Citizens Britain: a radical agenda for the 2020s

On Saturday, the anniversary of last year’s disastrous General Election, we published a new report. Citizens’ Britain is the follow up to our previous collaboration, Winning for Britain, which was the first data-rich review of 2019. That earlier report concluded with the challenge of identifying “a distinct, progressive, liberal alternative”. Citizens’ Britain, a country where every voice is heard, and where we work together to solve the problems we face, is that alternative.

We must be honest with ourselves: liberalism itself is now under threat in this country. A year on from the General Election, the Conservative government’s approach to the pandemic and Brexit is endangering lives and livelihoods. Since his re-election, Boris Johnson and those around him have enabled nationalism and right-wing conservatism while also stifling progressive voices and ripping up the liberal institutions and frameworks that underpin our daily lives.

The mandate that Johnson and his cronies are claiming for this is rooted in a myth. The myth says people are uninterested in politics and just want government to get on with running things while they are left alone to get on with their lives. The Tories, to be clear, believe that Brexit and the hoarding of power in the central executive, at the expense of parliament, the devolved administrations, and local government, is no more than a response to the popular demand for government to ‘just get on with it’. To the extent that their governing philosophy extends beyond that, it is to say only that people should occasionally be called upon to use their consumer power to boost the economy.

This view of public sentiment is fundamentally false – as shown by the new polling data at the heart of the Citizens’ Britain report.

In May and June of this year, in the still relatively early stages of the pandemic, we commissioned a survey from YouGov of a representative sample of 1,650 British adults. The poll was designed to explore the relative appeal of three alternative framings of the guiding logic of the British political system:

  • A citizen approach, characterised by the statement “I believe giving everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard is the best way to solve the problems in this country;”
  • A consumer approach, characterised by the statement “I believe leaving businesses and consumers to do whatever it takes to grow the economy is the best way to solve the problems in this country;”
  • And a subject approach, characterised by the statement “I believe giving the Government whatever power it needs is the best way to solve the problems in this country.”

The response to our poll pointed to five distinct groups in the population. 18 percent most strongly identified with the subject approach, and 19 percent with that of the consumer. Another 7 percent were conflicted between approaches and 16 percent were ‘unsure’.

But by far the largest number, 40 percent, most strongly identified with the citizen approach.

This frame is also the most popular across almost every demographic, from socioeconomic group, to region, gender, ethnicity, and age. It is most popular among those who arguably have least power in the current system – the young as opposed to the old, and renters as opposed to owners – but is still preferred by those who have most too.

These findings suggest that the desire to ‘take back control’ goes far beyond Brexit to encompass a desire to come together as active participants in solving the problems of our country. To be treated, in other words as citizens, not just as consumers or subjects. This is the distinct, progressive, liberal alternative we need.

As well as setting out the data in more detail, the report:

  • Offers a new, deeply liberal definition of citizenship, rejecting the right-wing framing of it as a legal status held only by some, and instead claiming it as a “practice”: something we can all do
  • Shares case studies, from national to local, of what citizen-led politics looks like as it emerges across the world
  • Sets out what we see as the next steps in building a Citizens’ Britain

We hope reading the report gives you as much hope as research and writing it has given us, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

* Ian Kearns is the Director of the Social Liberal Forum and Jon Alexander is a Council Member at the Social Liberal Forum.

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  • Peter Martin 14th Dec '20 - 4:25pm

    Of course ” “… giving everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard” and this “is the best way to solve the problems in this country” sounds attractive but how does this work in practice?

    Suppose we have high unemployment develop in the NE of England. How do the good citizens of the NE go about solving that? They can’t. Not unless they have the full backing and involvement of central government. Only they have the financial muscle to tackle the problem effectively.

    There has always been a desire to set up alternative societies. The USA was a result of one such project. That was possible in the 17th C but it isn’t now. There’s no spare land. There probably wasn’t then if the rights of Native Americans had been respected.

    Its is sometimes referred to as “Asset-Based-Community-Development”. The theory is that Central Govt is controlled by those with an ideology of which we disapprove, usually too right wing, so why not go off on our own and do our own thing?

    Sorry, but that’s never going to work. Control of Central Govt has to be the prime objective. In the EU that would be control of the EU commission plus control of the elected Govts of its major countries like France and Germany.

  • Paul Barker 14th Dec '20 - 5:23pm

    I was very impressed by the Report – its worth reading the whole thing when you get the time.
    Peter Martins comment seem to me to miss the whole point. In fact there is a lot people in “Left Behind” areas can do with Local structures that trust them.
    Of course we need to throw this contemptable Government out in 2024 but Elections are a Marathon, not a Sprint, we need to start now & this Report is full of good ideas about how we do that alongside our Fellow Citizens, not For them.

  • Peter Martin 14th Dec '20 - 6:10pm

    @ Paul,

    I’m not sure what point I have missed. It might help enlighten me if you could provide some examples of how what you have in mind has ever worked in “left behind” areas.

  • I welcome the discussion being started by the publication of Citizen’ Britain.
    I have a copy of a publication by the New Economics Foundation – Participation Works – 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st century. It gives the ISBN number, but no date.
    There are description of 21 techniques of involving the community in decision making, with examples for each of them of where each has been used,
    If we believe in this we need to start somewhere. I suggest that as a party we start with decisions in our own party.
    If we are to get to a situation again where there is real enthusiasm for the cause from members we need in my opinion to genuinely involve them. The alternative is to wait for a charismatic leader to make decisions for us.
    OK there are many alternatives, but it would be interesting to hear any others that will result in an involved and enthusiastic membership,

  • David Evershed 15th Dec '20 - 2:14pm

    Paddy Ashdown is quoted as follows on the front page of the report.
    “A society cannot be free and is very unlikely to be successful for long unless the men and women in it have real power to determine their own destiny. The one thing that unfailingly gives me satisfaction in politics is to watch those who have been taught they are the subject of others’ power, rise to meet the challenge of power in their own hands – and then be unbelieving at what they are able to do.”

    Surely this is exactly what happened with the EU In/Out referendum where men and women went against the established powers and against the status quo, causing the UK to leave the EU?

    Power to the people, except Lib Dem policy was to try to negate the power of the people and not follow Paddy Ashdown’s advice.

  • David Garlick 16th Dec '20 - 2:33pm

    Another valuable input to the ‘mill’. Lets hope that we can find the yeast to pull all the resulting ‘flour’ together to make some strong desirable outcomes.

  • David Garlick 16th Dec '20 - 2:37pm

    The EU refrerendum is old history. Lets get on with the situation we have and win some seats. Learn lessons of course but chewing over the fat/old wounds does seem like a distraction.

  • Good Report. Want to read it again when I have the time

  • Jonathan Alexander 18th Dec '20 - 10:56am

    Some great comments, thanks folks – lots more to come in the new year so do sign up to Social Liberal Forum emails to stay posted!

  • Charles Smith 27th Dec '20 - 11:27am

    The European Union and the United Kingdom made public Saturday the vast agreement that is likely to govern future trade and co-operation between them from Jan. 1, setting the 27-nation bloc’s relations with its former member country and neighbour on a new but far more distant footing.

    EU ambassadors and lawmakers on both sides of the English Channel will now pore over the “EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” which contains over 1,240 pages of text. EU envoys are expected to meet on Monday to discuss the document, drawn up over nine intense months of talks.

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