The 'ordinary people' in New Labour's Community Forum aren't so ordinary.
‘Twenty people from across the country and all walks of life have started work today to help the government shape action to deliver lasting change to deprived neighbourhoods.’
So said a proud press release from the UK Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) in January 2002 – announcing that the 20 lucky individuals, known as ‘the Community Forum’, will ‘act as a direct link between local communities and the government’ in the government’s attempts to implement its neighbourhood renewal commitments (1).
The DTLR’s public relations office was obviously delighted that its Community Forum was made up of the most ordinary of people. No retired colonels, no pinstriped stockbrokers, no TV personalities. Instead there is ‘a housewife, priest and former motorbike despatch rider’, apparently reflecting the socio-demographic diversity of deprived neighbourhoods. So have ‘The People’ finally re-entered British politics, courtesy of the New Labour government? Not quite.
In its enthusiasm to sing the praises of the new Community Forum, the DTLR gave away a bit too much about the members’ backgrounds – revealing impeccable credentials. The housewife is Carol Dickinson, who for the past five years has been a director of the Royds Community Association, a partly elected Bradford-based partnership in receipt of government regeneration funding. The priest and the former motorbike despatch rider are one and the same person – Reverend Benny Hazlehurst from south-east London, member of the Church of England’s General Synod, whose background includes youth and drug rehabilitation work.
As for the other 18, there is a charity chief executive, a Baptist minister, a Liberal Democrat councillor, a borough council deputy mayor, and a member of a Birmingham regeneration board whose ‘aspiration is to develop a toolkit that could measure the real impact on the local community and neighbourhoods from the current government investment’. These are hardly Joe Averages.
It seems somewhat dishonest for the DTLR to describe the link between local communities and the government as now being far more ‘direct’. With the introduction of the Community Forum there are more links in the chain than before. There is now a layer of voluntary organisations and other appointees who will mediate between the local and the central – in stark contrast to that old system known as democracy (remember that?), where local communities elect a member of parliament, who can stand again for reassessment when his term is up.
Yet the Community Forum embodies a crucial part of the government’s ideal public body: it is ‘representative’ of a wider constituency – not in the democratically elected sense, but in a shallower, sociological sense. In the government’s eyes, black people can only be represented by black people, women only by women, and, no doubt, former motorbike despatch riders by former motorbike despatch riders.
This might not be so bad if people were simply the products of their sociological characteristics. Fortunately, human nature is not so passive. When people make choices, they bring to bear on their decision not just the kind of person they are, but also the kind of person they’d like to be – expressing a vision of the future as well as expressing something of their past. Positive visions of the future are about what kind of society we want to live in, not simply a reflection of the demographic make-up of the kind of society we live in now.
What we have is a new layer of officials between people and their representatives – and a government with a view of human nature that cannot comprehend people’s aspirations beyond those dictated by socioeconomic factors. Maybe the DTLR had a point when it said that the Community Forum scheme was ‘forging a link with communities’. The government’s attempt to establish a link with ordinary people is a forgery all right.
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