I wrote this for the Independent Inquiry into Civil Society Futures, and it first appeared on their blog here.
In the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution came to maturity, an extraordinary system emerged to address the health needs of industrial workers. In Tredegar, south Wales, a hospital sick pay and insurance system was so effective that Nye Bevan took it as the model for the NHS.
This is far from unique. It is not just the NHS that has its origins in civil society. Our school system and many of the other institutions that create and sustain our society have their roots in our organisations of collective action, ranging from religious bodies to charities to trade unions. Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century the state looked to civil society to prototype the structures that would, eventually, comprise the most substantial parts of domestic policy.
Scotland became the first society in the world to have mass literacy as a result of the Church of Scotland’s universal parish school system, created by order of the Privy Council in 1616. The Carnegie Fund for the Universities of Scotland meant that this extended to higher education in the early 20th century. The slightly hyperbolic claim that Scots invented the modern world has its basis in a string of inventions, from the pneumatic tyre to television, that emerged organically from a society that was better educated than any other.
Just as the Tredegar medical model was the prototype for the NHS at its creation in the 1940s, the Scottish Parish schools were signed over wholesale to the state in the 1870s, forming the basis of the Scottish education system.
Civil society, the voluntary sector, and public institutions outside government have created the conditions within which we are born, educated and die. As the world changed, so government took on many of these functions. But it was not government that pioneered social change during the industrial revolution and the 20th century.
And on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, it is disappointing that it’s difficult to point to similar innovation from civil society. As we reach a digital frontier there are few examples of institutional civil society using the new tools to transform the world in the way universal education or free health did in previous eras. There are some examples, and Nesta has been bringing together some of the best through itsDigital Social Innovation programme. Possibly most notable is Cancer Research UK’s crowdsourcing of cancer data analysis through its Citizen Science programme.
This matters because the ideological underpinning of much of digital innovation is totally at odds with the values of civil society. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have usefully characterised this as the Californian Ideology – a mix of individualism, techno-utopianism, libertarianism and neoliberalism. In his film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, Adam Curtis points to the links between Silicon Valley capitalism and Ayn Rand’s ultra-libertarianism. So far, so far away from the communitarian and liberal aims of most civil society organisations. And that is reflected in the ‘real world’ manifestations of digital society – companies like Airbnb and Uber, who have business models that are a long way from those of civil society organisations and their attempts to build a fairer world.
There are a few examples of older not-for-profit organisations really reinventing how they do things in the context of modern tech: if we count Universities as Civil Society, then we we could look to how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be the foundation of tertiary education in future. The Guardian, which is run by a not-for-profit trust, has also been at the forefront of digital development. The BBC iPlayer is also a leading innovation in the digital space.
And there are some significant not-for-profit digital organisations. Wikipedia has perhaps been the most successful, almost totally dominating the encyclopaedia business, and displacing a range of traditional, for-profit, organisations. Mozilla, which produces the Firefox web browser, is another digital leader. It is important to acknowledge that the open source software community operates very much within a civil society model, but while this is both important and has made huge impact, it is the creation of a new community. But these examples all stand out as exceptions. And what is most concerning is the gap created by civil society organisations not grasping the opportunities of the sharing economy.
But it is very difficult to identify any of the civil society actors that have historically used digital innovation, mobile apps and other opportunities to change the way we live our lives. Uber has changed how people travel, Airbnb how they holiday, and Facebook has profoundly reconstituted our social relationships. I would challenge readers to name a single civil society organisation which has made that sort of difference using technology.
This is important because technology offers massive opportunities that align perfectly with the values of civil society. Social networks used to be mediated through civil society. Now they are mediated by Silicon Valley corporations with a somewhat shaky understanding of privacy.
The core values of the internet are very close to the core values of civil society. Universal, free and open access to information, and the ability to connect to people around the world on the basis of shared values and interests are at the heart of the world civil society has always sought to bring into being.
To take a specific example, the voluntary sector came up with the idea for community transport. Using shared non-commercial buses, or private cars to help people get to the shops, hospital appointments or other services is a core activity for many voluntary organisations. It is a life-saver for many older people. But all too often it remains a person sitting at a phone coordinating lifts. Why wasn’t it a community transport provider that prototyped mobile-led lift sharing – rather than leaving it to Uber? Why didn’t the cooperative movement support taxi drivers to create their own app-led service, as the New Economic Foundation and Nesta are now doing in Bradford and Leeds?
