How do we create a passion for civic activism?

Engaging, informative and instrumental in building “democratic foundation” for future generations. It is wonderful that the “civic tradition” of children from the Polish Saturday School in Welwyn Garden City continues! Always in January, when some might have preferred to stay at home, a group of 12 children and a few members of staff visited the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. Children had another opportunity to visit the Council Chamber, meet the Leader, Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. 

 Throughout the meeting, children listened attentively and with a great desire to learn. They had a chance to learn to ask a number of questions, many surprising and thought-provoking. This time some of them included:

  • What is the best part of being a Councillor? 
  • How are our taxes spent?
  • Is the town planning to build additional sports facilities?
  • What specifically is the district doing about climate change?

 The trip also had another important dimension. It gave participants an opportunity to continue building a positive image of the Polish diaspora in the UK, having a real impact on our integration and inspire our students to become actively involved in the life of the local community. 

 Today, when so many people feel “political fatigue”, often “political passiveness”, such meetings are crucial. Our most recent event was also important for our Local Councillors, who have a regular opportunity to listen to the voice of all the ethnic groups that make up such an important “social fabric” of our district.

 Of course, this is not the end of the story! Debates are also becoming an important part of our meetings. This time the topic was very topical; whether pandemic restrictions should be lifted now.

 My personal highlight? I don’t think that democracy can be taught only in the classroom. Our meeting brought “democracy to life” and we’ve seen “democracy in action”. These were our key objectives, and although we have not reached the “final destination”, today we were able to plant a “democratic seed”. It was a step in the right direction. Maybe a small step, but very important. In my view, this is how a “passion for civic activism” can be born. 

Our civic journey must continue, no matter what. We must continue to raise above political divisions to create opportunities for “political collaboration and maturity”. For the sake of the next generation, we can’t lose hope for a better tomorrow. However, in order to do it, we must remain an active part of the civic process. 

 

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and councillor for Handside ward, Welwyn Hatfield.

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11 Comments

  • john Marriott 24th Jan '22 - 9:50am

    @Michael Siewniak
    Your enthusiasm for civic service is exemplary. I was like you about twenty years ago.

    You ask how we can infect more of our fellow citizens with the civic activist bug. Well, just dwell on this sentence from John Harris’s piece in today’s Guardian. According to Mr Harris, it’s all about trust. He writes; “Any meaningful sense of a social contract has long gone; many people’s lives are so precarious that politics sounds like white noise, and it’s practitioners inevitably seem cosseted and privileged”. For “politics” I would add “any kind of politics”.

    So, if you can somehow get them to see the other side of the coin you might just stand a fighting chance. Good luck.

  • Trevor Andrews 24th Jan '22 - 9:54am

    I enjoyed reading your post Michael and agree more needs to be done. We need schools to be doing more in talking politics and I think the younger generation are more interested. When I was at school (1953-63) we had no insights and in fact, as an 11 plus failure, politics was seen as only for the rich and educated. Now with age, time and a Masters Degree 😊 even I enjoy being involved.

  • John Marriott 24th Jan '22 - 6:32pm

    My first response, rather tongue in cheek, was “You pay them”. Call that cynicism if you like; but I sincerely believe that councillors should not be out of pocket for the work they put in. However, I have always been suspicious of paying them an allowance regards of how much they do. The abolition of the attendance allowance, paid only for attending meetings etc. was a retrograde step, in my opinion.

    The reason I personally parted company with the Lib Dems was the policy that all Lib Dem Councillors receiving an allowance should make a “financial contribution” towards their local party. I have no problem with making a contribution; but I am concerned as to how this is often interpreted by local groups. Mine fixed the amount at 10%. I and my fellow County Group had been paying for a number of years into a special fund to be used to help of finance subsequent election campaigns but also to fight by elections for others. What I and they were concerned about was that we would, under the local party diktat, have no say as to how that money might be spent. Because of our stance we were threatened with expulsion. Is it any wonder that three out of the four in our small group decided not to stand again in 2017.

