Archive for January, 2009

Progressive London?

January 29, 2009

Last Saturday I attended the inaugural Progressive London conference at Congress House, home of the TUC. Having heard little about it other than that it was a front to re-elect Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, I went pretty much on a whim, it having been one of the many events and websites that I’ve become aware of lately by way of my sublimely hyperactive friend and colleague Charlie Mansell .

The Progressive London organisation (such as it is) having been around only a few months, its mission statement is still fluid. To a large extent, it will be determined by those who choose to participate in the discussion that it generates. My hope is that it can become some form of loose electoral coalition – transcending rather than replacing party allegiances, but being a reliable indicator of a candidate who is willing to work across party lines to achieve what is needed – a badge, if you like, of ‘progressivism’.

I hope to be part of this wider debate over the legitimacy, agenda and future positioning of Progressive London over the next year or so – more on which here from a blogger at Lib Dem Voice . But leaving that aside for the minute, I want to address a more fundamental aspect of this venture. The subject has received a good deal of attention on sites such as LabourList and Comment is Free of late, but I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer. What does ‘progressive’ actually mean?

In the first panel session I attended at the conference, Liberal Democrat London Assembly leader Mike Tuffrey offered what I felt was a valuable opinion, saying that the true benchmark of progressivism is an eagerness to devolve power further from the centre and allow people to make more decisions about the ways in which their communities worked.

Though this is obviously not the whole of the point, and he went on to make other points, I thought he was onto something here. I believe in subsidiarity – devolving the power to make any given decision as far as possible. Tuffrey quoted William Gladstone, saying ‘Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.’ (He added that socialism, in his view, was trust of the state tempered by distrust of the people.)

This government is widely perceived as having shown centralising, distrustful tendencies – though my view has softened lately; perhaps they just haven’t decentralised enough of the centralised state created by the Tories for my liking. Whatever the origins of the problem, I think this perception of the government is the key reason why the phrase ‘progressive conservatism’, which looks at first glance like an oxymoron and doesn’t improve massively at a second glance, has been able to gain some traction. Demos, for example, has announced a major new project around the concept.

Progressive London is a major part of the effort to reclaim the idea of progressiveness for the broad left, and – whether or not the term itself will endure – the empowerment agenda could and should be a focus around which to continue reconstructing the dividing lines that the would-be ‘progressives’ need. Conservatives believe in a political elite; progressives believe that democracy is for everyone, and that representative democracy isn’t some sort of panacea of civilization, but essentially a fudge that needs to be made to work as transparently and inclusively as possible.

The recent controversies over Heathrow and MPs’ expenses will have done the government no favours in building up these credentials. But legislation like the Sustainable Communities Act, which I’ve blogged about previously, could be the rallying point for a new progressivism in British politics.

If this is the way it’s going to go, though, the progressives have to answer a question – not just answering to the conservatives, but to themselves. Having lauded and fought for the power of communities, what do you do when ‘they’ make the wrong decision – plump for the Tesco over the wildlife reserve, or the tax cut over the improvements in services for children with learning disabilities? Suddenly, the abstract people towards whom you previously felt vaguely, liberally benign have become at best fools, at worst brutes, and in either case people whom it is imperative to keep out of the process of government.

I’ve not come close to working this one out yet. Anyone got answers? Hint: I’m looking for something easier than ‘be nice to everyone’.

Published by Majeed Neky, a project officer at The Campaign Company .

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USA “ready to lead again” in “a new era of responsibility”!

January 21, 2009

President Obama’s speech was nothing less than superb. Having already posted some of his previous speeches I thought it was only right to post a visual summary of his speech using Wordle web 2.0 software.

It is interesting to note the strong reference to the word “Nation” which also parallels the references to it by a previous Illinois Senator in the Gettysburg Address. The use of the word “Nation” seems to sound a more serious note for these more serious times.

Barack Obama Inauguration Speech 2009

Barack Obama Inauguration Speech 2009

Having said of the United States that “we are ready to lead again”, Barack Obama will be judged not just by his country, but by the entire world. His numerous references to the need to tackle the challenges caused by climate change shows that his call for a “new era of responsibility” is not just a challenge to his country but a challenge to the world. To adapt a famous Kennedy inaugural phrase: “Ask not what the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world.”

Published by Charlie Mansell, Research and Political Development Officer of The Campaign Company.

The fierce urgency of now!

January 20, 2009

Today we will all witness a piece of history, when Barack Obama is inaugurated as President Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. In the words of Martin Luther King Junior we are all together in “the fierce urgency of now”. Literally billions will tune in looking for hope and change at the beginning of an historic U.S. presidency that faces massive economic, environmental and security challenges

Everyone will be looking out for the memorable phrase from his speech to match that of Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy. How will he do better than the following powerful statement from his election night victory speech, “And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

President Obama has shown that a simple powerful message presented by a messenger with a life story that reflects the potential for good that America has alway promised, but perhaps not always fully lived up to, is still an important part of the democratic process.

A President with powerful oratory adds to America’s undoubted economic and military resources. He can use that, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, as a “bully pulpit” to take the World forward.