I do not have the answers. But I do know that we need to start thinking about this – I suspect that digital ideas are all-too-often dismissed by civil society leaders as being peripheral to core business activities. There are access issues – not everyone has a smartphone – but these issues are receding rapidly as smart technology becomes cheaper. It needs to stop being a barrier to digital service delivery.
It’s interesting that those civil society institutions that have produced digital innovations are those that have financial security. The BBC has the license fee, paid by most viewers, which allowed time and resource to develop iPlayer. Universities have substantial reserves, and the capacity to produce MOOCs on their existing resources. The Guardian invested substantial amounts of its reserves in becoming a leader in online journalism. Voluntary organisations subsisting on donations and year-to-year grant funding from government will find it very much more difficult to be strategic.
If you wanted to organise a meeting about an issue in the past, you would have gone to a civil society organisation. These days, you use social networks. Many of the activities that campaign organisations used to coordinate have been disintermediated by Facebook and other social networks. There are opportunities here. The ease with which millennials used to join Facebook groups has transferred into a new enthusiasm for joining political parties – transforming the outcome of the UK’s 2017 general election on the way.
Leaders in civil society need to be more open to digital ideas. There needs to be investment available for those ideas – investing in the technology to make sure your organisation delivers on its objectives should be a priority. Most importantly, civil society has a vital role to play in shaping the values of a tech-rich society.
Civil society has the creativity, connections, and trust to transform our world. But we need to use the tools that can best achieve that task. And that will require really serious changes – not just in how we approach, appropriate and develop digital technologies, but in how civil society sees its role in the world. Imagine if the world’s dominant social network was committed to civil society values. Imagine if the deployment of civilian drones was to create social value, by transporting organs or blood rather than delivering books and CDs. Just think of the difference a genuine lift-sharing service could make to congestion and air pollution. It is time for the organisations with the position and resources to make these things happen to act.
I wrote this for Democratic Left’s newsletter in May 2017, on the prospects for the general election:
The UK General Election on June 8th confirms folk understandings of Freud’s concept of projection. Theresa May’s constant refrain that she will create a ‘strong and stable’ government reflect her underlying inability to do so. We will find out on June 8th just how much of this weakness has been understood by the electorate, but at the time of writing, it appears that she has lost some of the lustre granted to her by the British media’s infatuation with ‘New Thatcher’.
Background to the Crisis
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci
It is clear that the old world is dying. It is also clear that the new world cannot be born. The very rapid technological developments in fields like automation, energy and data go barely understood in the public debate. Meanwhile, old arguments around immigration, welfare and the replacement of mid-20th century industrial jobs persist. It cannot be a coincidence that the debate around immigration in the UK has ramped up just at the time at which job destruction and automation begins to accelerate. Indeed, the fact that concern about immigration is highest in areas with lowest immigration suggests to us that, for all the over-analysis of the issue, this is obviously a placeholder for other concerns.
We cannot understand the Brexit vote and the election of Trump without understanding the broader socio-political and socio-technological contexts. We see in the Trump and Brexit victories a deep longing for a return to the social-democratic consensus of the mid-20th century, but in conditions that can never allow that.
The contours of Brexit
It is clear that the Brexit vote had no single cause, but there are a couple of important dynamics within this debate. The places that voted for Brexit tend to fall into one of two categories: ‘left behind’ areas of post-industrial England and Wales; and the wealthy home counties. It seems obvious that there are two processes at work here – both are nostalgic: in the home counties, for the days of Empire; in ‘left behind’ areas, for the social democratic consensus when jobs in heavy industry were available to all, were well paid, and carried with them a sense of dignity.
This coalition was vital to delivering the Brexit vote, but the outcomes these groups seek from Brexit are radically different and often diametrically opposed. In this context, it is interesting to note just how the Conservatives under Theresa May have attempted to provide attractive policies for both constituencies: lots of talk about Britain becoming an offshore tax haven to pacify the Empire chauvinists, with a nod towards industrial democracy through measures such as workers on boards for the ‘left behinds’.
There are problems with each of these positions that I will come on to later. One unifying factor amongst those who voted for Brexit was age, with leaving the EU being an enthusiasm largely of the old.
