Thursday, March 12, 2009

Startin' Over?

On June 4th I am, for the first time in my life, standing in an Election. It is the local government poll for Suffolk County Council. I am standing in Hardwick Division (or ward) for the Liberal Democrats who, last time, got 28% of the votes next to the victorious Tories' 39% and lowly Labour's 25%. Winnable-ish. But on the same day as the Euros with the Tories sky-high in the polls, I am not the bookie's choice!

Why and why now? Its a good question. The answer, I think, is that I feel its the next stage for me. You see, I've chosen so far to express my politics almost exclusively through my work. Speaking Up has been, in a way, my way of saying to the world what I believe in: personal empowerment, self-direction, social equality and an entrepreneurial, non-statist approach to social change.

For a long time, I felt this was the only real way for me to change the world. Politics seemed slow and, at times, pointless. I wanted to focus, laser-like, on issues I cared about and make a difference, without wasting a gram of energy on the heat and light of politics. Added to this, I didn't, as a younger man, have the skill, insight or inclination to be effective beyond what I chose to do through the organisations I set up.

But that has changed. I am a bit older now. I understand the world better. My skills have broadened, my confidence grown. I also know better what I believe now, which sounds odd, but I took a long time to truly make up my mind on many things.

Coupled to all this, my days of serial entrpreneurship feel like they may be behind me now. Like a blocked songwriter, I just don't have another tune in me right now. As Paul Weller once said, `after a while, they just stop coming'. He was right. There was a time in my late 20s-early 30s when I set up an organisation a year for five years. But the truth is that I haven't actually set up anything new for years.

Some of this dearth is stage-of-life stuff - kids, the job, being permanently fatigued - but part of it is that I may have `done' that particular approach to changing the world and now want to find another. The nearest I seem to get these days to social entrepreneurship is helping others who are doing what I used to do back in the day.

So what do I believe in policy terms? I'd like to say I am a classic Liberal Democrat but, in truth, my beliefs are a bit more of a political alphabet soup than that. I don't, for example, remotely mind CCTV being everywhere. Nor do I spend too many sleepness nights worrying about who MI5 might be keeping an eye on. In truth, I am probably more far `right wing' than most Liberal Democrats. Indeed certain people in the party like Simon Hughes (the lefty-Christian Liberal MP) really don't do much for me at all.

However, I am very clear about a few things. I believe in a state which operates within clearly defined, written limits. Even in an era where we need a strong state to respond to global change, I think it is ever more important that we decide, formally, as a society, what government is and isn't allowed to do. A written constitution.

I also think the public sector is far too big. The corrective to 90s public squalor has swung the other way and we now have long passed the point where additional spending made any difference. We need a public sector which is smaller (25% smaller), which is managed so it can succeed and in which real-world terms and conditions are imposed, immediately, upon the people working within its organisations.

Finally, I want to see radical decentralisation of power. As anyone who has run a successful organisation knows, centralised systems tend to underperform. Britain is currently run like Shell in the 1960s. From the top down. And we wonder why nothing really works. It takes a huge leap of faith to let go of the levers, but, one day soon, Government will need to pass power down the line. Not just to local government. But to wider civil society. And, as a key part of civil society, the third sector should be a much larger shaping force in the way Britain works. Delivering services but also shaping them too, as users and local managers of resources.

This all probably sounds a bit David Cameron, I know, so I need to stress this I am not a Conservative. Unlike the Tories, I believe that it is right for politicians to seek to change the natural order by deliberate effort. I am also basically optimistic, rather than sceptical, about human nature. Given basic safety, fairness and equal-opportunity, most people tend to elevate social solidarity to a primary value very easily. Look at the trust-based societies of Northern Europe for an example of this. High trust societies are successful ones. They are also ones in which social inequality is actively challenged, not seen as `the natural order'.

Therefore Government, in my view, needs to create the conditions in which the best aspects of human nature can thrive and where the worst are actively discouraged. Yes, I guess I am talking about social engineering. But where Labour has gone wrong in my view has been to focus on settting up endless Government programmes, instead of nurturing the capacity of our society to be the one in which most people aspire to live: One that is just, safe,cohesive, trusting, regardful, optimistic.

Does this sound like the UK today after 12 years of Labour Government? No. Therefore I am, like most people, deeply worried about the future of our country and, of course, the wider world. We are, in the G20, entering a period of low growth and likely social fragmentation. The end of oil is near. I think living standards may well have peaked for a lot of people in the richer countries. For those outside the elite nations, the picture is particularly bleak. Warming is already having profound effects. You don't need to be James Lovelock to believe that its 50/50 whether half the places within the Tropics will even exist a hundred years from now.

The challenge, then, for politics domestically, is to lead and broker a new kind of settlement on the economy, to redefine the role of the state in the face of new challenges and to engineer conditions in which our society can cohere rather than fragment. It is to set a course for this country which weans us off oil within 50 years. It isn't hard to imagine. We have always been inventive. I can almost see the UK, in 50 years time, as a bit like a gigantic social enterprise: earning its living through successful products which address the challenges of others globally, but always mindful of the need to balance our financial returns with wider social returns globally. Returns without which, ultimately, we are all endangered.

Politics starts for me on the Nowton estate next Friday afternoon when I do my Residents Survey as a prelude to my campaign. I am asking people what they think about a whole raft of issues in our area from Post Offices at risk to the closure of our middle schools next year. In doing this I hope to find out who might vote for me in June.

My political career may begin,end or just be delayed on June 4th. But, whatever happens, I think I will have learned something from the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of people I otherwise would probably never see or encounter in my life at the moment, never mind talk to or listen to.


Mark Griffiths 'ideally speaking...' said...

Craig, my only regret is that I don't live in your constituency to vote for you. I think you'll make a great politician and that we are seeing here the very early days of something very big. And well done for choosing the Lib Dems. It's a challenge, but you have room to grow.

Rob Greenland said...

This is great to hear Craig. We need more politicians with a socially entrepreneurial approach and some real life experience.

The only thing I'd question you on is the social entrepreneur/setting things up argument. I suppose technically an entrepreneur is someone who does set things up (where an innovator might point to what could be set up, but leave others to do it), but I think you can still be very effective being socially entrepreneurial within existing organisations. That sounds a bit theoretical but there's an important point in there somewhere!