Bridging the Gap: Stopping politics from muddying the waters of change

By Jo Colman

Wilberforce – united people on all sides of the political spectrum by ‘minimising the politics’

When neighbourhoods in this country are entering into a third generation of worklessness, we have a problem. When one in five children enter secondary school almost unable to read or write, we have a problem. When 27,310 children are taken into care in the year up to March 2011 alone, we have a problem.

These are not political issues, they are social issues. And more important they are issues that Society has to face together.

Social issues with political implications.

Politics and politicians have the ability to harness the good work of communities and champion issues that need public engagement, but what they don’t do (most of the time) is start something new.

Take the great William Wilberforce. Did he start the campaign for the abolition of slavery? No.

But he did take seriously his role as an elected representative of the people and the important need to highlight and challenge the evil that was the slave trade.

He did this by uniting people on all sides of the political spectrum behind this issue and by minimising the ‘politics’ and highlighting the ‘social’ change needed. He did this in the face of serious, organised and socially ingrained prejudice against this movement. However through the unified voice against the slave trade, he helped extinguish the legal practice of trading lives and ushered in a new era of politics both in the UK and overseas.A modern example of politics being dropped for social good was the work by Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen in their ‘Early Intervention – Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’ booklet.They built upon research from academics, voluntary sector and used in-depth research from the Centre for Social Justice to show that the need to intervene early in the lives of some of the poorest children in the nation is not a political game but a great social challenge.

They highlighted the dramatic effect early intervention can have on some of the poorest children in the UK by intervening early and earnestly. The booklet did not skirt around politics, but rather challenged it and create space for a political consensus.

When addressing issues of poverty, it should not be a point scoring exercise of the ‘Progressive Left’ nor a triumphant call by the ‘Compassionate Conservatives’ but an issue that should both break our hearts and push us into action, no matter what our politics.

Learning the hard way

Compassionate Conservatism has much to teach the left. It can reaffirm the fundamental role which families play in creating a healthy society. It can help highlight the expertise which communities and the voluntary sector hold, and that often allowing space for them can lead to helping those which the state is unable to reach.

The Progressive Left too has much the right could learn from. It shows that sometimes you do have to forget about how much it costs and just concentrate on the cost to the person. It can lead to a more accepting and tolerant starting point when it comes to intervention and it can foster a sense of celebration in the difference.

However we seem to have reached a point where any move that is made by the opposite party to address these issues of poverty is called out and meets vehement opposition before the changes have even begun.

It may be hard to believe for some but David Cameron does genuinely and passionately care about turning around the lives of the most deprived in this country. Some may not agree with his beliefs, but by denying his values and adamantly standing against all his government does we risk the chance of missing out on some exciting and effective tools to help those who most need it.

The same goes for Ed Milliband, some may find it hard to believe that he has any desire to help individuals beyond his own electioneering, but I am reliably informed he does care, and passionately so, about these same people.

So how do we move from this tiresome and shallow debate to help turning round the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our Society?

Where to begin

Moving to a place of agreement obviously has its difficulties. And I think that we can’t expect this to begin in Westminster. It needs to start in our communities, on blogs like this, in debates with friends and colleagues.

We are in danger of moving to far towards a poisons politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’. One which paints the opposition as the enemy rather than a tool of democracy which can create a better, fairer and more honest debate.

We need to get past the differences of opinions to find what we agree upon. Let’s start with agreement and muddle our way on from there.

What was impressive about Iain and Graham’s work was that it got universal praise and all three party leaders signed up to its aims and vision. It truly put the importance of intervening early at the very heart of future policy making.

The use of ground breaking academic work combined with on the ground experience from the voluntary sector reiterated the social importance of this issue towards creating a political consensus. It was not the other way round.

We need more of this.

Our care system is still failing children and families. This fact should unite rather than divide us.

The neglect and abuse that some children are born into should not create a political debate, but foster a call to action that unites all rather than divide a few. And the likes of Andrea Leadsom MP and Frank Field MP are continuing this fight with Graham Allen MP.

