Guerilla Voice: Government and the grassroots – the issue is power, not politeness
The importance of ‘constructive engagement’ is often used as an excuse for government to avoid engaging with grassroots groups. The real issues are power, money and influence. If you’ve got these, you get heard – even if you are difficult. There is a common set of advice given to organisations and individuals that want to influence policy: understand what policymakers are trying to achieve and relate your issues to their priorities; be helpful and constructive; offer your resources to further ministers’ agendas, thereby generating goodwill; develop positive personal relationships; and try to become part of a trusted ‘insider group’ that politicians consult for advice. Try to refrain from criticizing publicly – do it behind closed doors if you must – however if you need to go public then ensure that your comments are constructive, polite and never personal. Grassroots groups often don’t adhere to these rules. One such group – Spartacus – has demonstrated this week how authentic, independent frontline voices can grate with politicians and policy makers. Spartacus is a grassroots group of sick and disabled people who are unhappy with the Government’s welfare reform agenda and have published a series of well-researched, insightful reports that (unhelpfully for ministers) point out the holes in their welfare reform policies. Michael Meacher, the Labour MP, secured an adjournment debate in the House of Commons this week to ask the Employment Minister Mark Hoban why he would not meet with a delegation of MPs that included representatives from Spartacus. Meacher recounted on his blog how he had challenged Hoban: “[Hoban] simply replied blankly ‘I’m not seeing you’, and repeated it 3 or 4 times. I kept on insisting ‘Why not?’ and finally he said ‘I’m not seeing Spartacus’. Again I was taken aback and asserted that in my view Spartacus had analysed hundreds of cases, prepared a very detailed and thoughtful analysis of the implications arising from these cases, and even if he disagreed strongly for whatever reasons it was his responsibility to meet them. To this he simply kept repeating ‘I’m not meeting Spartacus’.” In the debate, Meacher described his incredulity that Hoban would not meet with Spartacus, describing their work as: “… evidence based, uses the DWP’s own figures and reports whenever possible, has never been challenged on accuracy either by the DWP or the wider public, and aims always to provide a calm, credible and plausible response to the Government’s proposals…” Esther McVey, the Minister for Disabled People, spoke on behalf of the Government and argued that engaging with Spartacus would not amount to a “constructive dialogue.” She also questioned the credibility of their work. McVey cited one quote from a report published by Spartacus in November 2012 as evidence for why ministers should not meet with the group: “The WCA [Work Capability Assessment] is a statement of political desperation. The process is reminiscent of the medical tribunals that returned shell shocked and badly wounded soldiers to duty in the first world war or the ‘KV-machine’, the medical commission the Nazis used in the second world war to play down wounds so that soldiers could be reclassified ‘fit for the Eastern front.” As Sue Marsh, one of the leading lights in Spartacus, pointed out, ministers have picked out one sentence from the thousands of words printed by the group to justify not meeting with them. This points to the real issue. It’s not (lack of) politeness that makes ministers want to avoid groups like Spartacus, it’s what they represent – a challenge to ‘insiderdom’ itself. In other words, it’s about power. Business leaders and representatives often criticize government, often quite harshly, but still remain comfortably inside the fold. For example, Richard Lambert, the former Director-General of the CBI, has openly criticized the Government’s reforms to education, localism, immigration, default retirement age and climate change, arguing that these policies undermine economic growth. One does not expect that ministers will refuse to meet with the CBI anytime soon because of this lack of ‘constructive engagement’. The question isn’t manners, it’s whether you have money, influence and connections, and whether your interests align with those of governing party. In contrast, ministers and policymakers are fearful of engaging in debate with grassroots groups who don’t play by the same rules. Policymakers might use the language of involving people in policy but what they mean is involve the right type of people who know the ‘rules’ and engage on policymakers’ terms. Not only is this less than democratic, it also means that policymakers miss out on a wealth of experience, insight and expertise, which makes for poor policy and costly mistakes. The disability sector is a good example of this. Ministers prefer to meet with the big disability charities rather than engage with the disabled people’s movement, because activists from the latter are more likely to tell it how it is, often in personal terms. McVey in the adjournment debate mentioned many big charities in her examples of whom ministers have met with, but failed to mention a range of grassroots groups such as DPAC. Grassroots groups often come in for criticism from policymakers and mainstream media who label them as ‘part of the problem’ – the vested interests who defend their own ‘privileges’ and resist any reforms, however sensible. For example, Mark Hoban (again) recently took to the pages of the Telegraph to criticize grassroots campaigners who have taken a stand against ‘mandatory work activity’ or workfare: “Sadly a loud but misguided minority – often spurred on by the leftwing press – still attack these schemes and, ridiculously, label them ‘slave labour’. Not only is this misleading and downright insulting, but they also completely fail to offer any workable alternative.” Similarly, Nick Herbert, the former Policing Minister, writing in the Guardian criticized the former police blogger Inspector Gadget: “Here, in one silly blog, is the epitome of the problem. Gadget and his followers can’t see that the government’s action on pensions and pay freezes is driven by economic necessity, applying across the whole public sector, and affecting many with far lower salaries than police officers. And their belief that they are victims “under attack” apparently justifies even the breaking of the law they are sworn to uphold, at least if politicians are the target.” What ministers ignore is that grassroots groups and campaigners are meant to challenge social attitudes and assumptions. Peter Tatchell is now a respected human rights campaigner, but he came to prominence as the scourge of the mainstream media because of his ‘extreme liberal’ views. Tatchell hasn’t changed his views – rather the social change that he and thousands of others have campaigned for means that his views have now become more mainstream (though of course there is always prejudice and inequality to be fought). Criticizing grassroots groups for not being ‘constructive’ or ‘polite’ (although they are actually often both) fails to understand what these groups really are. Their only assets are the passion, energy and sometimes anger about the social injustices that drive them. No doubt many policymakers would prefer them to just go away; recent experience suggests yet again that this is a forlorn hope, and not a particularly democratic one either.