The talk these days is all about ‘new politics’. Claiming Our Future suggests we should be talking about ‘broken politics’. That is some gap to be bridged. It goes back to how we judge our politics. The ‘new politics’ seem to be confined to how the Dáil goes about making decisions. ‘Broken politics’ is more concerned with the decisions made.
‘New politics’ give us better debate at Dáil Committee level and the strange sight of the main opposition party keeping the Government in place. ‘Broken politics’ give us decisions that have no evident capacity to address the big issues of our day such as inequality or climate change.
In convening a national deliberation for civil society activists and organisations Claiming Our Future recently chose to focus on ‘broken politics’. The deliberation, however, was not about politicians and political reform, but about how civil society organisations could best step up to the mark to advance their vision of transformative change for society in a context of ‘broken politics’.
Participants celebrated the potential and creativity of civil society. This was based on testaments from an emerging disability movement, the People’s Energy Charter network, the challenge to the cultural sector to re-purpose itself, and the achievements of the Right2Change movement. In a context where change is elusive and hardship widespread, the need to inspire hope was emphasised and, within that, the importance of taking time to celebrate success.
The event, however, was also one of reflection, a rare moment for people from across the different strands of civil society to talk together about the shared challenges faced in working and co-operating to make change happen. There were no speakers, only conversations involving people from community, trade-union, environmental, culture, and global-justice organisations.
There was discussion about the agendas pursued by civil society and how these were developed. Tensions were pointed to in the agenda-setting process between paid workers and unpaid activists, between working-class communities and middle-class NGOs, and in the invisibility of some groups like people with disabilities. There was a strong sense that further action was needed to empower these agendas. There was a challenge posed to build a greater popular understanding of and commitment to the values and issues raised by organisations. The further development of civil-society media was suggested to enable this.
The strategies being implemented by civil-society organisations were explored and analysed. The importance of mobilising people, engaging them in the issues and offering different ways and levels for them to get involved in seeking change was emphasised. Local activism needs to be stimulated and supported. There was a strong desire for greater creativity in strategies and the cultural sector was identified as holding potential in offering new ways of engaging and educating people. A challenge was posed to move outside the parameters set by the political and administrative system in seeking change.
The need for civil society to connect and collaborate more effectively was debated. Fragmentation between the different parts of civil society was seen to have increased over the period of economic crisis. Leadership within civil society for greater collaboration was called for. Collaboration is not only needed between the different sectors of civil society, but also between the different levels of action (local, national, and international).
A set of propositions emerged from the deliberation. The first focused on the need to build effective solidarity behind different campaigns currently being pursued. A task force of alliance-builders was proposed to identify the campaigns that civil society organisations could collaborate on to achieve greater impact.
The need to create formal spaces where organisations can discuss and build collaboration on shared issues was put forward. Ideas for less formal networking were also mooted, using digital platforms to share information, advance campaigns and secure active solidarity between organisations. New structures, such as Public Participation Networks that include community, voluntary, cultural, and environmental organisations, could be used to build shared actions at local level.
The value of creating new links for civil society with both politics and academia was stressed. These links need to be thought through to reflect new types of relationships. Organisations across all sectors need a relationship with politics that goes beyond lobbying and negotiation to include partnerships with those parts of politics that share their values. A more active engagement by academics with civil society could facilitate penetrating analysis and generate evidence to ground the call for action to seek change, fuelled by innovation.
Claiming Our Future is now planning a ‘reflection’ meeting to consider the various propositions and how they might be implemented.
By Niall Crowley