The Government's enthusiasm for double devolution, which Drew and I gamed recently with Kevin Harris, depends on more people being actively involved in community affairs. Kevin in Community leaders, or representation? has a suitably sceptical take on the tendency to brand people who do good stuff as 'leaders'.
Here I am reading a draft report from a meeting about neighbourhood governance, and the phrase 'community leaders' stops me, the way it always does. I have difficulty with the frequent and unreflective use of this term - not, I hope, just because of some wishy-washy resistance to hierarchical cultures, but more because I'm unconvinced that calling for more 'community leaders' is a solution to anything.
I think most use of the label refers to activists who play a prominent role, often representing locally a community of interest, sometimes falling victim to accusations of 'usual suspects' or becoming manipulable media products. I'm more concerned right now with the chorus of calls for more of them. (Are we gonna have some kind of genetic programme here, get them all to breed so we have a stock for the future?)
Maybe just whistling for more community leaders won't work, because we'll still have a gulf between them and the rest of us. If our democracy lacks the key ingredients of engagement and participation, I'm not sure it makes sense to crash-course a new cadre of likelies.
Maybe we need to ensure far more widespread understanding of the notion of representation. We need to smooth over the gap between representation and apathy, between involvement and disinterest. We need to establish the habit of participation and an understanding of what it means to be represented by someone, and what it means to represent others.Update - Stephen Coleman has kindly drawn my attention to his 2005 ippr pamphlet called Direct representation: towards a conversational democracy, which to my shame I had missed. He argues that we need to move to a richer, more conversational form of representation.
I like Stephen Coleman's approach. However, I was swayed in the direction of cherishing our traditional elected councillors more by a fascinating evening and a few pints recently with Paul Evans, who blogs over at Never Trust a Hippy. Paul is passionate about the need to revive local democracy, and we discursed widely on ideas about capacity building for councillors (if community groups can have it, why can't they) and even "adopt a councillor."
It reminded me that Jamie Rose, head of MORI's Participation Unit, gave a very relevant presentation at the recent Bristol conference on activists and councils. She was saying, as I recall, that research shows that we all have different levels of commitment to different issues - and if you score more than five you count as active. Activity will depend on time of life and circumstance. That suggests to me that branding someone "activist" isn't very helpful. You can find the presentation somewhere in the conference webcast. I'll check if it is available elsewhere.