The forward march of Labour reversed
Quite by accident and in circumstances very much not of their own making, the Conservatives have stumbled across a fatal flaw in the composition of the coalition of voters that the Labour Party relied upon to govern. In the run up to the Scottish Referendum in 2014, it became clear that constitutional politics was an enormous stumbling block for the Labour Party in Scotland. A party used to what we might describe as elective Bolshevism (you get a plurality in the election and use that to exercise a monopoly on power was simply incapable of discussing issues of power with the electorate.
For the Yes campaign, the more they asked questions and suggested solutions based on distributing economic and political power, the more successful they became, in no small part because the answer from Labour to proposals as diverse as reinvigorating local democracy and creating a Universal Basic Income was a one-dimensional refrain of “If you want that, vote Labour”. When combined with a public imagination that could still very much remember Labour under Blair, this simply did not wash. A government that allowed inequality to run away while prioritising an unpopular and illegal war in Iraq damaged the popular credibility of the Labour movement in Scotland. The more Labour found themselves in discussions about the constitution, and, more importantly, about giving power away, the less popular Labour became.
When the Conservatives won an accidental majority in the 2015 General Election, and were obliged to deliver on a manifesto pledge to have a referendum on membership of the European Union, another opportunity to put Labour in a very awkward position around constitutional politics arose, this time, affecting not just Scotland, but the whole of Labour’s British electorate.
Labour chose to sit out the EU Referendum, recognising that their voters were profoundly split on the issue. Had the vote been for Remain, this would have been a tactically wise decision. But, the distance between Labour representatives and their constituents on this issue meant they failed to understand just how likely a leave vote was. With the Leave vote, Labour was again asked to talk about constitutional politics when it is emotionally incapable of doing so.
When added to internal dissent caused by the election of a left-wing leader in a centrist parliamentary group, Labour MPs seized an opportunity to try and overthrow their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The cynical opportunism of pro-European MPs trying to oust a leader who was ambivalent about the EU on the grounds that he was unable to understand the concerns of the electorate became clear: he was much more in tune with the electorate than his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair said he would rather that Labour lost than that they win with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. The actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party indicated that they agreed. They looked as if they had fatally holed Corbyn’s leadership even though he had won his second leadership election.
Strong and stable?
The Tory Party had chaos of its own, with David Cameron stepping down to be replaced as leader by Theresa May in a leadership election where the significant figures of the Leave campaign failed to make it through to the final round of the ballot, which Andrea Leadsom then failed to contest, having made some crass remarks around motherhood and Theresa May.
A rapid infatuation by the right wing media with May followed. Her Daily Mail politics and the folk memory of the last woman to be a Conservative Prime Minister, aided by the adoption wholesale of UKIP policies, translated itself into a collapse in the UKIP vote, and a corresponding substantial increase in the Tory poll lead.
May strategically blundered by promising no early general election, triggering Article 50, then calling a General Election. This may become seen as the moment she punctured her reputation for playing straight. Further, an election was always likely to expose some of May’s fundamental weaknesses: while claiming to be strong and stable, she is clearly brittle, hiding not just from Leaders’ Debates, but the media and even the public. An election campaign in which the Prime Minister hides is always going to be a difficult one for her Party.
As the campaign has gone on, these weaknesses have become more obvious, but another weakness has emerged: while the decision to call the election was based on flimsy reasoning (that there was parliamentary opposition to her proposals for a Hard Brexit) the manifesto and platform are substantially less cynical than those put together by George Osborne for the 2015 election. Gone are the commitments to the Conservative’s core constituency, like the triple-lock on pensions and the commitment to protect the ability to pass on wealth by state payment for social care. The surprise Tory victory in 2015 was built on a series of well-segmented promises to different groups of the electorate. The 2017 manifesto looks like it cannot achieve this segmentation. The logic, of course, is that the Conservatives have a poll lead sufficient to allow them to alienate these segments of the electorate.
The terrain of the election
In previous general elections, Labour has ‘played the game’ with a media-friendly leader and focus group policies intended to triangulate their way to victory. The outcome has been that after Blair, these leaders have been pummelled by the media, attacked for the way in which they eat bacon sandwiches, and portrayed by Conservatives as being in the pockets of unpatriotic interests, with Miliband being, quite literally, portrayed inside Alec Salmond’s pocket ahead of the 2015 General Election. Whoever had been chosen as Labour leader after the 2015 election would have been subjected to withering attacks across the media and it is hard to see how Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, or any of the other possible candidates (David Miliband?) could have withstood this attack. Labour have needed, for some time, to abandon this tactic, and build an alternative approach.
