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Citizens organising can help Britain from ‘dog whistle’ politics and fear amongst people

For the first time in recent months many Londoners felt for the first time that politics can be humane and fun as well as liberating from the traditional ‘Punch and Judy’ style in our democracy.

 

On 5th May 2016 the world’s greatest and most diverse city, with 300 languages spoken by its inhabitants, is going to elect its Mayor. But the campaign has so far been marred by accusations of ‘dog whistle’ campaigning and ordinary Londoners were left feeling frustrated and powerless.

 

However, the country’s largest grass-root civil society body, Citizens UK, and its London arm, London Citizens, garnered over 6,000 of its activists and supporters with an alternative civil version of how to conduct a politics of accountability. The two front running candidates – Sadiq Khan (Labour) and Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) faced ordinary Londoners at the Copper Box arena in London’s historic Olympic Park on 28th April. Both candidates had to convince the audience and outside world that they are the right person to lead London.

 

London Citizens had worked for months with its affiliates and ordinary members – a staggering 350,000 Londoners – and came up with some key specific asks from the future Mayor – such as the London Living Wage, Jobs and Employment Opportunities for Young People and, most crucially, practical solutions on London’s Housing crisis. The Mayoral Accountability Assembly thus granted a feeling of power of ordinary people over their politicians and gave a sense of liberation from the accusatory politics that has been blemishing the great city.

 

This style of non-partisan politics and people participation to reclaim power in their own hands has been the essence of citizens organising in recent times in some countries. In the US the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), established in 1940, had pioneered community organizing with religious congregations and civic organizations to help strengthen citizen leadership. In the UK citizens organising started in the East End with The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) in the mid-1990. This grew into London Citizens and now the Citizens UK.

 

Peaceful co-existence and appreciation amongst people is vital in a pluralist society. Human diversity is not only a beauty but a necessity in our life. People are not born to be clones of each other. Diversity enhances creativity and is a source of strength not weakness. We naturally have differences, but we are better together. Diversity, however, does not mean isolation, segregation or insularity – for that surely defeats the whole purpose. The values of community life and the need to build strong communities of mutual support are basic principles that connect fellow citizens who want to achieve a fairer and more just society for everyone. Citizens organising thus builds bridges amongst people and communities and allays fears and myths between them.

 

Young people with their energy and innovative qualities are naturally more comfortable with diversity. They are always an asset but can be impressionable and inexperienced. They will make mistakes and then learn from them. However, they should not be dealt with a top-down diktat, be it from the government, mosques, churches, synagogues or the community leadership. Otherwise, we can expect a backlash and unsatisfactory results.

 

In our towns and cities up and down the country we live as neighbours and our children attend schools having the same curriculum. If there is ghettoisation in some areas or inner cities, this needs serious study and our collective effort to minimise it – not blame one group or another. There must be a better way to resolving our differences. There are examples of celebratory works, so the message of optimism needs to be reinforced at the grassroots levels through our mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras or non-faith community centres. We all, including our government and media, have a crucial role to play here and some have bigger responsibilities than others.

 

All the CUK’s works with the young and old from our diverse communities has given the Citizens UK an unparalleled opportunity in bringing people together for uplifting everyone’s life. For example, the Living Wage campaign for low paid workers for over 15 years has convinced over 2,500 employers to become “Living Wage Employers”. This is phenomenal, but there are still millions who are struggling to make their ends meet.

 

Another serious issue in our midst in recent times – the continuous anxiety in the Muslim community, rising Islamophobia and the challenges it faces in the media since 7/7 – has made Muslim participation in public life very difficult, if not almost impossible. This unfortunate situation is not only hampering young Muslims in engaging with public life but also dividing neighbours and communities in our heartland of democracy. In order to understand the depth of the issues and come up with a realistic solution the Citizens UK launched a “Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life” in September 2015 to hear from Muslims and non-Muslims with a view to publish a report with recommendations. The Commission, chaired by former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC, will then come up with  a Compact between Muslim Communities and the wider society including the government and a delivery plan to implement the recommendations by mid-2017.

 

Nelson Mandela who fought for justice all his life said, “We fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large or how small; and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity”. It is vital citizens here and everywhere wage a war against our common enemies – ignorance, fear and inaction that give rise to prejudice, intolerance, hatred and discrimination. We need to collectively fight them in Britain and across the world.

 

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant. He is member of Citizens UK Council. Follow him on twitter: @MAbdulBari

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