There was a riot involving the opening of a Tesco store in Bristol a couple of nights ago. 160 police officers and 300 local residents were involved. And no doubt there will be a great deal of scrutiny over the chain of events that led to such an out of control situation – blame will be portioned out.
But don’t we have the perfect climate at the moment for this to happen: a recession, high unemployment (especially amongst young people), government cuts … and not forgetting the increasing cultural glamorisation of conflict as the tool for social and political change.
If you speak out against conflict in favour of collaboration, as I do at every possible opportunity, you tend to divide your audience instantly. Speaking against conflict is viewed by some as weak and is often associated with ‘appeasement’ and cowardice. But conflict is very easy in reality - finding solutions in a collaborative way is much more difficult.
My first experience with this was about 10 years ago when Royal Parks announced their plan to close ¾ of the roads in Richmond Park. The interest group, The Friends of Richmond Park had been politically highjacked by a very militant group of people and had been pressuring for this change for some time. The thing with Richmond Park is that it is the centre of an area that acts as a single community. In terms of the community relationships Sheen, Richmond, Kingston, Roehampton etc are all interconnected through schools, activities, churches and the local economy. Many people in the local community also wished for reduced park traffic – most of which was pouring in through the one-way Robin Hood gate off the A3. It was a pretty big deal and lots of people were very upset.
The public meetings were astonishing. One in Kingston Town Hall had to be piped out to 100s of people listening in the car park. The people from Royal Parks were utterly bewildered and completely out of their depth. They did not understand until that moment that they had been unduly influenced in their plans by a forceful minority group – claiming to ‘represent’ the opinion of the ‘local community’.
I remember it was quite thrilling to hear from the local Liberal Democrat office that ‘yes, of course you can start a pressure group if you want to’. Not so thrilling though when I started to get violent threats and abuse in the local paper. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called the group The Real Friends of Richmond Park, but this was my first naive outing into the world of activism and local politics of this sort.
To be very clear, although this was obviously considered by some to be a bit inflammatory, this was in fact a diplomatic mission rather than a declaration of war. I started new community group to counter-balance the opinions of another community group, where at the time there was no alternative pathway to express concerns and opinions outside of the anger and shouting that was being done at every relevant town meeting.
I am not describing this to impress (or not) but to share a first-hand experience, which has fed many of my current views. It was indeed very heart-warming receiving £5 notes and handwritten letters of support from young families and older people who felt the plans were denying them access. But I was very inexperienced, and being a mother of young children at the time, frankly quite scared, particularly of the anger that was fuelling the situation, so concerned in fact that I never spoke up once at a public meeting.
I did however create a new line of communication with the Royal Parks staff and with the help of some local scientists gathered some evidence about the potential environmental effects of slower, traffic-bound cars circling the park and the stats of the number of cars cutting through the park entering through Robin Hood Gate. We raised £40,000 sponsorship for a new clean bus to provide public transport around the park. Anyway, ultimately Robin Hood Gate was closed and the roads remain open for park access to the surrounding community. We would have made some small contribution to that outcome I don’t doubt – but certainly not the only contribution. The solution was pretty obvious.
Since that time I have continued to encounter situations where both elected and self-appointed groups of people claim to represent ‘the community’, but in fact represent only a narrow and often self-serving perspective. In the 4 other cases that I have seen at close quarters the patterns have been similar. Someone makes a mistake, a community or part of community gets angered, someone wins. They have always left a wake of division and broken relationships in the community that can takes years, if ever, to repair. Sometimes it sets up a fresh cycle because the lines of dialogue never re-establish themselves well enough.
This is the real landscape into which the Localism Bill will descend. There seems to have been some dramatic shift recently from ‘government knows best’ to ‘community knows best’. With political and media help, a myth that sanctifies community members or groups choices and decisions and demonises everything that local government thinks and does has become widespread. In this paradigm it is very easy to manipulate situations on the grounds of social justice and easy also to make conflict and aggressive strategies look worthy and spirited. In my view this is romantic and wrong and dangerous.
The truth, and many will recognise it, is that there are silly and arrogant people everywhere, both in government and in communities, just as there are responsible and kindly people everywhere. All our systems (democracy in particular) are designed to safeguard against the arrogant. These systems as we know are flawed, and in need of some honest overhaul, but there also appears that what is creeping in slowly, in addition to these inherent flaws, is a sort of wilful blindness where we appear to be acting on myth and a simplistic or one side truth rather than the complex reality. This means we are currently in danger of forgetting that our elected government is responsible for the health and wellbeing of our communities and that includes being honest broker to balance the multiple needs and desires of all citizens – not just the ones that have been quick and switched on enough to seize the decision-making ‘empowerment’ about to be so forcefully pushed into communities.