On this day of inauguration, we thought we would use the web 2.0 tool Wordle to show how Barack Obama’s speeches changed and developed over the last 7 years as he refined the phrases and themes that contributed to the momentum for change that led him to be sitting in the Oval Office today.

Starting with his comments opposing the Iraq War in 2002……

Speech opposing Iraq War -2002

Speech opposing Iraq War -2002

through to the speech at the 2004 Democrat Convention that in many ways made his name.

Barack Obama Speech to 2004 Democrat Convention

Barack Obama Speech to 2004 Democrat Convention

When launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois in 2007 he started by defining himself against his Democrat opponents:

Barack Obama launching his  Presidential Bid - 2007

Barack Obama launching his Presidential Bid - 2007

Following his success during Super Tuesday, he was increasingly able to focus on promoting his change agenda:

Barack Obama Speech Following Super Tuesday

Barack Obama Speech Following Super Tuesday

However he also had to respond to the issues of Race and his connections with Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

"The Race Speech"

Barack Obama: "The Race Speech"

Having overcome the electoral challenges within the primary process he was able to come to the 2008 Democrat Convention and concentrate on the choice the country faced between him and the Republican candidate. He also used this high profile opportunity to reassure the public as to the sort of president he would be.

Barack Obama Speech to 2008 Democrat Convention

Barack Obama Speech to 2008 Democrat Convention

His handling of the economic crisis probably helped “seal the deal” with the electorate, however the earlier work kept him in an opinion poll lead that he never lost during the election proper. It led to his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago….

Barack Obama Victory Speech - November 2008

Barack Obama Victory Speech - November 2008

At midday in Washington and 5pm in the UK, we wait to witness history and look forward to hearing more powerful words that express and encapsulate the “enduring power of our ideals”!

Charlie Mansell, Research and Political Development Officer at The Campaign Company.

Sustainable Communities Act

January 15, 2009

Through my involvement with Transition Town Kingston, I came across a really interesting piece of legislation that has also raised some interest here at The Campaign Company.

The Sustainable Communities Act aims to give more power to local councils and to local people (‘double devolution’) to help people make their communities more economically, socially, environmentally and democratically ‘sustainable’. The remit of the Act is deliberately defined broadly, making it a significant opportunity for the devolution of power to local communities.

The Act allows councils who ‘opt in’ to suggest new powers – including the ability to levy new taxes and institute subsidies – to the Government. A short list is drawn up by the Local Government Association from the proposals made by councils around the country, and the Government must respond to this short list with a view to instituting as many of the suggestions as possible, and justifying why any suggestions have been rejected. Proposals just have to be things that the Government can do and is not currently doing, which will advance the broad definition of sustainability.

Examples of potential new powers for councils include the ability to give rate relief to local businesses and social enterprises, the power to tax behaviours that damage the local or global environment and the possibility of removing obstacles to enterprise that exist in previous legislation, such as the various legal difficulties of establishing ‘feed-in’ electricity tariffs to encourage local generation of renewable energy.

The crux of the Act is that this process of making proposals must be carried out in collaboration with ‘panels of representatives of local people’ who must include people from under-represented groups – a perfect opportunity to consult beyond the usual suspects. Rather than the consultation being just another procedural stage that has to be completed, both sides have a duty to work together and reach an agreement.

The Act is interesting in legislative terms. Originating as a Private Members’ Bill. During the course of its passage, it gained all-party support and can now be seen, in some senses, as the flagship of the Government’s new local democracy agenda – being the first act to be passed and implemented that draws on councils’ new ‘duty to involve’ and the much-feted principle of ‘double devolution’.

But in democratic terms, the Act could be even more interesting. The provisions for new local powers are underpinned by a radical provision for ‘opening the books’. For the first time, central government will have to publish accounts stating how much public money is spent in an area (by anyone – whether the council or a QUANGO), what it is spent on and which agency holds the budget. This clearly leads into proposals being made to the Secretary of State to transfer control of existing budgets to councils – bringing the money under democratic control.

The potential for stimulating local participation, encouraging people to become councillors, improving the sustainability and resilience of local communities is evident. But there are two crucial links that need to be forged and maintained – between councils and central government, and between communities and councils.

Communities will need to be convinced that this is more than another consultation exercise. This links to the need to improve knowledge and perceptions of local councils – a particular problem in economically deprived areas, but by no means confined to them. Councillors, officers and local people will need to be proactive in examining each others’ perceptions of how their town, borough and country actually run.

Meanwhile, these are uncertain times for governments to make promises, and there is particular concern from councils and activists around the need for new money to help councils carry out new functions – something that has been hinted at in various quarters, including the legislation, but never made completely clear.

There is a lot of engagement work to be done – recruiting the citizens’ panels and ensuring that their input is genuine and democratic, but also dispelling myths, promoting participation and advertising new powers that have been won.

The Sustainable Communities Act could be one of the most radical laws we have seen under this government, and TCC will be watching with interest.

For more information on the Sustainable Communities Act, and resources for making sure it is implemented in your community, see www.localworks.org

There is a public meeting on the Act in Parliament on the 10th of February, which should be a good opportunity to learn more and ask questions.

This Blog was written by Majeed Neky . He is a project officer for The Campaign Company.
For more information on any issues raised in this blog, feel free to contact The Campaign Company