I have spent twenty five years involved in party politics and for the last ten my Party has been in power. That experience, and particularly the last three years working in Government, has raised many questions, but two stand out. First, several of the goals we share for society rely on citizens themselves choosing to act wisely and responsibly; how should we reform politics, society and government to enable and encourage people to make those choices? Second, what can we do to renew the ragged relationship between citizens and politicians, particularly those elected to govern?
Perhaps a way to grapple with the dilemma; ‘who are we?’ is to change it to the founding question of citizen-centric politics; ‘what should we do?’
In calling for a pro-social strategy I argue that we need to explore and combine a range of different insights and practices to accomplish a fundamental shift in the way we view ourselves and our society. Imagine a society where our account of how to promote learning, sustain safer neighbourhoods, or make diversity work shared the environmentalist’s combination of what government must do, what my employer must do, what my community must do and what I must do?
I believe we face a difficult but potentially liberating truth: for society to progress relies on citizens acting more often in ways which match their values and aspirations and doing more for each other than simply obeying laws.
We have come to think of democracy as being exclusively about a distant group of people (politicians) working though anachronistic organisations (today’s political parties). These people then ask us to give them a doubly weak mandate: weak numerically (one in four citizens could be enough in a General Election) and weak directionally (a cross in a box every four years to ‘endorse’ a manifesto that may contain hundreds of policies, not to mention all the issues that will emerge between elections). In the face of the complex challenges of today’s society and people’s expectations of autonomy and respect (reinforced - albeit superficially - by modern consumerism), this ‘majoritarian’ model of democracy drives citizens into a classic passive-aggressive stance. Instead we need a citizen-centric participative democracy in which citizens work out together what they want to achieve while through the same process agreeing how they are going to achieve it. (By the way, it is surely instructive that we see democratic debate and process as primarily about generating new laws).
The most disabling aspect of political discourse is the paradox (exploited by the news media) that the state is seen simultaneously as omnipotent (responsible for every social failing and public mishap) and incompetent (despite the fact that we are generally a successful country with improving public services). Observing the family resemblance of this combination, many commentators have suggested that citizens view the state with the same incoherent rage that teenagers often present to their parents.
One of the ambitions of pro-social strategy is that by creating a vibrant debate about common problems, aims and responsibilities outside conventional politics we can help reinstate politics itself as the process by which citizens willingly give permission to their representatives to act on their behalf. In other words, use of state power is seen to be the result of citizens identifying areas where voluntary or normative action by individuals and communities is insufficient, rather than the working assumption of our current culture of ‘sullen statism’, namely that voluntarism has a role only in the margins left by the state’s incompetence or negligence.
The implications for the state of social behaviour are not so much about its size but as about its ways of working. The implications for politics are not so much about politicians letting go as about citizens taking hold. Pro-social politics would not be seen in terms of conflict between us (citizens) and them (politicians). Politics would be about us and us and us.
The apparent incompatible of our own individual preferences is a growing characteristic of modern policy problems. For example, we want to fly cheaply and protect the planet, to see our children as home-owners but to protect the green spaces around our towns and cities, to enjoy low labour cost inflation but to manage migration.
The idea that social behaviour could be a powerful force for progress implies an optimistic view of human nature and potential. One of the problems with the discourse about citizen responsibility in recent times has been the explicit or implicit focus on tackling deviance and pathology rather than encouraging new collective commitments. At school I remember class being asked to list non existent or rarely used words that were the apparent roots of commonly used negations; ‘couth’, ‘kempt’ and ‘shevelled’ for example. Anti-social behaviour is another example of a negative that seems to have no positive. Pro-social strategy is in part about ways of discouraging citizens from behaving anti-socially. But, more importantly about removing the intellectual, cultural and practical barriers to people being able to act together to achieve progress. The assumption that what is right for society is also generally right for the individual - both in terms of concrete outcomes and self-worth - reflects an Aristotelian belief that what is wise is also what is good.
Indeed, the very idea of social norms is that our behaviour is shaped by explicit or tacit agreements about collective goals which relieve us of (constrain us from) a constant re-calculation of our own self interest in any given situation.
Building networks is a horizontal and vertical process. Vertically it involves connecting the many practitioners who are seeking to develop more co-operative and reciprocal ways of working with people to the champions of this approach in academia, think tanks the media and mainstream politics. The practitioners get to place their work in a broader political and intellectual context while the theorists and campaigners get to ground their ideas, to understand the concrete barriers to progress and to furnish their arguments with powerful case studies. Horizontally, networking is about finding threads and laying trails to connect the aims and principles of disparate activities which share a commitment to pro-social behaviour principles
The transformation of our national infrastructure in the nineteenth century required the spread of new institutions – from joint stock companies to local authorities. Similarly, the emergence of the universal welfare state in the twentieth century required the institutional capacity of the modern nation state. Now we need the emergence of a new democratic and social infrastructure which enables citizens to be the architects and builders of the future we want.