded with insults. But they should remember that there are also benefits from civil society’s direct political engagement as well, and that it can be used to make parliament, and MPs, more powerful and ambitious. Civil society has generated many of the big ideas that have later become important political legacies.

Meaningful political change inevitably draws on civil society. The Climate Change Act was a world first and showed real political leadership; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband will be remembered for their role in realising it. But that idea originated in the environmental NGO community. The Countryside Alliance is currently helping to develop the thinking about what a true rural economy should look like. Shelter conceives new protections for tenants from aggressive landlords.

In civil society we have the space to think big. Ultimately, if a new idea is going to occur, it won’t come from a ministerial awayday, but from us.  Manifesto ideas, from all parties, are lifted cleanly from the reports of voluntary groups.  And politicians will, rightly, get the benefit of making these ideas real.

As Ed Balls told an audience of NGOs last summer, when he worked in the Treasury public campaigns allowed him to achieve more. George Osborne took up the IF campaign’s call to take on tax avoidance and brought it to the G8. At the end of last year, Nick Clegg asked NGOs to make the case for Europe and the good it has done, without registering that this sort of awareness-raising will be made a lot more difficult by the Lobbying Act.

What will happen if our political agenda is left to the influence of journalists? I’ve seen  many speeches from politicians of all parties in which major commitments were made, meaning billions in low carbon economic investment, a lifesaving transfusion for our manufacturing industries and a commitment to our place in the world. Then, in the time given for questions, the political media focus solely on the latest Westminster gossip. Is George briefing against Vince? Did Boris gaffe again? It’s depressing, and it makes me feel for the politician trying to talk about something bigger. In many cases, if it wasn’t for civil society groups, they wouldn’t have been giving the speech at all.

Politics doesn’t just happen in parliament. Voluntary groups provide the public with a direct, national voice on the issues they care about, as their constituency representatives also should. But, most importantly, we are helping the public’s representatives, the politicians, to achieve the bigger goals, the reasons they went into politics in the first place.

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