Is protest the new form of politics? Tyne & Wear Citizens offer a different model
by Barry Knight
Barry Knight attends an assembly of Tyne & Wear Citizens to meet the candidates in the North of Tyne mayoral elections
Something is stirring. A new populism is on the streets. In mid April climate rebellion brought London to a standstill when thousands of peaceful protesters occupied sites including Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus. May Day saw mass rallies and strikes in European capitals including Paris, Moscow, Copenhagen and Athens. Cities in Africa and Asia saw similar disruptions. The new language of politics is protest.
These demonstrations result from the widespread political failure to deal with the issues that people care about. And no wonder. As we have seen in the UK, Brexit has eclipsed all else, and things that matter like people’s safety, health and wellbeing are given second place. In the absence of effective political leadership, all that is left to people is to protest.
Or is it? On Tyneside a different model is on offer. On 30 April, a thousand citizens gathered at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre & Opera House to ask candidates for election for mayor of the North Tyne Combined Authority whether, if elected, they would work with Tyne & Wear Citizens to tackle issues that local people have identified as most important – hate crime, poverty and poor mental health. The meeting was designed to ensure that the new structures are accountable to civil society and business. Citizens from across Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland were invited to attend.
Far from being an angry protest, the meeting was carefully managed to ensure that all contributions were respectful. All politicians were thanked for their willingness to put themselves up for public office. There was no booing or heckling. The audience gave feedback by applauding what they liked and remaining silent for what they didn’t. Each candidate had the same treatment, was asked the same questions, and was given the same amount of time to respond. Each politician was asked to sign up to specific policies such as: a mental health counsellor in every school, a hate crime accreditation system, support for Eid as a public holiday, and the payment of a real living wage in public services.
Three of the five candidates attended. Labour, Liberal and Independent candidates all signed up to the policies and pledged that they would meet with Tyne & Wear Citizens within the first 100 days in office. Despite accepting the invitation, the Conservative candidate pulled out at the last moment. The UKIP candidate was not invited because Tyne & Wear Citizens felt that the party’s policies failed to meet the minimum requirements for inclusion and diversity in modern society.
Tyne & Wear Citizens leads the way in building a new civic space and ushering in a new politics by giving ordinary citizens a central role. The fact that 1,000 people can come to a meeting on a Tuesday evening counters all the stereotypes of an apathetic population. Moreover, Tyne & Wear Citizens builds the leadership of young people and gives prominent roles to Muslim women. One question to the audience was: ‘have you ever been in a bigger and more diverse political meeting?’ My answer? No.
The old top-down politics has failed. New politics needs to include citizens as active partners, not just as passive voters or active protesters. This is the key to rebuilding our politics so that it is respectful and accountable. Tyne & Wear Citizens is modelling how we might do that.
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