  • Maurice Leeke 25th Jan '22 - 10:30am

    I think the answer to John Marriott‘s question is: Yes it is surprising that three out of four of your councillors should decide to stand down because they had been asked to make a modest contribution towards the cost of contesting elections to get them re-elected and others elected – if that is what happened.
    I was a county councillor for 24 years and throughout that time I and my colleagues paid a “tithe” to support campaigning across the county.

  • John Marriot – the problem with the attendance allowance was that it fuelled massive committees and frequent meetings to ensure that cllrs ‘earned’ enough. It was also possible for cllrs to substitute at the last minute for an absent colleague, get their £20 and just sit there having not even seen the papers let alone read them. I was a dual member ( district and county) at the time of the change over to basic allowance and it did at least reduce the problem.

  • Maurice you say “I was a county councillor for 24 years and throughout that time I and my colleagues paid a “tithe” to support campaigning across the county.

    John says “I and my fellow County Group had been paying for a number of years into a special fund to be used to help of finance subsequent election campaigns but also to fight by elections for others.”

    No difference there.

    But John also adds “we would, under the local party diktat, have no say as to how that money might be spent. Because of our stance we were threatened with expulsion.” Now that is totally different to what went before and sounds like a new group elected to a bit of local power within the local party choosing to exert that power on those who had been doing it for years.

    That is not acceptable behaviour – Is it?

  • John Marriott 25th Jan '22 - 1:23pm

    @Maurice Leeke
    The problem was that we WERE already paying into a fund we had set up when we were all first elected in 2001. The fact that we got elected and managed to get re elected several times in the next 16 years was largely down to our ability to tap into something in a true blue County that Labour, for example, generally failed to do. As we appeared to have discovered a winning formula, was it not unreasonable that we should have a say in how any contributions we made was spent. Our ‘winning formula’ was simple: we worked as individuals bloody hard, as opposed to passing resolutions at party meetings, which many ‘active’ members thought was all that was required to further the Lib Dem cause. Our voters didn’t just hear from us at election time. Yes, I AM bitter, especially as I made sacrifices in terms of career and family over four decades.

    I would like to thank David Evans for coming to our defence.

  • Maurice Leeke 25th Jan '22 - 2:00pm

    In reply to David Evans.

    I have no knowledge what happened in John Marriott’s constituency, but it does seem to me that there may have been personality clashes there, so I will limit my comments to more general points.

    Most successful council candidates, ie councillors, achieve that success with practical and financial support from their local party and its members. It has always seemed reasonable to me that some contribution from the councillor‘s allowance should find its way back to the local party to help, among other things, future campaigns.

    Now when I pay tax, apart from as a citizen and voter, I have no extra say in how that money is spent. When I pay my tithe, apart from being a senior member, a campaigner, a councillor, (and possibly other offices and roles) of the local party, I don’t think I should demand any extra say in how that money is spent. I have been elected as a representative of the party, with the help of the local party and should influence but accept that the funds are being used as the local party, of which I am a full member, decides is in the best interest of promoting the party.

    John Marriott suggests that three of his colleagues decided not to re-stand merely because their contribution to the local party was not being used for their pet priority. Can that really be the case ?

  • Peter Hirst 25th Jan '22 - 2:03pm

    What a terrific initiative. Enjoying days out visiting local authority institutions must be part of any meaningful learning of our democracy. It will improve the interest and uptake if voluntary. Other possible venues could be a waste sorting facility, any local renewable plant and a future site planning application.

  • Thanks for writing this Michal, and for your role in this excellent programme. There’s nothing quite like seeing things in person to help people understand how it relates to their own lives.

    The issue about councillor contributions is an interesting one. I find it surprising that councillors wouldn’t have any say in how that money is spent by their local party. Surely as members they have influence, so it sounds like a failing of organisation by the local party if that wasn’t happening. I know in some areas that councillor contributions are almost all to their own ongoing resident communication and campaigns (it funds the Focus). It’s hard to criticise that, but I think we all understand that the party (and our communities) would be better off if we support candidates who would otherwise struggle to fund full campaigns.

    But as ever, it’s all about balance.

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