“In every child there is a poem, in every child there’s a painting, in every child there is music.”
Jeremy Corbyn, Glastonbury, 2017
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY AND CULTURE
In the summer of 2017, inspired by the upheavals of the general election and the decisive role played by cultural actors in widening participation and reducing the Conservative majority, a group of The Word Transformed (TWT) activists set about creating a space where the relationship between cultural creativity and the processes of social and political transformation could be deepened.
Specifically, we set about creating a space that is participatory and inclusive, one that challenges received notions of culture either as a decorative addition to the social and political system or as a preserve of the elites, and that instead understands culture as universal and essential – something we all do all the time to make our lives meaningful.
We looked to design a process that would recognise and begin to redress the basic political problem that cultural means, like other kinds of power and wealth in our society, are so unequally distributed, and we came to the idea of a process that would put the tools of both participatory democracy and the social movement to the task of creating a popular cultural policy.
LABOUR, THE LEFT AND THE POWER OF THE SOCIAL MOVEMENT
This project is located within a long-standing Labour tradition, rooted in the work of Labour’s first Minister of the Arts, Jenny Lee, her mission of “art for everyone”, and the establishment of the Arts Council. We also took our cue from the theoretical work of New Left thinkers like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall who, each in their own way, have advanced the proposition, from the 1960s onwards, that culture belongs to all of us.
We looked to learn, through direct engagement, from the experience and practice of the pressure group, Arts for Labour, whose work around the GLC in the 1980s set a high-water mark here in the UK in terms of demonstrating culture’s potential as a driver of community-based empowerment and change.
Finally, we paid very close attention, again through direct engagement, to the experience of contemporary left social movements and new political parties – from Syriza in Athens, to the 15M in Barcelona, to the Pirate Party in Reykjavik. These examples helped us design a methodology that might, scaled up, foster widespread democratic engagement, building power from the ground-up to affect social and political transformation in government but also in society at large.
BUILDING POLICY THROUGH A PROCESS OF POPULAR PARTICIPATION
The TWT sessions proved a successful format for engaging a community of participants and stakeholders, reflecting relevant knowledge and expertise, focusing the discussion and generating ideas in a structured manner so that the wealth of creativity in the room could in turn be translated into a coherent and cohesive policy manifesto.
What we found was that this democratic process generated results very similar in quality though on balance richer than a more conventional technocratic process would have produced. It also had the advantage of building towards consensus as well as raising the profile of the project as it evolved.
The format consisted of 3 sessions, each of 90 minutes. Every session was full to capacity.
The first session held a capacity of 130 participants. The participants were given pieces of paper on entry and informed that at the end of the session they would each be asked to write down 3 specific policy ideas that could transform the role of culture in our society. The aim of the session was to create a space where individually and collectively, new ideas would be stimulated. With the encouragement of facilitators, participants were encouraged to discuss and share ideas with one another. 8 speakers, curated by the organisers in advance to reflect a specific line of enquiry and debate, were invited to offer 5 minute interventions. These interventions aimed to provoke deeper thinking still about what culture is as well as around the specifics of policy ideas. At the end of the session, helpfully teeming with new ideas, participants were asked to write down 3 of them and post their responses in a ballot box.
The second session held a capacity of 600 people and ran as a more conventional Q&A panel, where 4 high profile speakers discussed the question, in this case, of the role of the political artist.
Within sequence, this session effectively played as a break from the task of policy-making, but it also served to develop a wider audience around the themes and ideas of the participatory process.
The third session held a capacity of 40 participants. In the time between the end of the first session and the beginning of the third, the organisers had compiled and analysed the results from session one and identified, in this case, 8 topics that the policy suggestions could be grouped under. The participants of session 3 were then invited to brainstorm ideas into each topic. The emphasis, in terms of facilitation, was to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard and every idea was gathered, rather than to debate the pros and cons of any specific idea. Space was also made for an additional topic of “anything that had been left out”. Again, participants were then encouraged to talk and share ideas with one another before, finally, time was devoted to discussion of the values that should underlie this manifesto. Again, ideas were gathered from the room. All of the participants were then given the opportunity to vote on which of the values listed they considered most important.
The three sessions generated the following raw data: a “first draft” of unorganised policy ideas, a “second draft” of policy ideas organised under specific topics, a list of underlying values with an indication of priority and preference, a list of participants and a community of stakeholders. The events also generated some press coverage and initiated a profile for the project on social media.
Following on from the event, the material from session three (“second draft” and values) was compiled and lightly edited and shared as a list with a group of designated stakeholders – in this case, mainly speakers and facilitators but also participants, union reps and policy strategists who could share experience of socialist cultural policy writing and lobbying. These stakeholders, all fundamentally sympathetic to this democratic methodology, were invited to offer feedback on the results in order to inform the subsequent process of drafting a manifesto. That manifesto, detailed below, in turn establishes the basis for the next level of feedback, discussion and political engagement.
BUILDING THE MOVEMENT
Though we’re excited about where it points, this manifesto is not designed to be an end in itself. It’s a point of departure. It offers a building block in a process that will engage people across the UK in the practice of policy design, stirring debate around the questions of what culture is and how we make it work for us, building a movement in the process that consists of organisations and individuals who are now invested in and participating in the shaping of our political and cultural direction.
Next steps begin with:
a) Repeating this format in a series of events around the country so that the manifesto continues to evolve and is tested, added to, rethought and redesigned by different communities and different demographics of people in different parts of the country. We are currently exploring collaboration with PCS Union to do this in March 2018 at the Show Culture Some Love Conference at TUC House. We might do it in collaboration with Common Wealth in Port Talbot, the Selby Centre in Tottenham, Transition in Totnes, the WOW Festival in Bradford, CCA Glasgow, Glastonbury Festival and the South Bank in London. We will certainly aim to repeat this format in Liverpool in or around Labour Party Conference in September 2018.
b) Creating a website that makes the format publicly available so that organisers can independently hold events within their own communities all around the country, effectively extending and decentralising the process so that people everywhere can hold debates and feed into a wider national conversation and political process.
c) Building into that website a function for membership and online participation so that members are able to propose amendments to the manifesto and vote on them. The manifesto becomes an ever-evolving organic object. It rewards participation and reflects contemporary debate.
d) Developing a video campaign for social media to drive interest in this platform, engaging high profile cultural figures (e.g. Riz Ahmed, Ken Loach, Idris Elba, Maxine Peake, Sam Roddick, Lily Allen) to lead a national conversation on culture, what it is, how we make it work for us, and also examples of new models of cultural practice and engagement from around the country that might give voice to unsung innovators, helping to develop public interest in new ideas of what is possible and what’s already happening.
e) Building strategic alliances, costing and raising funds for all of the above.
JOIN US. BE PART OF THE MOVEMENT FOR CULTURAL DEMOCRACY.