There will undoubtedly be points when the road map drawn up by the Right and the Left will look different (sometimes remarkably so!) but if the debate can start with agreement and an honest acceptance of the sheer enormity of the issues some communities face, there can start to be change.

Politics can do good and certainly has a role to play. But partisan politics is always ugly and often wrong. There is a left and right in this country for a reason. Both have something to offer. Both can create space for debate which the other can’t.

Both can offer imaginative and exciting alternatives which can only go towards creating a better and more open debate.

I want to see more campaigns shouting what it is for not against. I am tired of the same old blogs, campaigners and politicians opposing something that the Government has said or done. I want to see individuals stand up and give praise where it is due and hold Government, Local Authorities and communities to account by working together and constructively.

This is a challenge to all socially-aware individuals, no matter their politics. Unite rather than fight. Seek areas of agreement rather than fraction. And we can hope for a better debate and more importantly a society which can continue to grow in the care for the weak, marginalised and defenceless.

  1. Sam Hawke said:

    We should all commend sincere commitment to poverty alleviation, and especially attempts to achieve bipartisan support for measures that herald real change. The fact that UK has 3 million children in poverty is a disgrace. But what does it really mean to ‘stop politics from muddying the waters of political change’?

    If we define political disagreement as mere party-political squabbles and point-scoring then obviously we’ll all agree that we must transcend political disagreement for the good of the cause. Who would disagree with that?

    But this is, of course, not all that we mean when we talk about political disagreement. It means a great deal more. And once we grasp this, we can see that to claim that we must get ‘above politics’ to find the correct solution to an issue is actually highly disingenuous. At its worst, it constitutes a recommendation of unilateral disarmament of your opposing side: ‘we just want to find a solution, you need to stop being partisan and political’. Moreover, it constitutes an admonition of partisanship by way of which to sneak in your own (perfectly partisan) set of policy proposals.

    At its best, it constitutes what legal theorists such as Cass Sunstein have described as ‘incompletely theorised agreements’. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong, in general, but we may fail to agree on the specifics: do we think meat is murder, for instance? The same thing applies here. We all agree that we need to do something about disadvantage. Even hard-line right-libertarians would heartily accept that (they just don’t want the state doing it), and this commitment they could share with far-left communists. (Just who could possibly fail to agree that disadvantage is bad?) Where we’ll all disagree is in the multitude of policy measures that we think are morally superior and most effective. And this is the stuff of politics.

    Agreement on the general claims is important, obviously: we do all need to agree that disadvantage is bad. But, in reality, everyone will have their own set of policy recommendations with which to bolster their commitments. These policy recommendations will turn out to align with their political preferences. If uniting against disadvantage and poverty means agreeing to the policy recommendations made by those such as Ian Duncan Smith, I’m not sure how any non-trivial agreement can be expected to be garnered. To suggest otherwise is (somewhat ironically) just political posturing.

    Indeed, it’s useful to recommend to others that they should state what they are for, and not what they are against, when you’re attempting to defend a government whose record on poverty alleviation is very much less than exemplary. Ian Duncan Smith remains ensconced in very plausible claims that the measures he recommends will generate, and not alleviate, the poverty against which we should all be committed to fighting. The current government is responsible for the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act, a monstrously regressive piece of legislation which will condemn more and more people to poverty. This is where we disagree, and this is where politics needs to happen.

    I am also a big fan of a less adversarial, more consensual politics that seeks broadly-based agreement for political change. But this kind of politics is one for which we are clearly not ready. This is especially so when David Cameron is willing to do things that undermine the foundations of such a politics by, for instance, pursuing health reform that will damage the NHS for a generation after explicitly promising that he wouldn’t.

