The Narrowing Political Sphere and the Need for Community Power

May 17, 2021  

Luca Tiratelli on how the Queen’s Speech defines politics as something only done in Westminster, and why we need a community-first way of understanding democracy.

In all the pomp and ceremony of a Queen’s speech, it can be quite hard to focus on the substance of what’s being announced and to identify narratives and themes.

However, two of the most headline grabbing aspects of last week’s speech – namely proposals to bring in voter ID, and legislation aimed at increasing state control of universities – do noticeably chime together.

Indeed, if we take these agendas alongside the efforts to restrict public protests contained in the Police and Crime Bill, then a theme starts to come into view. That theme is the narrowing of Britain’s political sphere, and it is bad news for community power advocates. 

As a never-ending list of people have pointed out previously – Voter ID is a “solution in search of a problem”.

There is no crisis of electoral fraud, and if there was, it would rather call into question the government’s legitimacy in trying to deal with it.

What Voter ID will actually do is simply erect a barrier that will potentially prevent millions of disproportionately poor and ethnic minority people from voting. This narrows the electoral sphere of politics.

New legislation for universities creates space for the state to enforce the hearing of certain points of view.

Indeed, one of the examples given by the Department of Education of the ‘problem’ that the ‘Free Speech’ legislation will be solving is academics signing open letters criticising the work of other academics whose views chime with the government’s.

In short, the goal of the legislation seems to be to wrestle control away from professors and students over judging what is and what isn’t valuable scholarship. This narrows the intellectual sphere of politics.

The Police and Crime bill will significantly lower the bar that the state must clear in order for it to deem protests illegitimate or illegal. Indeed, it will lower this bar right down to the level of whether the protests might be a ‘serious annoyance’. This narrows the sphere of street politics.

Taken together, these three proposals are a squeeze on political expression. They make a clear statement about what politics is and where it occurs. Politics is what happens in Westminster, and it is done by the fantastically unrepresentative group of people who happen to have jobs there. It is something that an increasingly small number of the rest of us should have a say over, and not something we should think too much about during our education or in our communities.

This vision is the opposite of community power agenda that we advocate for at New Local. We want to see power devolved to the most local level possible, and for people to be given true control over the forces that affect their lives. In other words, we want to see a radically expanded, wholly participative and genuinely democratic political sphere.

This isn’t just a philosophical difference from the vision outlined in the bills described above, however. We see community power as fundamentally necessary for solving the big political challenges of our time.

Whether it’s people’s sense of alienation and their desire to ‘take back control’, or whether it’s a state that often feels distant and bureaucratic – these problems will not be solved by an ever-narrowing, ever-centralising group of people in Westminster.

What these problems require is a radical change of mindset, and a radical expansion of the spheres of politics and decision making. What they require is community power.  

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