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Can political parties deliver the big society?

April 19, 2010 by · 13 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Last July, here at the RSA, I spoke at a conference to discuss Conservative Social Action. This is an initiative to encourage Tory MPs and parliamentary candidates to establish social action projects – charities or social enterprises – in their constituencies.

At the conference and in various written pieces I applauded the initiative. For years I tried without success to get Labour leaders and officials to see that the change model of political parties was bust. Young people in particular weren’t interested in the idea that change came only from electing people to make decisions on their behalf. Instead, I argued, local political parties needed to be change agents themselves, making things happen in their own communities which symbolised the kind of progress they wanted to make in the council or at Westminster. It was a poignant for me to see an idea I had failed to get established in my own party being taken up by the Tories.

So it was sobering to read this piece in the Times on Saturday.  It’s not for me to comment on the individuals named in the article, but the fact that Conservative Central Office could apparently only cite five projects out of the 150 claimed doesn’t sound good.

If it is true that the Conservatives’ hopes for a different type of political activism haven’t been fulfilled, what does this tell us? Perhaps the Conservatives have just been guilty of over-selling what can be achieved in a couple of years. With a General Election in the offing the social action projects may have been relegated in importance. The question then is whether the Tories will continue to push the idea after May 6th.

A more depressing conclusion would be that the ethos and image of political parties is simply not reconcilable with that of grassroots charitable endeavour. Maybe my colleagues in the Labour Party were right to ignore my call for a new model. Against this pessimism, I know several MPs of various parties who have played an important role in establishing and developing local third sector activities.

As long as our democracy relies on political parties it is in all our interests that they are reasonably strong organisations which attract talented and energetic people. This will only happen if they are organisations that make change happen, not simply ones that tell us to vote for other people to make decisions.

Perhaps after the election we can invite the Conservative social action team back and ask them what lessons they have learnt from the faltering attempt to make their party symbolise David Cameron’s big society.


Don’t read this, read that

January 26, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

A recently submitted comment on an old post, makes a valid point. It’s in response to my repetitive and transparently self-serving requests for evidence that people read this blog:

‘Matthew, ten people want you to keep on blogging. Please employ a cost-benefit analysis. R’

The comment (leading me immediately to suspect anyone whose name begins with the letter ‘R’) panders both to my unquenchable thirst for self-deprecation and encourages me to spend less time posting.  (See what you’ve done, ‘R’ – bet you feel pretty low now?)

Fortunately, I can kill two birds with one stone.  Towards the back end of last year, The Times ran a couple of articles by me in their ‘4th plinth’ (as I call it) commentary slot.  I also got invited to some great breakfasts to coincide with the publication of the newspaper’s Eureka supplement.  At last, I thought, my ambition to be a regular columnist is about to be fulfilled.  Sadly, the new dawn turned out to be a flash in the pan.  Since then, I’ve sent in loads of ideas, and even a couple of full columns, with no joy. 

So, human nature being what it is, you would expect me to read The Times comment pages with a jaundiced eye – ‘how can they reject me and print this rubbish?’  But I am bigger than that, oh yes, and being big is made very easy today when there are four brilliant pieces:

Duncan Bannatyne, urging British entrepreneurs to invest in Haiti;

Richard Kemp, on why we should feel positive and determined in the face of bin Laden’s latest claims;

David Aaronovitch, writing about the Edlington case with his usual mixture of common sense and scathing wit; and

Rachel Sylvester on Chilcot, making me feel (a little) better about my old boss. (Accompanied, for balance, by a clever and cruel cartoon.) 

The fact is I could write articles till the cows came home, made themselves a light supper and settled back to watch Newsnight (or should that be ‘Moosnight’?) and still not match any of these. 

I guess I’ll have to stick to the quality-assurance-free zone that is my blog.  Sorry ‘R’!


My demon diary

November 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Public policy 

I used to take great pride in posting a blog every day. But now I seem to fail at least once a week. It isn’t a loss of enthusiasm; merely that my diary has become a voracious beast from which I can neither run nor hide. I’ve also been tardy in responding to comments even though I am always rather touched that people take the time to respond to my ramblings.

In a desperate attempt to fight back I have written a piece for today’s Times which should relieve at least some of the pressure by discouraging any speaking invite for a public sector conference.

I am writing this at Heathrow on my way to give a lecture in Northern Ireland.

My long term reader (sorry mum, we really must book up a drink after work soon) may remember my enthusiasm for cultural theory and its four paradigms of social change; the egalitarian, the individualistic, the hierarchical and fatalist.

A few months ago, after a conversation with RSA Trustee Lord Richard Best, I foolishly asserted that I could use cultural theory as a useful way of thinking about the continuing problem of social segregation in Northern Ireland.

