Top-down/Bottom-up: Top-up politics keeps the bottom down

Does anyone else get the impression that current top-down and bottom-up political processes tend to achieve the reverse of what is intended? I was thinking about the consultation processes for the ward I’m registered in in Leeds, and the big society consultations advocated by David Cameron. Having participated in the consultation on the West Leeds Gateway Area Action Plan, I don’t get the impression it served any purpose other than legitimising the policy decisions already taken at top-level. Opinions were duly gathered and archived, but apparently had no impact on proceedings beyond that. Do most consultations end up like this? Not only is it a betrayal of the very intention of more direct democracy, but it actually also reinforces power at the top, defends principles of representative democracy despite all indications of failure in that area (election turnouts for example), and dilutes efforts to modernise politics.

At the other end of the scale, I would venture with regret that the nature of civil society organisations, which rarely coordinate, co-operate, or communicate shared goals, principles, or values, creates a very damaging dispersal of social power and energy. The age-old cliché of ‘stronger together’ is in fact borne out in the relative weakness of civil society faced with the power cravings of the ruling groups. It is too easy to dismiss as illegitimate, single-cause or interest groups because they are unrepresentative of the general population. This is particularly the case in France, where “community” is a word with negative connotations and evokes sects and cults. Places with more open social conflict such as Northern Ireland, Turkey, or the Basque Country, can very quickly interpret such group ethos/activity as terrorism, in spite of the comparatively similar characteristics of the ruling groups to those of the “terrorist” organisations. The potential tyranny of the majority is reinforced by the disparate groupings of civil society, demoting the bottom to an under-society.

I’d be very curious to know of any more successful sustained civil society co-operation. It seems to me that the “Stop the War” campaign and the recent “Indignados” and “Occupy” movements have achieved shared responsibility for common goals across multiple social groups. Aren’t they just momentary, single cause movements though? The development of civil society is very much on the agenda for development action and democratisation programmes, as demonstrated by the amount of EU funding in accession countries targeting it. In the UK, however, there appears to be a lot of rhetoric about enhancing civil society – Cameron’s Big Society – and yet very little concrete action. Indeed, Duncan Smith’s Centre of Social Justice promotes top-level reinforcement by consulting local authorities, NGOs, government agencies etc. without seeming to comprehend big society perhaps needs to include citizens too.

I think it’s all about instilling a sense of and desire for common shared responsibility across the general population. This calls for new approaches that incorporate greater dialogue and communication within communities, better understanding of shared goals and objectives, and, finally, legitimisation by top-level political representatives. The major challenge is to listen to each other, think collectively and work together – none of which, unfortunately, seem to be skills that are particularly nurtured in our cut-throat world.

2 thoughts on “Top-down/Bottom-up: Top-up politics keeps the bottom down”

  1. I think a term has been coined for the spurious consultation exercises you describe in your first paragraph: “nonsultation”.

    Just a quick thought in connection with your quest… Is there anything to be learnt from the Transition movement and transition groups?

  2. You seem to be suggesting that the problem lies with the ‘top’, who use the consultation process as a smoke-screen whilst continuing to enforce or enact the policies they have already decided upon. In this case, it’s almost impossible for those of us at the ‘bottom’ to achieve anything unless we are able to side-step the ‘top’, as many people do.

    This could certainly be a fair assessment, but maybe the consultation process could be made to work better if those carrying it out could structure it all more creatively. I’m afraid I have little to offer in this line of thinking, except to point out what’s wrong with it as it is. I’ve attended neighbourhood forums in the UK, and have come away from meetings feeling deep admiration with those leading them, in view of the patience they have shown with the small-mindedness and verbosity of the discussions. Personally, I become desperately frustrated with the pace of the meeting and the constant digressions of speakers. I feel very guilty about this, because I appreciate that everyone must be allowed to voice their opinions – but must they do this so often irrelevantly and with so many repetitions! If I were chairing the meeting, I wouldn’t allow it – but then, I suppose I’d be doing a bad job! This is why I would never volunteer to do it.

    I’ve resolved my problem by not attending these meetings and living with the guilt. So it could be the fault of people like me that consultations fail: low boredom thresholds.

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