Last week a canvasser knocked on my door on behalf of my local councillor. As it was the first time this had happened in nearly six years, I felt modestly privileged.
The canvasser, a pleasant and polite retired man, asked if his candidate could rely on my vote. I explained I had a problem with a party that claimed to believe in social justice yet relentlessly opposed efforts to bridge the gap between the poorest and better-off areas of my city. He said it wasn’t like that at all – it was just the funding mechanism they objected to.
Yet their newsletter, which I opened when he left, continued to attack what it called the council’s ‘favoured areas’ policy. This kind of divide-and-rule politics is common throughout the UK, and is one reason why there’s such a high degree of disaffection with the political system. It also frustrates any effort to see the bigger picture: how can towns and cities sell themselves as creative, inventive, forward-thinking places when their democratic processes throw up the same interminable squabbles over petty fiefdoms?
It’s a reminder that we need to keep pursuing forms of civic engagement that are designed to bring people together and achieve consensus through relationships, rather than letting the same old mediocrities ride to power on the back of a pantomime horse whose front half is mendacity and rear end is blame.
I’ve just finished Phil Wood and Charles Landry’s book, The Intercultural City, which offers a host of suggestions about how such relationships can be built in the context of increasing diversity. It doesn’t suggest these are simple – it’s easier to share prejudices with peers than to build bridges with strangers – but we’ll struggle to build confident and just communities without them.
This will be particularly important in the new eco-towns the government hopes to build. We’ve heard a lot about high environmental and design standards, and this pursuit of quality must continue. But what makes a community is the way people use it.
Some of the proposals include community development workers to welcome new residents, which is a step in the right direction. But values of equity, respect, and social justice need to be embedded in every institution, from faith groups to sports clubs, the library, doctor’s surgery, and school. And they need to be strong enough to resist the malign influence of council candidates who can’t see beyond the cross on the ballot paper.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine