With daily reports of scandal and misconduct, at the very heart of the British government, the general population feels both disenfranchised and disenchanted – so much so that the word ‘politics’ has become a dirty word. Paul Gateshill reports on a new vision of politics and invites three readers to share their thoughts on their recent election to Borough Councils.
[New City Magazine – August-September 2022, pages 4-7. The paper and online editions will be published after 1st August 2022.]
Never before has there been such a need for a new form of politics. Great Britain, supposedly the home of western democracy, is groaning at the seams. However, is all lost and should we simply descend into a negative spiral of cynicism? In 1996 Chiara Lubich founded the Movement for Unity in Politics and described politics as the ‘love of loves’. In an address to this movement in 2000 she declared:
‘The Movement for Unity in Politics is bringing about a new political culture. But its vision of politics does not give rise to a new party. Instead, it changes the method of political activity: while remaining faithful to his or her own genuine ideals, a politician of unity loves everyone, and therefore in every circumstance searches for what unites.’
Domenico Mangano was a founding member of this new movement. Speaking to a group of young people, he encouraged them to get involved in politics. He told them:
‘It is not important what you do, but how you do it. Ours is, above all, a way of life: the first priority is to unite ourselves with those who have similar intentions and who can demonstrate their good will. We want to be the technicians who build relationships before anything else because this is what will generate a new culture. Without dialogue, nobody can be right, but by listening to one another what emerges is not so much a common idea or a shared project, but something more: the Light.’
Making a difference
In the recent May elections, three of our readers were elected to their local Borough Council. We asked David and Lucy Williams from Wales and Michal Siewniak from Hertfordshire, to share their thoughts about their new roles and vision for politics.
To put politics and unity together can seem very much a contradiction – isn’t politics about opposing views looking to get you to take one side or another? It can seem that way, but in a deeper sense, politics is about how people work together. I see unity in politics as about listening to the other person, seeking to understand their position and then looking to work with them for possible solutions.
I have been a community councillor in Wales for a number of years, and this was an unpaid, ‘voluntary’ activity undertaken around my day job. I sought to respond to any queries raised with me as promptly as I could, and usually the most helpful thing to do was to listen and then see if there was any action needed. My main involvement though was probably with my fellow community councillors, to apply that same listening, and seeking to support and facilitate discussion. All too often people in politics can get ‘carried away’ with speaking, so gently ‘bringing them back to earth’ was the small contribution I sought to make.
My wife, Lucy and I moved house – but still within the town of Cwmbran – in May 2020, and following early retirement at the end of August 2021, Labour Party colleagues sought to persuade us both to stand for the Borough Council.
The person who had been the ward councillor for our area, Llanyravon, was retiring, having been involved since 1996, and so I had the opportunity to take over from him. Llanyravon is a compact, single member ward, so I could readily walk around the ward leafleting and canvassing. The retiring member from the ward, who I did not know at all well before, was a great help with his advice and support. Knocking on doors and asking for people’s vote can be quite daunting, but it does lead to interesting conversations and is an opportunity to actively listen, which is a vital first step in building trust.
There are plenty of small experiences that came from the election – but one of the most important was at the election count, when I met up with the other candidate for Llanyravon – a Conservative. He was a young man, aged 22, and we both agreed that it had been a very fair campaign, with no negativity. I wished him well for the future, saying how important it was that young people get involved in politics, and he was good enough to post congratulations on my election to the local community Facebook page.
To summarise I see my role as a facilitator – to make connections and links that people may not know about, or see for themselves, and to work together. The words of a song by Grace Petrie sums it up for me when she sings: ‘You build a wall, we’ll build a ladder… you build a wall, we’ll build a bridge, we’ll build a bridge.’
Although the two wards that Dave and I represent are quite close to each other, they are very different in character. My ward is larger, has a more varied population and more pockets of people living in poverty. Being a bigger ward there are two Borough Councillors. I was the new candidate and my colleague has been a Councillor for the last five years. We also had three new candidates standing for the Community Council.
At the very start of the campaign, we agreed the important message was to highlight positive action, not negative comments on those standing in opposition.
One of our colleagues has very good social media skills and we agreed a good way to communicate was to set up a dedicated community Facebook page to promote the positive messages of the campaign and to highlight the good things that happen locally. This works really well with two of us administering the Facebook page to ensure that no negative posts appear.
With campaigning over, the community page remains a key means of communication. For example, we have an excellent day centre in the area which supports adults with additional learning needs. They have developed a thriving garden and outside space and recently opened a community shop. Through the community page, the posts on the opening of the shop reached about 4,000 people and it is already doing really well.
Getting to know people personally and having those face to face conversations is so important and such a joy. As one of the trustees of the Day Centre, I regularly pop in to visit the garden and chat to the staff and the clients, getting to know in more detail both the opportunities and challenges that are involved in the day to day running of the centre.
A big learning curve is getting to know the working of the Council itself. It is fascinating to get to grips with how democracy works at a local authority level. I feel now I am like an apprentice, learning on the job, listening, asking appropriate questions and doing my part to work collaboratively. A very small action we decided to do when we meet in the Council chamber for the formal monthly meetings is to sit next to the group of independent councillors rather than members of our own party. It’s slightly daunting as they sit in a row on their own and can seem a little aloof but building relationships takes time so I will persevere.
