Today's citizens don't want to sit on the sidelines, they want to be part of shaping their future and the lives of those around them. It is critical that we harness this for progressive purposes.
Politics is about change and how best to achieve it. As a political movement, Labour campaigns for office not just to change government but to change lives. Yet often we act as if the nature of the state is all that matters – that our role as activists and individuals is simply to vote the right way and then pay the tax bill at the end. Not only does this leave the public susceptible to the siren calls of Conservatives preaching personal liberty and self-determination as cover for cuts in public services. It also means we shy away from advocating the need for each and all of us to play our own part in making our society more just.
A focus on institutions may make sense in economic models or political theory textbooks, but experience teaches us the complexity of actually achieving social change requires a different approach. Whether we are dealing with climate change, addressing public health concerns, tackling international terrorism or promoting pro-social behaviour, we live in a world in which progress can only be made when networks of individuals, communities and public services are each able and willing to play their own part. To work with only one of these factors is to limit the resources we have to attain our version of a good society. In the modern world a strategy for social change that can deliver a more egalitarian society must recognise that the state can no longer direct the actions of citizens without their co-operation, any more than the market alone can be relied upon to address the challenges of our time.
How then to proceed? This is not an article about what government should be doing. It is about what each of us should be doing. To be successful in the modern world the left must advocate and encourage a practice of citizenship that can underpin progressive outcomes. We need to be the party of people power, not only in our public services but also across society.
Rethinking social citizenship
Citizenship matters because as a movement concerned with social justice and social solidarity, our political fortunes rise or fall on our capacity to draw the public into collective action. To advance this in a world where the consumer is celebrated and individuality prized, we need a way of describing our relationship to each other as well as to our shopping trolley. At its best, the ideals and acts of citizenship reflect the simple truth of humanity: that we are our brother’s, or sister’s, keeper; and need ways and means of living with each other as well as for ourselves.
To galvanise the resources of the public and be an effective force for social justice in the modern world, the left must make citizenship mean more than a ceremony with the mayor or a lesson in school. There is no better place to start than T.H. Marshall’s lecture of 1949 that set out its three core components – civil, political and social (Marshall, 1950). Here citizenship referred to the contractual obligations of the individual and the state; thus the individual must vote and uphold the law and in turn the state offers the individual the protection of the law and the capacity to participate in decision-making. Marshall’s work shows how, for the left, citizenship has also always referred to more than a legal status. Social citizenship enshrines relationships and rights at the heart of our social life that transcend narrow individualism and consumerism. The obligations these generate are rooted not in our financial worth but instead in our shared humanity. Granting citizenship to someone then requires us to act to tackle the injustices that prevent them from accessing these rights and protect them from being treated in an inhumane way. From guaranteeing legal rights through a fair and balanced criminal justice system to actualising social rights through a state education system, Marshall’s ideas helped the left to underpin policies such as a national health service, and a politics of shared concern and endeavour in the post-war era.
Yet Marshall’s is a notion of citizenship also of its time, a time when the relationships that mattered in securing social equality were predominantly between individuals and the state and the benefits that this could offer. Here citizenship is something conferred; a passive status for the individual expressed primarily through entitlements. In turn it is secured not by reference to individuals but through the presence of institutions such as the NHS or the legal system. As a consequence this notion of citizenship inadvertently fosters a paternalistic approach to people as mere recipients of the outcomes of such institutional activity. This benign munificence has engendered a culture within the Labour Party, at both a local and national level, which diminishes rather than encourages personal or collective endeavour. Too often our work has been informed by a presumption that our role is to act ‘for’ and not ‘with’ our fellow citizens. However well-meaning, this way of thinking means intervention rather than interaction is seen as the way to tackle inequality.
People power: social action as a political resource
We have to challenge this presumption for the benefit of both our politics and our policies. In a complex world where information, money and jobs travel across continents at the touch of a button, people-power is central to shaping outcomes. In our own life stories we can all point to how friends, family, colleagues or community groups and voluntary organisations have interacted, alongside the institutions of the state, to create opportunities – and barriers – for progress in our lives. So too the life-chances of today’s and tomorrow’s Britons will not be determined by government achievements alone. It is their place within intricate economic, social and cultural networks that also matter. And whether addressing educational attainment or transport policy, the difficulty of directing social development in such a context is the same. We know that in some localities, and for some services, it is the dealings between service providers, public sector workers, businesspeople, the voluntary and community sector, and citizens themselves that make progress possible. And we know that in the case of other areas or parts of society, it is precisely the corrosive nature of relationships between these different actors that prevents change. For a political movement that has traditionally focused on government as the primogenitor of all social change, responding to a world where outcomes depend on such complex variables requires us to expand our reach. Public services matter, and so too does the condition of our social fabric, and the contribution we ask the public to make themselves to social change.
