Whatever the Result – some thoughts on Voting, Democracy and Youth Work

Ta to household-design.com

Ta to household-design.com

I’m scribbling these ramblings on return from rambling in the foothills of the White Mountains. On reading them you may think the sun has got to me.  I’ve been musing about today’s General Election, its significance for youth work and beyond, together with my ambiguity re parliamentary democracy.

1.  It’s revealing that our Campaign has not been moved to recommend voting for any particular party in today’s Election. No one has raised this issue either at our national conference or through the web site or Facebook. This said we supported strongly the abortive effort to pressure the Labour Party on statutory funding and criticised its failure to do so. We commented favourably on the Green Party Manifesto’s commitment to youth work . Obviously we have scant time for the Coalition partners.

2. Across 40+ years in the work my impression is that professionally qualified practitioners have in the main leaned towards Labour. Indeed, whatever the Party’s track record, at each General Election , youth workers have bought into a belief that Labour was the party most likely to support a progressive practice with young people. Whilst there have been exceptions, notably the municipal socialist councils of the 1980’s, these hopes have often been dashed. The victory of Blair in 1997 captured this contradiction. In Wigan youth workers danced with joy, whilst I mumbled darkly into my pint. Within a short time the dreams were turning sour as New Labour abandoned talk of youth work in favour of ‘Positive Activities’. To cut a convoluted history short, let’s remember that our Open Letter of early 2009 was an angry response to New Labour’s outcome-obsessed authoritarian assault on open, voluntary, young person-centred practice.

3. Nevertheless the self-same scenario is being repeated in the run up to today. A majority of Facebook posts from within the youth work milieu urge support for Ed Miliband. Even Russell Brand has joined the cause, evidently coming to his senses. A dissenting minority [?] favour the Greens. Some in their belief in Labour plead with would-be Green voters to shift their allegiance to keep the Tories out. The logic of this position is to plead also with SNP supporters to do the same, even though north of the border a resurgence of genuine political argument has exposed Labour’s complacent arrogance. So too, we might ask, how will much-needed political alternatives emerge if we suffocate them in the name of voting for the lesser of two evils? If, in Greece, this tactic had held sway, Syriza would never have broken the shackles of two party dominanation.

4. Whilst you might reject my depiction of One Nation Labour, it might be mistaken, but it is not born of ignorance. For over 20 years, whether in or out of the Party, it was the reference point for much of my political activity. As a Party member I was the Chesterfield constituency delegate to the 1988 conference, where Kinnock won the day and embarked on his programme of modernisation, erasing in the process the last vestiges of a commitment to public ownership and the common good. I left a hollow shell of a Party where dissent was treason. At the very least a question remains pertinent. How can an undemocratic organisation be the vehicle for democracy? And you will have to forgive me if I will not forgive a Party that led us into an illegal war, despite mass opposition on the streets, whose repercussions haunt us to this day. For me this is not water under the bridge. Labour remains a party with no moral authority. No amount of bashing the Tories for their amoral class arrogance dispels this dilemma.

5. I’m a touch weary with being lectured to about the legacy of the Chartists, the Suffragettes and those, who gave their lives in the World Wars. I have a sense of these struggles and sacrifices. They are part of my political inheritance. To my mind I do not insult this history by wondering about how far has ‘universal suffrage’ got us and what does it signify today? Indeed I think these pioneers would be deeply disappointed if we were not engaging with the shortcomings of representative democracy in a world dominated by the unelected forces of global capitalism.

6. Speaking too for a young political activist, who is unlikely to vote, I’m pissed off with the notion that someone placing a cross on a ballot paper every five years is somehow more politically conscious than her. Whoever wins the Election she will carry on protesting against fracking, the lack of affordable housing, the withdrawal of benefits, the marketisation of education and the like. Our occasional voter will in a few seconds give up their obligation to others, relinquishing this precious belief to self-serving MP’s, obedient to their Leaders, whilst retreating themselves into passivity. Meanwhile my friend will continue the fight.

7. Speaking for myself it is necessary to turn our relationships with our elected representatives on its head. Nearly 20 years ago I went to a local Council election meeting in my ward. Candidates from Labour,Tory, Liberal and Independents regaled us with their promises. I stood up and said that at that moment I couldn’t give a toss about their manifestos and programmes. What I wanted to know was what would be their relationship to the people in the ward if we voted for them? In what ways would they be accountable to us? What decisions would they bring back to us? In what ways would they keep us informed? How would we recall them if we were concerned about how they were acting? The candidates were flabbergasted at such demands.  Two decades later I continue to believe that these questions are fundamental to going beyond the present democratic charade,

8. To pose a youth work analogy the present ‘democratic’ arrangements are outcomes-led. The script we must agree has been decided in advance. We must sign up to a programme of policies, over which we have no control. The programme is implemented or abandoned as the leadership or more importantly the corporations decide.The profound political task is to resist and undermine this hierarchical ideology. The struggle for democracy must be process-led, involving individuals and collectives in a negotiated dialogue. This is not at all an impossible dream. Increasingly we have the technology to make this happen. If anyone thinks there’s a mite of interest in such a proposition I’d be pleased to elaborate this further.

Meanwhile, lest I be wilfully misunderstood, none of the above means I’m utterly indifferent to today’s events. It would be daft to suggest that who you vote for is irrelevant. It would be as daft to suggest that all those abstaining from voting are out of order. As it is my vote in Wigan would go to the Greens with the obvious proviso. Such a moment means very little if in our differing ways we fail to be politically active and critical in the weeks, months and years between casting a vote.

To state the obvious, whatever the result today the struggle continues.

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