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Our language must reflect the power of participation

Helen Goulden
October 6, 2023

The twisting path toward a general election is becoming littered with the language of war. There's a war on motorists, a war on nature, a war on private education, the culture wars – and now a war on wokery in science.

Given the precipitous loss of trust in our public institutions and democracy - and a media that writes of the polarisation of our politics with one hand, while stoking it with the other - we should be more careful in our use of language.

Around a third of people now claim that they would not help someone in need if they disagreed with their point of view. The foundations of political comity and the threads of social fabric are being actively and visibly eaten away. Incendiary language meets social media and the door to extreme views flung open.

In contrast, ‘taking the people with us’ has also now become a popular political turn of phrase.

Any leader will recognise the truth of the need to take people with you when proposing a strategy dependent on making big changes. The language of ‘sticks and carrots’ is used to shape policies, which nudge them into the ‘right’ way of thinking, working, purchasing or living.

But this can, of course, be viewed much more radically. In the context of how we collectively participate in very large social and environmental challenges, taking people with us could be much more effective if inverted entirely, where the people take us. After all, the Overton window is thrown open by people, not politicians.

The language of participation with people and communities now shows up in different ways, such as building democratic engagement (through citizens assemblies, participatory budgeting); participating in the design and delivery of services (particularly those focused on prevention) and in times of crisis (as we saw to great effect during the pandemic). It shows up in how universities reimagine their role as participants in local place-making; and in science through public participation to understand the bounds of ethics and acceptability of innovations. It shows up when making mind-bendingly big decisions, such as who accepts the thousand-year commitment to siting a nuclear waste disposal site in their community.

There is also a growing language of community power; expressed through a desire and need of people long frustrated by the lack of investment in the public realm to take ownership of buildings, shops, community centres – and to be more actively shaping and deciding local policies.

There is also a growing language of community power Quote

It is possible for societies to emerge successfully from quite desperate circumstances. An ‘upswing’ towards greater cohesion, political comity and equality is most likely to be led by broad cultural shifts in how people view the world and the people within it. Most likely driven by the younger generation and mass, grassroots participation in experimentation, and emergent practices enabled by technology. Not by economic growth, and not as a result of political manifesto. Much as politicians might find the idea disempowering, many policies are often reflections of a culture, not the makers of it.

In this context ‘bringing people with us’ becomes as weak and weary a phrase as 'the war on’ X or Y is divisive and debilitating. And it takes us to an entirely different approach to the infrastructure that supports our politics, democracy and society.

It requires us to make the case for ensuring that there are local places for people to gather, learn, create, make positive change together; 'bringing people along' through the provision of infrastructure to do so in locally relevant ways.

It requires us to do more than scratch our heads about how more participatory forms of democratic participation are woven into established forms of representative democracy. The soporific language of devolution must be injected with the language of increased powers in tangible ways for those who feel completely let down by Government.

Finally, it requires us to get excited by innovative policies, which activate movements for social change, in areas that have been immune to the blunt instruments of national policy. Whether its knife crime, loneliness, keeping people healthy, etc, there are opportunities for governments and ministers to provide the signals and support for mass participation in change that makes sense to peoples lived realities - while resisting the ‘clever chap’ assumption about how that is achieved.

So let the clarion call of an electorally-pumped, studio-lit politician not be the language of war or divisive rhetoric. But language that expresses trust in the people of this country, and is committed to unlocking the power of participation across the UK.


Helen Goulden is Chief Executive Officer of The Young Foundation.

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