When we consider social activism as a resource for social progress in this way, then there should be good grounds for the left to be optimistic. Despite fears to the contrary, we are a nation that seeks solidarity, reciprocity and friendship amongst our peers. Year after year, the National Citizenship Survey shows consistent and increasing volunteering and civil activism by the majority of the British public (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2005). From taking part in charities and volunteering in hospitals, to helping out neighbours and running Parent Teacher Associations or Tenants Associations, we are a nation that gives back. Even those working in organisations that do not have progressive intentions learn through having to collaborate with others that there are other drivers of change besides market forces. So in principle this growth in social activism in recent decades should offer the best recruiting tactic progressive politics can have.
However, what is also clear is that the public no longer associate such social activism with interaction within the state or indeed any wider social purpose. Recent research into how the British conceive of citizenship shows that, for most, being a ‘good citizen’ has little to do with taking part in politics or civic action (Department of Constitutional Affairs, 2006). Thus, at a time when, more than ever, we need a sense of the power of collective action to address the complex problems our society faces, the public feel less and less willing to work with each other through our political institutions. Those who only celebrate social activism and argue that it doesn’t matter if the public are involved in a political process miss the point and the potential fallout for progressive politics this creates. This is because social activism alone cannot deliver social equality, any more than personal enterprise can protect against the risks and vagaries of modernity.
Some warn that those who participate in formal political structures and civic activism are not representative of the British population as a whole. They query how encouraging such contributions can further egalitarian outcomes as a consequence. Yet we should not fear trying to increase participation may increase inequality and so cling to paternalism in public service provision as a guarantor for social justice. The prospect for progressive outcomes is limited when there is competition rather than collaboration between social concerns, citizen action and the resources of the state. Instead we need to work harder to ensure all sections of society are able and willing to participate precisely because it is higher levels of activism that increase our chances of becoming a more socially just society.
We should encourage progressive social activism not as an alternative to public services, but as a resource which, when allied with universal provision, offers our best chance for achieving a more socially just society. Individually, I can take steps to keep myself in good health by not smoking, or exercising well and I can study to improve my own skill set. Socially, I can support the care of a neighbour or volunteer at my local library. Only collectively can I commit to funding the social insurance system that is the National Health Service and invest in state schools. And my society, my community and my politics benefit the most when all these acts coincide and add to each other.
Public services: from consumerism to co-production
The left should build on Marshall’s framework to set out a notion of active citizenship that underpins not just our commitments to democracy and social justice, but also to each other. In turn, the practice of such a citizenship could underpin both better relationships between the public and public services and between citizens themselves.
Too often public engagement in service provision is defined as a reflection of the political or civil rights of citizens, effectively shoring up the legitimacy of service decision-making. Whether through consultation events, juries or user forums, this limits the objectives sought in engaging the public to only asking them to agree or disagree. We are now seeing a ‘zero-sum’ game where political parties compete to offer ‘more say’ or ‘more power’ than their opponents. This does little to encourage or sustain participation, and indeed can turn any engagement exercise into a customer complaint session. It is vital we have mechanisms for redress for poor service standards that every individual can access. But to speak up when things go wrong cannot and should not be the sum total of the input to our public services that we ask of our fellow citizens.
As people who benefit from the impact of services in the difference they make to our lives and the lives of others in our society, and as taxpayers who fund them, we all have a vested interest in getting provision right. Debate and dialogue between users and service providers can reveal new knowledge about how policy created in town halls, board meetings and Whitehall departments is working out on the ground. In taking part in such interactions the public can supply intelligence about how services are being delivered, where they may be going wrong, and how they can be improved or extended. Working with the public in such a way can also help us go further because it asks what each of us can do to find shared solutions to shared problems.
Our citizenship must be more than an extension of individual consumerism or a license to complain. It must also ask us to think as collective consumers and be a mandate to participate. If everyone is a citizen then everyone can contribute to service provision – whether through their professional expertise, their user experience or their willingness to support others in society by paying taxes or volunteering. To achieve our version of the good society, citizens should do more than criticise. They should also feel willing and enabled to work with service providers and each other to tackle the problems they see in our world, because we are all responsible – and we all benefit.