It is hard to see how Labour could be more effective in 2015 at bringing Tory voters across to them, but it is clear to see that many of the non-voters from 2005 onwards can be encouraged to vote Labour. The Labour manifesto has some of the elements that will begin to rebuild a winning coalition for Labour. At the time of writing, it does not look like that will be enough, but it points the way to a different approach.
It remains likely that the Conservatives will win the election, though much less likely than many commentators predicted at the start of the campaign. But the complexity of delivering Brexit may well be beyond this next Tory government. Theresa May’s communications indicate that she believes successful negotiation is negotiation conducted from a position of strength, and very often that is the case. But it is entirely unclear how she intends to turn her negotiating position with the European Commission from one of weakness into one of strength. It seems much more likely that she will attempt to negotiate from strength, even though her position is weak. This is likely to result in a range of dire consequences.
It remains possible that Boris Johnson’s flounce out of the Tory leadership race was tactically astute, allowing Theresa May to be ‘the fall guy’ for a bad Brexit deal or a failure to complete Brexit, allowing Johnson to take over and attempt to bluster his way out of this failure.
What is to be done?
The tensions ignited by the Conservatives playing a game of chicken around constitutional politics may be hard to contain. Sinn Fein’s masterful strategy to accelerate a united Ireland may bring the Republic of Ireland’s veto into play in the European Council over any Brexit deal. It seems that Brexit has put the wind back in the sails of the Scottish Independence movement. For those who voted for Brexit as a way to reclaim Britain’s Imperial honour, the loss of Britain’s last holdings in Ireland and of Scotland may be traumatic.
Now, more than ever, a coherent political alternative is needed: one that can address the issues of disempowerment and lack of dignity that drove the Brexit vote for ‘left behinds’, one that brings together the need to create a fair economy for all in the face of automation and job destruction with the need to save the planet from climate change, and one that recognises the real social inequalities across race, gender, sexuality, ability and so on. The Green Parties of these islands have advocated this approach and have been successful in influencing other political parties to take this agenda more seriously.
The right wing media used UKIP to introduce racism and Empire nostalgia that drove us to Brexit. We need to get our radical ideas into the public debate by supporting and growing social movements, and then ensure our politics takes up these ideas: electoral reform is the best way to achieve that. Only then can we begin to create the next economy that will work for people and planet.
This blog first appeared on the Nesta website.
One of the most exciting developments of the last year has been the creation of a Citizen’s Basic Income Network (CBIN) in Scotland. Bringing together a wide range of people who have an interest, and who have done work on citizen’s income, the group has been working on how to promote the idea of a citizen’s income, universal income or basic income. It builds on the excellent work of Guy Standing, and of the RSA’s Anthony Painter. And in Scotland on the work of Professor Ailsa Mackay, Annie Miller, Willie Sullivan, and many others – with the promotional work by Common Weal and the RSA being especially significant.
The Citizen’s Income Trust defines universal income as:
A citizen’s income would vary with age, but there would be no other conditions: so everyone of the same age would receive the same citizen’s income, whatever their gender, employment status, family structure, contribution to society, housing costs, or anything else.
Someone’s citizen’s income would be paid weekly or monthly, automatically.
Citizen’s incomes would not be means-tested. If someone’s earnings or wealth increased, then their citizen’s income would not change.
Citizen’s incomes would be paid on an individual basis, and not on the basis of a couple or household.
- As a right of citizenship
Everybody legally resident in the UK would receive a citizen’s income, subject to a minimum period of legal residency in the UK, and continuing residency for most of the year.
The most encouraging part of this initiative is the proposal to have a trial in Scotland. As a result of the Fife Fairness Commission, public agencies, led by the council, are proposing a trial in parts of Fife. There are lots of reasons for supporting a citizen’s basic income. As the public lost trust in social security and governments have reduced the level of welfare available so a universal income becomes a much more resilient option. Citizen’s income is the best hope for remuneration of currently unpaid domestic work that tends to be undertaken predominantly by women.
There are other strong arguments. A basic income would end the benefits trap, where withdrawal of benefits upon moving into work results in a loss of income. As automation destroys jobs, there will be a deepening crisis of demand in the economy – a citizen’s income offers a way to avoid that downward economic spiral.
