[New City Magazine – October 2020 page 4-6]
Michal Siewniak reflects on current politics, both within the UK and his native Poland. Sometimes it is difficult to be energised and enthusiastic in the current political climate. However, he argues that it’s moments like these when political activism is crucial.
‘Who cares?’ my relative said to me on our recent holiday in Croatia, when we started talking about politics. ‘They are all corrupt. Everyone who tries to enter the world of politics, does it for their own benefit and not to serve the people.’ I tried to demonstrate that it is wrong to paint all politicians with the same brush. However…
I am sure that many of us have had similar conversations. Hopefully, each one of us tries to enter the ‘political world’ of the other person, even if they differ. It is not easy. In June and July, Poland was choosing our new President. Politics of division and polarisation was present in a number of conversations with friends and family members. And though I have been following politics closely since the 1990’s when I started secondary school, I don’t remember seeing such a toxic political debate.
We often refer to politics today as a ‘political football’. I would go further than that; it is ‘political ping-pong’. We don’t listen to understand the other’s point of view but we listen to score points. I too, far too often, live in my own political bubble. However, I find it truly fascinating when I’m fully able to lose my own ‘political identity’. It is so hard, especially if we feel strongly about something. In recent months I have realised that it is far more important to lose a political battle in order to strengthen political dialogue.
In the last few months, particularly since June, I experienced moments when I felt ‘politically flat’ and thought about ending my love for civic engagement. Being engaged in fruitful political dialogue is draining and very challenging. Lockdown meant that we are far more present online. Some of the news and conversations are depressing and it is not easy to know what is right or wrong. The constant bombardment of information is heavy at times and I know that it makes people anxious.
Politics – the love of all loves
Sometimes God’s interventions are hard to explain. While feeling disillusioned with politics and considering finding another ‘hobby’, I suddenly remembered that if we are not ready to die for one another, also in a political context, then who will? Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, tells us that we should love the opposition party as much as we love our own! As she said: each political movement was born because of a particular social need.
Chiara defined politics as ‘the love of all loves’. Jesús Moran (Co-president of the Focolare) said recently, when talking about the #DareToCare* campaign, that a politician is someone who is at the service of their people:
We must put care and being at the service of others at the centre of politics and of our lives as citizens.
Dialogue not monologue
In the last couple of months, I was asked a number of times to take part in various webinars. Although I miss the social interaction, I am aware that some of these events would not have happened if we didn’t have such good access to our online technology.
As a Polish national, I was invited to speak at an event organised by The3Million charity, which supports EU nationals in the UK. It was called: ‘Where are the EU residents’ voices in politics? Open discussion & consultation on the representation of EU communities in the UK.’ During the event, I had an opportunity to share my experiences as a former councillor but also about how ‘community action’ helped me to become a better and more rounded person. Moreover, I tried to demonstrate that even the smallest act of love and generosity, can make a huge difference. Above all, we need to remain rooted in love and accepting the other person without any political judgment and prejudice. Not easy! One of the reasons why we fail today is that we often exercise monologue and not dialogue. I find the quote from the Dalai Lama both powerful and refreshing: ‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.’
Recently a small online event, which I attended a day after returning from Croatia, re-energised me and helped to restore my faith in politics. I was invited to attend an online event, organised by young EU activists, who were eager to learn more about the subject of civic engagement. It was fantastic to explore ways in which each one of us can make a difference: volunteer, campaign on a particular topic which is close to our hearts, write a letter to a newspaper, your local councillor, MP, organise a trip to the Houses of Parliament or take part in the Parliament Week event. I felt connected with these young people and I was so happy to offer my advice. It was also refreshing to see young people so keen and willing to enter the world of community activism and who were determined to engage in the political process.
The importance of civic engagement for minority groups
Similarly, I recently had an opportunity to meet the Polish Ambassador in the UK. There are now approximately 800,000 Poles living in the UK. Although many, because of Brexit uncertainty and the health pandemic, have now left, Polish nationals are still one of the largest minority groups in the UK. Polish migration to the UK has a long-standing history. However, there are currently only 12 serving Polish councillors in the UK, even though we currently have one of the most diverse Parliaments ever. The lack of political representation is still evident.
It is clear that there are still significant gaps in relation to the civic engagement of many communities, often marginalised, in the UK. A large number of Polish residents don’t exercise their right to vote and are democratically disconnected. With a colleague of mine, the Civic Mayor of Watford and a Polish councillor, we met with the Ambassador to talk about a project through which we could help address the issue of civic engagement, participation and the importance of voting. We too must try to re-build our civic confidence and encourage others to take an active role in shaping policies at the local and national level. We need to continue working in partnership with other agencies to challenge negative perceptions, but most importantly, to intensify the dialogue between various public institutions and our citizens.
Movement for Politics and Unity in the UK
Since October 2019, I have been a member of the International Centre for the ‘Politics and Unity Movement’ (Mppu). Mppu’s mission is to contribute to building peace and unity between people. Universal fraternity is the inspirational principle for its action in politics. There are many Mppu Centres across the globe and I am delighted that our network is starting to develop also in the UK. For me, it is wonderful to see individuals from each corner of Britain willing to create a platform where political dialogue can be strengthened and hopefully, flourish.
In September, we had an opportunity to meet for the second time. We were joined by Mario Bruno, the President of the International Centre, and former Mayor of a town in Sardinia. During the meeting, we talked about the ‘interconnectivity’ of politics today. Mario shared his experiences of how politics can play an important role in building a more united world. In my view, the word global might sound idealistic and overwhelming therefore it is important to keep our actions in a local context. It is important for all of us to act locally but think globally in order to enhance the collective politics and co-share our responsibility to create a better, more cohesive world. We all agreed that a ‘united world’ should happen in our neighbourhoods and #DareToCare can help us to achieve that.
I suppose my own biggest learning of lockdown is the re-enforcement of living the present moment. In reality nothing else matters. However, in the political and civic context, we are all called to be active citizens. We are all called to build a house of ‘political dialogue’, a house which encourages a wide range of political opinions but it is also a place where each option matters and is embraced. Our role is to build politics as a vehicle for positive social change.
* see New City August/September 2020