DAVID PUTTNAM ON LABOUR
'Now is the time to bridge the chasm between government and the governed'
Perhaps I am an optimist, but I believe you've got to go back about seven years to recall a more united and positive atmosphere in the Labour Party. And it's not just true in parliament: the efforts being made to rebuild at the grass roots in time for the next round of local elections have every chance of being successful, so long as the present climate of discussion and co-operation continues.
This represents quite a turnaround, because only four months ago the atmosphere in the parliamentary party was becoming poisonous. Several things have been responsible, chief among them the unifying effect of the recent attacks on London and the success of the party leaders in showing statesmanship. But other forces, too, have been at work: the election dust has settled and some divisive issues are slipping into the past. This is a good time to reinvigorate the party and its organisation.
Central to this process will be re-engagement with the electorate. The most recent Labour manifesto is unambiguous: "Widening access to power is as important as widening access to wealth and opportunity ... Our political institutions--including our own party--must engage a population overloaded with information, diverse in its values and lifestyles, and sceptical of power ... Our challenge is to bridge the chasm between the government and the governed." Among the many discussions that ought to be taking place in this context is how we can improve citizenship education. Creatively and inclusively conducted, it has the potential to combat the lack of social cohesion that permits extreme ideologies to take hold of the imaginations of a few young Britons.
In 2001, in the wake of the Bradford riots, I wrote an article in the New Statesman setting out the imaginative steps the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (of which I was then chair) had taken to draw in young Asians and interest them in the work of the museum. Many of these admittedly small initiatives were remarkably successful. As a result of my experience in Bradford, I was particularly interested in the Cantle report when it was published later that year. This described what had to be done if our multicultural society was to be a lasting success. To quote briefly: "There has been little attempt to develop clear values which focus on what it means to be a citizen of a modern multiracial Britain, and many still look backwards to some supposedly halcyon days of a monocultural society, or alternatively look to their country of origin for some form of identity."
Four years on, it's clear we have not done anything like enough to advance the cause of inclusive citizenship in the one place where it is likely to have the greatest impact--our schools. We have proved good at identifying and even celebrating our cultural differences, but we've baulked at the other side of the equation--mustering, as Matthew d'Ancona has put it, "the courage to identify, and insist upon, the points of non-negotiable conformity".
By a strange twist of fate, at the moment when the bombs went off, I was visiting the site of one of the new "separation walls" in Jerusalem, and the news from London certainly tempered my response to what looked and felt like a Stone Age solution to a human problem. That evening, I spoke at the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival and, in an attempt to link the terrible events of the day with the humanist role cinema is capable of playing, I used a Hebrew expression, "Mee? Annee", which roughly translates as "Who am I?". My argument was that cinema, when it wishes, has an almost unique ability to help us answer that question in a constructive way. The reaction of the audience to London's tragedy was overwhelming: 7,000 people made it clear that in spirit, that evening, they were …