    I commend any attempts to gain wider on agreement on key issues, especially those of which you wrote in your article. But I think it’s very unhelpful to attempt to do this by recommending your own set of policy proposals under the guise of ‘being above politics’. Rather, it would be interesting and helpful to debate particular policy proposals for their fulfilment of a goal I think we all share, the alleviation of poverty in the UK.

    • josephcolman said:

      Sorry Sam should have left my reply here, but its all the same now!

  2. josephcolman said:

    Sam thanks for the response, great to get the conversation going on this issue.

    In my experience the line ‘we just want to find a solution, you need to stop being partisan and political’ is oft used for the purpose of, as you say, disarmament. But our current political system is no a purist dream, far from it. Sadly the politics that is being engaged in is largely a quick news story cycle, headline grabbing and shortterm-ist in its policy approach.

    I must confess to not being a political graduate (nor any graduate, it was something I chose to miss) but Sunstein’s argument is a good one and it is an important point. As you said everyone agrees that child poverty is wrong (and the latest blog is giving an interesting discussion on this point – but how to deal with it? Well that really is the question.

    One of the past successes I mentioned was the work of the CSJ and Smith Institute on the Early Intervention research. This is a case in point on how the ‘Agreement on the general’ can move to being integrated policy which all colours proudly support. I must say I am slightly confused by your comment that ‘If uniting against disadvantage and poverty means agreeing to the policy recommendations made by those such as Ian Duncan Smith, I’m not sure how any non-trivial agreement can be expected to be garnered. To suggest otherwise is (somewhat ironically) just political posturing.’ I assume this is not to say that IDS is a divisive figure to the point of harm, because sadly I think this angle is the cynicism and foot dragging that I would love to see our political discourse rise above. No politician is perfect, nor can any politician be loved equally by all, however there can be respect show to individuals and ideas that work.

    Stephen Timms had an intresting comment reported in HuffPo recently ( this is what I like to see. It would have been far to easy for the Labour bench to use a slightly strange and dubious story to ‘muddy the water’ over benefit reforms, but as Mr Timms says, it’s not the work programme to blame in this case. This is good politics.

    The definition of poverty is another point that is useful to discuss, I don’t think this response is the place to do it, but currently our measures are purely based on income, this needs to change. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with ‘the poor’ (a term I dislike using) will know money is not the most useful of indicators. Part of the problem and solution? certainly. Root cause and driver of? I doubt so.

    With regards to certain government policies, as I am not a member of any party nor part of the Government I am not out to defend policy, however an overriding question that must be asked with all reforms is how is it going to be paid for? The excess with which the previous Government was spending has had to be curtailed as it was too much.

    However the question of how to ensure that Government remains able to help protect the weak and vulnerable in our society is how to debate this continued question. Not to override the importance of reducing a government (not that has grown too big, but rather has grown unsustainably) but to ensure that the poor are not forgotten in the middle of the debate.

    Sam I am going to be honest and say find it difficult to see how on the one hand you can claim to be for consensual politics yet be siding on the partisan towards Cameron. Health reforms have had a difficult time, however will it spell out the end of the NHS? Certainly not. Sadly the reforms will change very little, if anything. There will be changes in the names of NHS organisations and leaders, but that is about it. The NHS is here to stay and that is wonderful, but it was never under threat from the Government. Sadly it has been vitriolic hyperbole from Labour rather than basic facts which have been won out in the national debates. That is not to say the reforms put forward were perfect, but the debate that was run was not one of wanting the best for the NHS, but sadly descended to how can a political battle be won.

    Finally I am not sure what policy proposals I put forward in my piece? I am not a policy maker, nor do I wish to be one (not smart enough by half to be honest!). My experience is in the voluntary sector. I have helped set up a charity, I have worked for another charity, continue to volunteer with a youth organisation and spent a year in a job travelling the UK meeting with organisations based in communities from Newcastle down to Plymouth.

    I would love to keep this conversation going as it is an important one which I hope will only enable us all to be more gracious and open to others to meet them where we agree and then face the disagreement, rather than the other way round.

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