Contributors Include ... the Role of Citizens in Social Change

Article excerpt

Politics is about change and how best to achieve it. As a political movement, Labour campaigns for office not just to change government but to change lives. Yet often we act as if the nature of the state is all that matters--that our role as activists and individuals is simply to vote the right way and then pay the tax bill at the end. Not only does this leave the public susceptible to the siren calls of Conservatives preaching personal liberty and self-determination as cover for cuts in public services. It also means we shy away from advocating the need for each and all of us to play our own part in making our society more just.

A focus on institutions may make sense in economic models or political theory textbooks, but experience teaches us the complexity of actually achieving social change requires a different approach. Whether we are dealing with climate change, addressing public health concerns, tackling international terrorism or promoting pro-social behaviour, we live in a world in which progress can only be made when networks of individuals, communities and public services are each able and willing to play their own part. To work with only one of these factors is to limit the resources we have to attain our version of a good society. In the modern world a strategy for social change that can deliver a more egalitarian society must recognise that the state can no longer direct the actions of citizens without their co-operation, any more than the market alone can be relied upon to address the challenges of our time.

How then to proceed? This is not an article about what government should be doing. It is about what each of us should be doing. To be successful in the modern world the left must advocate and encourage a practice of citizenship that can underpin progressive outcomes. We need to be the party of people power, not only in our public services but also across society.

Rethinking social citizenship

Citizenship matters because as a movement concerned with social justice and social solidarity, our political fortunes rise or fall on our capacity to draw the public into collective action. To advance this in a world where the consumer is celebrated and individuality prized, we need a way of describing our relationship to each other as well as to our shopping trolley. At its best, the ideals and acts of citizenship reflect the simple truth of humanity: that we are our brother's, or sister's, keeper; and need ways and means of living with each other as well as for ourselves.

To galvanise the resources of the public and be an effective force for social justice in the modern world, the left must make citizenship mean more than a ceremony with the mayor or a lesson in school. There is no better place to start than T.H. Marshall's lecture of 1949 that set out its three core components--civil, political and social (Marshall, 1950). Here citizenship referred to the contractual obligations of the individual and the state; thus the individual must vote and uphold the law and in turn the state offers the individual the protection of the law and the capacity to participate in decision-making. Marshall's work shows how, for the left, citizenship has also always referred to more than a legal status. Social citizenship enshrines relationships and rights at the heart of our social life that transcend narrow individualism and consumerism. The obligations these generate are rooted not in our financial worth but instead in our shared humanity. Granting citizenship to someone then requires us to act to tackle the injustices that prevent them from accessing these rights and protect them from being treated in an inhumane way. From guaranteeing legal rights through a fair and balanced criminal justice system to actualising social rights through a state education system, Marshall's ideas helped the left to underpin policies such as a national health service, and a politics of shared concern and endeavour in the post-war era. …