Tuesday, 14 December 2010

How the government is encouraging people to get more involved in politics Some observations on yesterday's news. It's about information, poverty and power. First, I was struck by the extent to which the government's bullying of the BBC has pushed it to the right. BBC TV coverage of events in Westminster was almost devoid of any attempt to analyse why protestors were angry. The BBC has become afraid to say anything that might upset the authorities. Luckily for them, they had a couple of over-paid celebrities to get excited about. (Incidentally, it obviously wasn't just students, there were other citizens protesting. It suits the establishment to explain the protests as just young people being over-exuberant). I'm perplexed though at the lack of attention paid to the abandonment of education maintenance allowance (EMA), which is a proven way of supporting young people from low income families who want to stay in education. Secretary of State Vince Cable described EMA as 'enormously wasteful'. Well, it helps poor people with the objective of trying to equalise opportunity, so why would this government want to fund it? The arrogance and complacency seem impregnable. And they're surprised that people are angry. We don't get many opportunities to be proud to be British (and frankly I don't look for them) but yesterday sort-of counts. While Wikileaks has left most of America apparently supine in acceptance of the arrogant stupidity of its bullying powermongers, in London people have come out and shown the politicians and authorities that their stupidity is unacceptable. I use the word 'unacceptable' because the Haves have been queuing up to use that word with reference to yesterday's street performances. And I use the word 'stupidity' with reference to leaders in the US and UK who have completely failed to grasp the role of new communications media in these confrontations. It's laughable how the establishment feels that the old hierarchies built on hierarchical communication systems (most obviously the bible and the pulpit, but by extension the analog divide generally) can still be depended on to keep people in their places. Yes, the old question 'why do we have such stupid people in power?' applies as forcefully as ever, but it's gratifying that ethical hacking globally, and the use of google maps to outwit the police in central London, are exposing the powermongers' attempts to deny social justice. One of the tenets of community development is that nothing succeeds like adversity, and this is shown to apply at the national scale. Sometimes in community development we are disappointed at people's reluctance to get worked up about things; sometimes we are taken by surprise at the vehemence of the response. I count myself among those who have been surprised, and refreshed, at the sudden and fierce discovery of readiness to take political action. It has value which is increasing in proportion to the declining credibility of those in government.
A divisive localism I think I'm not the only commentator who has remained neither inspired nor gobsmacked by the publication of the Localism Bill. This is partly because so much of it was thoroughly trailed beforehand, and partly because, well, it doesn't seem to be nearly as radical as we had been led to believe. Shades of the Empowerment white paper a few years ago. Perhaps that is why the gloomy news about funding arrangements for local councils was released at the same time. I will be most curious about CLG's 'barrier-busting' initiative, described as follows: 'Some local authorities want to deliver public services in new ways. Others are keen to do new things, such as invest in small-scale green energy. And volunteers, community groups and social enterprises of many kinds would like to play a bigger role in local life. But sometimes barriers get in the way. Red tape, rules and regulations stop people putting good ideas into action. Not only is this frustrating – it means that local people miss out. The barrier busting team is here to help. We want to help you get things done for your local community.' Of course, you have to go through a few bureaucratic processes to make your case, and rightly so. I'm only going to say this once: don't let me catch you putting in a request to the barrier-busters to bust their own barriers, ok? Meanwhile, there was more interest in the published information about cuts to local council funding. Ben Toombs over on the RSA Projects blog notes that 'councils with the most deprived residents seem to be facing the deepest cuts precisely because their residents are the least affluent.' 'I think there is plenty to suggest that in practice ... the empowering effect of the Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest. If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.' Indeed. So no surprises there either. I may be wrong about the radical impact of the Localism Bill, but I don't think Ben is wrong about the effect of the cuts on those who are least able to deal with them. These cuts are doing what cuts do: they divide.

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