This week I discovered that in my small rural village there is a new group working on a Parish Plan. Sounds good doesn’t it? Active citizens taking responsibility etc etc. Very Big Society and all that… Except I am puzzled by the fact that their website boasts that “To produce a truly community owned plan; it is independent of the Parish Council”. The Parish Council is elected by the local community to look after exactly the things that the Parish Plan covers. At what point did the people we elect to represent us atparish level become irrelevant and incapable of engaging with the local community? In the Travelling Pantry workshops all around the country, time and time again I was given examples of local community centres in the control of ‘the community’, where they had become virtually inaccessible to anyone within those communities due to local power dynamics and not-so-benign administering of this power. And the current lack of local democratic engagement favours this dynamic, but instead of trying to fix this, we keep starting another group!
Enter the government’s plans to introduce hundreds of ‘community organisers’. And while the people involved continue to explain that not all community organising is based on conflict-style Alinsky principles (about which I have already blogged), these tactics are still reported to be part of the tool kit. Whatever the tactic - they will be trying to stimulate some sort of local activism, sometimes using dissatisfaction as a tool for doing this. They will be trying to pressure local authorities for more, more of whatever is felt to necessary. When I attended the launch of a report called ‘The New ‘Neighbourhood Army’’ on community organisers at NESTA recently the message was clearly ‘they won’t be shying away from conflict’. It was rather depressing to hear from several people in the room currently working in local authorities that they already had concerns for their personal safety with the level of existing activism being demonstrated towards the councils over cuts. Is this what we really want ... by deliberate design?
If you haven't read them, here are the 12 'Rules for Radicals' written by Saul Alinsky so you can make up your own mind.
Social design (and that is what we are talking about on this scale) needs to be ethical and positive throughout the process and take full responsibility for side-effects. Wining or achieving results, but breaking the social capital and weakening the 'collaborative capacity' in a community as a result should not be 'acceptable collateral damage' in a local setting.
Compare this to an approach that favours collaboration – something that so many local authorities really value. You don’t have to look far to find it – here here and here for example. Conflict and collaboration strategies find it very hard to sit side-by-side one another. They are frequently, though not always, diametrically opposed. As I blogged earlier in this week in several posts, communities, like organisations, develop an emotional climate, and we create that climate collectively with every conversation we have. Communities, just like people, can also take on a collective persona – sometimes calm and other times jumpy and reactive. A national climate of Hyperactivism could be created in no time with the combination of initiatives (and withdrawal of other initiatives). By Hyperactivism I mean 'a heightened sense of', but also 'out of control' as with hyperinflation, which develops self-perpetuating vicious circles – a hyper-reactive, hyper-vigilant atmosphere that can lead to unconstructive activism and potentially violence. The term could also be a play on the word hyperactive, implying overly, unusually or unnecessarily active.
It is not without its ironies that the same week we have a full-scale riot around a Tesco Express, complete with hand made petrol bombs, the People’s Supermarket in Camden held their first AGM with over 100 people in attendance – where lots of yellow papers were waved about for voting purposes but nothing actually thrown.
It is not that I am afraid of anger any more – although it often proves to be a bit pointless, self-indulgent and destructive - and I have particularly low patience with 'the permanently outraged'. It’s that these repeating and predictable negative human dynamics that glorify conflict simply don’t deliver. That is the primary reason I am so drawn to creative and collaborative approaches instead. Projects that draw people together – whole communities at a time rather than pockets of confident and strident individuals – do, I believe, offer the promise of being much more effective over time at giving us the types of communities and society that we would all prefer – and the sort of society that addresses the many social justice issues so many of us are passionate about.
I am sure every Prime Minister of Britain goes to sleep dreaming of World Peace. Having read Tony Blair’s autobiography it is easy to see that World Peace is easier dreamt than created. In his own story you witness how a little too much information here, and little too little information there, plus a bit of general confusion and a totally overwhelming sense of personal conviction, led an extraordinary national leader to design his own political downfall. But when I visualise this in my mind, and I have read Peter Mandelson’s and Alastair Campbell’s accounts too, I imagine a man struggling, perhaps seated at a desk, his brow furrowed, head in hands, trying very hard to get it all right.
I see the possibility of an emerging cartoon of David Cameron – perhaps seated cross-legged on a Cloud of Happiness – Steve Hilton reading out loud to him from the Wonderful Wonders of Chaos Theory – perhaps making some union jack bunting with one hand, while with the other casually lighting the fuse of a giant fire cracker created so carelessly from a lack of integrated thinking, plunged into the heart of the country’s map – perhaps in large print the words Hyperactivism Rocks – and below in smaller print the words ‘co-designed with the help of the apathy of the Liberal Democrats and the having-a-little-rest-from-all-this Labour Party’.