Promoting progressive citizenship
As well as recasting the relationship between the public and public services in a way that can overcome concerns about the impact of consumer values (Chen 2005), the left also needs to promote citizenship and activism in everyday life. The work that countless grassroots community groups, social networks or voluntary organisations do is not an afterthought to progressive social change but integral. To suggest this is not to demand that everyone be made to join the Women’s Institute, or for more funds for the voluntary sector. It is a call for action and debate in our Party and our movement around three issues: clarity about why it matters to us to support social activism in society in and of itself as part of progressive policy and politics; action to subjectively and objectively empower individuals and groups; and linked to this, a better recognition of the different practical issues and methodologies of participation that determine if, how and when people take part.
Clarity about how and why social activism contributes to progressive politics concerns not the form of the activism but its intentions. There is no guarantee that a Tenants Association, a sports club or a faith group will pursue progressive outcomes per se. Yet in the work that those with progressive intentions do we see how people may share our values and our ambitions for their communities but not our Party. To set aside this often small-scale and grassroots work from our policy thinking or our party activity is short-sighted. We need to be better at working with those who are active for progressive social concerns whether they have a membership card or not. And as a governing party we need to be better at supporting progressive social or community groups through the changes we make in the workplace and in wider society.
Just paying lip service to such groups isn’t enough. We also need to ensure that people feel able to contribute to both civic and social activism and have the space and financial resources to do so. Empowering all individuals and groups means getting away from stereotypes about who does participate – dismissing the ‘usual suspects’ or bemoaning ‘whinging middle classes’ – and instead asking how to make sure that everyone from across society feels able and willing to act. As a progressive party Labour should be at the forefront of removing the barriers to participation which mean that it is only those who can dictate their own working hours or pay conditions who have the freedom and sense of confidence to contribute. Supporting social activism because of its benefits to progressive politics means legislation and leadership to ensure everyone has the time, money and opportunity not just to be with their family, but also to be active citizens.
Finally, we also need to be better at making participation possible to combine with real life – and fun. We have to get out of the habit of thinking activism is about bureaucratic structures which end up meaning more meetings and committees. There is now a wealth of evidence of good practise for new and more interactive methods for participation (Involve 2005; Creasy 2007). A time-poor public with families and social lives to cherish need not only to be confident of the difference their involvement will make but also given practical help to participate. Technology should make connecting for such collective activism easier than ever before, and we also need to value occasional or episodic volunteering as well as those who commit their lives to helping in their community. We need to say that every contribution, no matter how large or small, or constant or not, helps to strengthen our social fabric and, when pursued for progressive purposes, to work towards a more equal and just society.
A new politics
Above all we cannot force people to participate. So we need to do more than say it’s a good thing to be active citizens, or try to make those who don’t volunteer feel guilty. The left needs to win the case with the public themselves that for a world where citizens work with each other in this way, alongside campaigning for universal public services. The sense of shared belonging, shared interests and shared purpose this requires is cultivated not in buildings or institutions alone. It is founded first and foremost in people feeling connected with each other and developing a common vision of how the world could be and the part they can play in making it happen. And that is the realm of politics. If we want people to be more active in our communities because their endeavours add to the resources we have to achieve social progress, then we have to celebrate and encourage participation for that purpose, saying and showing why being a progressive citizen is different to being a consumer, or a Conservative. We can’t just demand that more people join our movement or sit in our meetings. We need to reach out to those who share our values and ask them to join in as fellow citizens working together for common ambitions for the future.
This is the progressive political approach that can face the challenges of our complex and troubled world. As a political movement we need our representatives to be its catalysts, rather than its only cause. In a bygone era of deference and hierarchy it may have been accepted that our political leaders knew what was best for the public and acted on their behalf. In a world in which citizens don’t want to sit on the sidelines but to be part of shaping their future and the lives of those around them it is critical we appreciate and harness this for progressive purposes.
It is also a potential mode of achieving social change that eludes our opponents. For while the right would empower citizens by removing the ‘barriers’ of the state and letting the market determine the provision of resources, the left recognises and works for the greater prizes to be won for every citizen by facilitating and strengthening collaborative working between all actors in the public realm. The foundations of this lie in what we ask of each other. We have to move away from talking only about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship towards a culture and practice of active citizenship. The people who depend on progressive governance need, and deserve to be part of, nothing less.
Chen, S. (2005) ‘Citizenship, consumerism and the public realm’, Renewal 11 (2).
Creasy, S. (ed) (2007) Participation Nation: Reconnecting Citizens to the Public Realm, London, Involve.
Department for Communities and Local Government, (2005) Citizenship Survey: Cross Cutting Themes – Active Citizenship, London,
Department of Constitutional Affairs, (2006) The Future of Citizenship: A Report for the Department of Constitutional Affairs, London,
Involve Foundation, (2005) People and Participation, London, Involve (see also www.peopleandparticipation.net).
Marshall, T. H. (1950) ‘Citizenship and social class’ and other essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.