Value-free activism?

Tony and Ade gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference yesterday and I came along to provide moral support and take notes.

The Speaker’s Conference is investigating how to rectify ‘the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large’. That the Speaker’s Conference was established at all must mean that the House of Commons recognises that this is a serious problem – following from that, I assumed that there was, at the very least, a tacit agreement that the traditional routes towards becoming an MP (through the political parties) aren’t working. But, confusingly, no such agreement seemed apparent in yesterday’s session.

Indeed, the strongest theme to emerge from the questions asked of CF, ACT, the Young Foundation and the UK Youth Parliament was a preoccupation with driving young people towards political party membership, with Diane Abbott MP even suggesting that our organisations currently promote ‘value-free activism’. I know Ade has been thinking about this question since (and has blogged about it today), but I thought I’d also add in my two pence.

There’s nothing wrong with joining a political party, being active at a local level and gradually moving towards a seat in Westminster. Really, there’s a lot right with it, especially when an MP is able to draw on years of experience working in the communities they represent. And this party system has given us Diane Abbott (the first black woman MP) and Jo Swinson (another woman who, at 29, is the youngest MP in the House right now) – so it’s probably no wonder that MPs think that the old model simply needs to be reinvigorated or resuscitated to achieve the levels of participation a fair democracy demands.

And yet it appears that there is no going back, no magic formula that can recreate the conditions – industrialisation, world wars, the trade union movement, strong family associations – that drew so many people to political parties. This does not mean that I think that the political parties have had their day, but I do think they need to face up to the reality that the easiest way for organisations like ourselves to engage young people in politics is not to invite them along to a constituency party meeting where established party members dominate the agenda, but rather to find an issue that matters to them and support them in making change themselves. If the parties want to stay vibrant and viable, I think they need to make the same kind of offer.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.