I rarely need an excuse to accept an invitation to Westminster, but if I did, the first ever Parliament Week partners’ conference would have been a good one. My own organisation, the Central London Debating Society, was accepted as a partner in September 2013 (hard to believe how long ago that was now). Our contribution to Parliament Week was a debate on the power of women in politics in support of a national debate training initiative in Rwanda, which my team and I had the privilege to deliver in December.
Well attended by numerous clubs, companies, and charities from across the country, the conference provided a unique opportunity for us to discuss the greatest remaining barriers to engagement across the UK. So, I decided to list some of the lessons I took away from the day on the top priorities for community engagement champions in 2014.
It’s not just about young people
A highlight of my conference was sitting next to a delightful lady named Bridgit, from the Lewisham Pensioners’ Forum. A member of the forum for the last 27 years, she told me of how they catered exclusively to the over-55’s, putting on song, dance, and poetry recitals – their oldest performer was 88 years old – while also campaigning to protect public services and pensioners’ rights. She offered a vital reminder that if we are to succeed in building a participatory democracy that includes all corners of society, we must include everyone. However, we saw plenty of highly encouraging signs of progress on display from North London Cares, a charity devoted to bridging the generation gap by recruiting volunteers to give their time to the elderly, to the UK All Pakistan Women’s Association.
When in doubt, get creative
The people really making waves in overcoming the barriers to engagement are the ones bold enough to adopt new and innovative approaches. Keynote speaker, Professor Matthew Flinders, talked about creating safe spaces for discussing politics by abandoning the ‘P’ word altogether and instead talking about social issues. Alice Pilia from the Cabinet Office gave a fascinating presentation on the de-mystification of politics by inviting the public to sit in with experts to learn how laws are made. The People’s History Museum, meanwhile, truly stole the show with their presentation on using actors to reconstruct historically significant events and literally take their guests back in time. In each case, the aim was to allow previously unengaged people to explore politics in their own way and at their own pace, rather than being preached to on the virtues of democracy.
There’s a reason it’s called Parliament Week
Parliament Week came in for a little stick during the opening Q&A from those who felt it was too Westminster focused. Personally, I think this was a little harsh, but it is refreshing to know that the ambitions of the network far surpass the already phenomenal achievements of the last year. There was certainly no disagreement over the importance of reaching out to the rest of the country, with London based partners making up 50% of the total. The real debate though, centred on whether Parliament Week 2014 should be more representative of local government. Personally, if it was called Government Week, I’d be inclined to agree, but as it stands, I think it quite right that Parliament Week focus on Westminster.
All in all, an excellent conference that very much achieved its aims of giving partners an opportunity to learn from and network with each other. Bring on Parliament Week 2014!
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