Actually, I might even have been right. The theory can be applied; seeing segregation driven primarily by egalitarian solidarity within the different religiously affiliated based communities, suggesting that individualism might be the most powerful force driving against segregation (if, for example, the only new build homes are in integrated neighbourhoods), and recognising that there is little hierarchical drive behind greater integration.

The problem is that the whole thesis can be summed up in five minutes and I’ve got thirty to fill. At this point my lack of detailed (OK, ‘any’) knowledge about the nature of segregation, or of past attempts to solve it, come into play. ‘Ah’ I say to myself ‘looks like I’m going to have to do some research’. At which point, with a malicious sparkle in its eye, my diary (which has by now become an imaginary demon with gap teeth, red eyes and bad breath) replies ‘jolly good, you’ve got a window in June 2010’.

Fortunately for me I fastened like a barnacle on to a patient and wise advisor at the Northern Ireland office of the Chartered Institute of Housing. When I first explained my predicament she recommended books, then, as my appeals became more pathetic it was articles, and then finally she started to send me selected quotations (not long complicated ones, mind you).

I have no idea how it will go. I could ask you to remind me to tell you next week. But my diary tells me that by Monday I will have to have become an expert on parenting policy (thankfully, my sons don’t read my blog) and how the civil service should manage the transition between administrations.

I don’t even have time to develop my new idea for a film; (working title ‘Appointment book with the devil’, about a man who despite his external show of self confidence and control has become demonically possessed by his own diary.


New ideas and hard questions

October 29, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

An apology to my regular reader that my blog activity has been less frequent of late.  Tonight I have my annual RSA lecture and I have been somewhat preoccupied.  However, I thought you might be interested in a column in The Times this morning which covers some of the issues I hope to discuss in the speech.

And I can’t resist linking to this excellent piece by my former colleague, Philip Collins.  It came the day after  Professor David Blanchflower, an external member of the MPC, was asking some very hard questions about Conservative economic policies.  I am trying to avoid being too ‘political’ in this blog, but I can’t help thinking that, while the problem of Mr Brown for Labour is his apparent unelectability, the problem for the country is that the party likely to form the next government is not being subject to the scrutiny from which both it and we would benefit.


Eduardo and the architecture of morality

September 2, 2009 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics 

There is a wonderful piece by Matthew Syed in this morning’s Times. It explores the controversy surrounding Eduardo’s dive against Celtic last week, which has now led to a two match ban for the Arsenal player. Syed recalls his own attempt to cheat in a championship table tennis game and how he was saved from himself by one of his coaches. Syed argues that rules, regualtions and video referees only take you so far. Sports need  moral code strong enough to weigh against the overwhelming desire to succeed.       

I would love to undertake research about the nature of moral dilemmas. Over the last year or so we have seen many episodes, ranging from Ross and Brand, to Sir Fred Goodwin, to MPs’ expenses, in which the public has reacted against what it sees as unacceptable behaviour. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of what might be called the ‘architecture’ of moral choice.

Like other aspects of behaviour, morality emerges from the interaction of three levels of personality. First, we have certain hard wired predispositions, both as a species and as individuals. The evolutionary psychologist, Marc Hauser, has shown a remarkable consistency across cultures of certain quite subtle moral distinctions. Also, people have a different capacity to exercise restraint depending on their physiology and socialisation (think, for example, of the problems sufferers of autism have with empathy).

Second, there are the cultural norms which frame moral choices. If in a society or sub culture there is a taboo attaching to a certain behaviour (drinking, gambling, eating dogs) it will carry a moral weight lacking in another cultural setting. A fascinating issue is the degree to which moral frames differ from organisation to organisation – for example a city bank or an NHS hospital. Third there is the conscious process of decision making in the face of a dilemma.

Very often controversy about an alleged moral failing concerns whether it is a cultural or organisational problem, or one that can be attributed to the immorality of the individual: did the MPs’ expenses debacle result from the culture of Westminster or the greed of individual MPs? (The answer, of courses is some combination of the two)

These are complex issues. It is not simply a matter of attributing causality across the three different levels.  Think of the famous study of theology students who had just discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan. When, immediately afterwards, the students were directed past a stranger in obvious distress there was no difference between them and students who had studied a different bible story. Instead, the key variable was whether the students were in a hurry. The determining factor was not people’s beliefs or prevailing norms but whether they had the ‘head space’ to be receptive to the empathetic signals which our brains are hard wired to generate.

I’m sure my readers can direct me to some good reading in this area. But beyond the theory, it would be great to use real life examples to explore more closely the moral architecture of a variety of sectors. How about starting with banking, sport, politics and the media.


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