Keeping a balance is definitely challenging. Each day, Dave and I look at our diaries together, take time to share the ups and downs and above all try to live each present moment, starting afresh each day.
I was in my office when a phone rang just after 1pm. It was someone calling from Cambridgeshire. It was a Muslim lady and she was quite distressed. She had lost her father the night before. For religious reasons, burials within the Muslim community needs to take place very quickly. She rang the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council and was told that Hatfield Cemetery was closed for 2-3 weeks for Muslim burials. I was shocked and felt that I had to act. The caller wasn’t sure where to turn and, in the end, she decided to call a Councillor. I left the message with the Council’s CEO, texted and emailed her. The burial was organised on time. I’ve never met this person; I only spoke with her over the phone. However, as a member of the Focolare community, trying to follow the spirituality of unity, and to dialogue with other faith groups and communities, I found an added strength to find a solution to these rather exceptional circumstances.
Last May I was elected as a Borough Councillor in Welwyn Hatfield. Those who decide to stand, often do it for a number of different reasons. I stood because I wanted to make a difference and improve my local community. I loved being a Councillor, when I was first elected in 2014. However, being a Councillor, is hard work! One of the Labour Councillors said to me: ‘Michal, you’ve done it before. You really want to do it again? You are mad.’ A lot of people think that politics, even at the local level, has never been more toxic.
Standing is never easy. There are a lot of barriers and obstacles to overcome. You have to put a lot of hard work into it; casework, leaflet delivery and canvassing, which I personally love! Door-knocking gave me a great joy, even when I didn’t get a warm reception on the doorstep. Standing, whilst being a ‘foreigner’ is probably even harder. As soon as I opened my mouth, people knew that I was not necessarily very ‘local’.
I love the civic process. I enjoy listening (I still have to work on it!), talking and working with people. This will never change, even if my circumstances do. It is a wonderful feeling, and more importantly a huge privilege, to represent a particular area and a particular section of the community. For me, being elected, at the local or national level, means being at the service of other people. Since October 2021, when I started campaigning, I completed 59 canvassing sessions, which gave me a fantastic opportunity to find out how people feel about politics at the local or national level. I’ve encountered many voters who felt deflated and disheartened. Some were not planning to vote. The sense of ‘political desperation’ and political apathy was felt throughout the country. I often wonder what my unique selling point is. How can I live, in a practical and tangible way, the politics, which Chiara Lubich described as the ‘love of loves’?
When I decided to stand, I promised myself that I would do my best not to be passive and complacent but pro-active, driven and creative. In my experience, politics at the local level sometimes lacks passion, drive and energy. I do hope that I will be able to change that! I feel a need to re-galvanise our town centre, which for the first time in many years, looks a bit tired. I worry about the future of our town centres across the country.
All newly elected Councillors were invited to the Council Chamber where we signed important paperwork, including a declaration, which officially confirmed our roles as elected Councillors. We took part in various training sessions on Governance and a Code of Conduct. Now I am picking up a lot of casework. I am trying to set up a number of meetings with local Church Leaders, schools and other groups and organisations. One of these meetings had a profound effect on me. I was invited to a prayer morning with Quakers (Religious Society of Friends). Before the meeting one of my friends was teasing me a bit and said: ‘You can’t be a Quaker; you don’t like silence!’ That morning, when I walked into the Quaker Meeting House in Welwyn Garden City, I was invited to take part in a moment of reflection. We were sitting in silence for 45 minutes. Only one member of the congregation felt compelled to say something. I don’t remember when I was last sitting in silence for such a long time. It was simple, and yet so profound and enriching. For me, it was an opportunity to reflect on my own journey but more importantly, it was a moment which enabled me to look beyond my town, city, country, or continent. Equally, it was important to embrace the suffering of our global family; war in Ukraine, poverty, injustice. It was so clear to me that because of the pace of life, constant bombardment of information, detachment from the latest news, we rarely have the opportunity to be in the moment.
I know that my journey has only begun! I will never give up trying to embrace sufferings, divisions and bring hope and enthusiasm to the Council Chamber. Politics is often not about ‘scoring points’, it is more about being real, true to your beliefs but always ready to accept other points of view. Let’s hope that the Welwyn Hatfield Council will become a chamber of political dialogue.
Building the ‘polis’
“Whenever you commit yourself to working for peace, or for the poor, or if you make a stand in solidarity with someone, you are doing politics. The word ‘politics’ comes from ‘polis’ – city states and communities that are run as if they were a family: It’s where I live and contribute to its functioning. So the life of the ‘polis’ will reflect my behaviour and I can create either harmony or confusion.”
“We should always put the human beings who are our citizens first, and not the party or some ideology. Those who benefit from a service should come first. We need to work hard to involve all other politicians and parties in this way of living.”
“The movement for unity (in politics) is a way of coming together to build politics. Naturally it is accompanied by a flowering of actions in which both politicians and citizens are involved. It is the dialogue between two positions that makes this possible. It is thanks to this dialogue that, from its outset, the Movement for Unity has been an expression of diversity in dialogue. But it would be a great mistake to think that the Movement’s task is to achieve perfect dialogue. We are a not a movement of dialogue, but of unity. Dialogue is simply the means to reach the next level, which is the unity of diversity.”