But it is an idea that is plagued by misconceptions, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions. The most significant is that many people presume that a citizen’s income would become a ‘layabout’s charter’, allowing people to avoid work. The evidence, systematically collected from a Canadian trial in the 1970s by Annie Miller, suggests the opposite is true – that a citizen’s income moves more people into work, but simplifying the social security system.
And that is where a trial comes in useful. We now have the ability – through better data systems than ever – to conduct an experiment that would answer these questions. Given real-time and definitive data that demonstrates that a citizen’s income would help people into work, the strongest argument against its wider implementation withers. There is already work on an experimental approach being taken by Demos Helsinki.
Given the best evidence, we can make the case for a citizen’s basic income better than ever before. That is a prize for which we should all be working.
The referendum shows we can have a new politics; a politics that is participatory, a politics committed to equality and sustainability – a Green politics. We must use this exciting chance to change our country and our world.
I am a long-standing Green activist and am well known as Rector of Edinburgh University. My day job is as Director of Policy for Common Weal. I have 8 years experience in the voluntary sector, including as Chair of Transition Scotland, as a Policy Officer for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. I am currently working hard in Edinburgh East.as the Scottish Greens national target candidate for Westminster.
We can elect a second (and maybe even third) MSP in Lothian, and I’m seeking nomination for the second place on the list.
If elected as an MSP I will:
- Oppose austerity and cuts and make the case for social investment, not privatisation like TTIP;
- Use participatory methods like £eith Decides to ensure party members decide my actions;
- Campaign on climate change, pollution and species-loss;
- Fight fracking and support green jobs in renewables;
- Work to combat inequality, using new powers coming to Scotland to increase social justice.
Having moved from Belfast to Edinburgh in 1998 I’ve always worked for political change as a community activist in East Edinburgh, as a student and as Rector of Edinburgh University, as well as through the Scottish Green Party:
- Co-founder and board member – PEDAL-Portobello Transition Town;
- Community Councillor in Portobello;
- Vice President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association
- Campaigner to save Castlebrae High School.
I was Rector of Edinburgh University between 2012 and 2015. In this role I :
- Campaigned for divestment of University funds from fossil fuels and the arms trade;
- Won a campaign to fix international student fees across the course of a degree;
- Worked with students to create a 106-unit student housing cooperative;
- Campaigned to close the gender pay gap;
- Ensured the University commit to ending zero-hour contracts;
- Fought against £9000 fees.
The exciting referendum campaign attracted support and I will ensure our Holyrood campaign repeats this, learning from my experience as Convener of the Edinburgh Green Party, Chair of the European Campaign Group in 2009 and 2014 and as a candidate in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections.
I am standing for selection to be the Scottish Green Party’s candidate for Edinburgh East in the 2015 General Election. This election gives us the opportunity to build on what was our best ever result in Scotland in the 2014 European Elections. Whilst we did not get a Green MEP elected, we did reach a range of new voters who showed their support for our message of a just and welcoming Scotland. We must build on this electoral advance, securing our place as the Party that stands up for public services and workers, immigrants and the vulnerable, and for a Scotland that builds peace in the world.
Edinburgh East is the best opportunity for a Scottish Green MP. I am well known in Portobello and Edinburgh University, two important Green areas of the constituency. I am a local candidate who can deliver a big Green vote here.
I will use the campaign to:
- Fight for action on climate change and biodiversity;
- Oppose austerity, cuts, and attacks on social security;
- Build Edinburgh Greens ahead of Holyrood election;
- Combat inequality.
As a community activist in Portobello I have been:
- Founding board member – PEDAL-Portobello Transition Town;
- Community Councillor;
- Campaigner to keep Castlebrae High School open;
- Council candidate twice, increasing the vote substantially.
As Rector of Edinburgh University I:
- Campaigned for Fossil-Free University investments;
- Won fixed international student fees;
- Created a 106-unit student housing cooperative;
- Fought against £9000 fees.
I will be a high-profile candidate with the ability to generate momentum. The exciting European campaign attracted support and I will ensure our Westminster campaign repeats this.
I have a long record in the Green party:
- Former Edinburgh Convener and longest-serving committee member;
- 2014 European campaign co-convener;
- Council, European and Holyrood candidate.
For a local candidate who can deliver the Party’s message to a range of voters, select Peter McColl #1 for Edinburgh East.