I still remember it now. The shock when I moved from Battersea Square to Limehouse. I’d gone from the 39th most “powerful” constituency to the 586th most powerful one, almost at the bottom of the pile. Had all of that power drained out of me or had I just moved from an area full of rich kids to one where there’s greater poverty?
Like me, Cameron and Clegg had also recently moved…but from Putney and Witney, even more powerful constituencies in terms of income — to 10 Downing Street. Looking at them walking down Rose Garden almost hand in hand, you might find it difficult to distinguish one from the another.
But there is a wider point. As Nick Cohen states, “Clegg and Cameron discovered that they were more united by class than divided by politics”. And it’s not just them. The proportion of MPs that went to private school is five times more than that of the population and there are still only around 20% of women represented.
1. Halfway between the gutter and the stars?
This reminded me of the publication the Power Gap, which analyses what constitutes power in the UK. All the power drains and boosters all seem to exist in isolation — what are the relationships between all of these?
As we know there’s higher voter turnout in the heartlands of the main political parties, does that mean being at the extreme edges of the occupational spectrum influences voter turnout most and that you have relatively greater political power the less you are loyal to any particular party?
We also know that certain occupations are better organised than others — like tube workers, teachers or nurses — so what impact does occupational status have on workplace power in TfL in comparison to a supermarket?
Occupational status and workplace power seem to be defined in very hierarchical ways — shouldn’t we like at more egalitarian forms of power such as occupational worth or workplace democracy?
Defining political power in the form of seat marginality and voter turnout is a very Westminster centric way of looking at power. If this is really the case, then it clearly legitimises the need for a fairer system of political representation.
And we know that political parties go weak at the knees at swing voters, but are we saying that political power is only given down and not taken from the bottom up?
The regions with the greatest political power are mainly situated in the home counties and yet where have the greatest regional campaigns been won?
Has the South East ever been able to rival anything similar to the Scottish Convention? Is North East not blessed with political power because it refuses to have its own regional assembly? What relationship is there between Birmingham having the most powerless constituencies and the most thriving online activism?
What the report does highlight is that some of the areas whose residents have the least power feel they can influence their local area, while those with the greatest power don’t necessarily feel they have that influence. The authors suggest this may be due to people’s different level of expectations
Maybe after all, the Power Gap offers a chilling reflection of why the vested interests in the places of power can behave the way they do and more importantly why people don’t feel they have any local influence.
2. How we redefine power as resilience?
If we compare the “Power Gap” and “Sinking and Swimming”, we can see how like power corrupts, so does powerlessness, creating vicious circles of its own where those people who lack power “tend to further disempower themselves by internalising social problems and self-blaming”.
This brings us back to the trends of our consumerist society, where even the state constrains us to individualise the choices we make and ultimately our destinies and fates — from personal budgets to welfare reform.
3. How does power can change in times of crisis?
Your level of education can’t drop, but your occupational status and income definitely can. What happens when you get the sack? What’s the relative power of an unemployed graduate versus a shop assistant in work? This links back to power defined as resilience which is a central theme in Sinking and Swimming too, with a greater focus here on the sociological aspects of shocks and setbacks.
For example, when you’re unemployed, does the aggregate power of your social networks become more important — i.e. graduates living with their parents so they don’t need to pay rent or friends being able to find you a job where they work?
This may explain why household income is used as a measure rather than personal income and plays a big role when you look at the “poverty premium” people pay when their household income is very low.
During the miners strike, the mining communities became very powerful places even though their occupational status and income was very low. Is this because they had a strong sense of belonging with both social networks around them they could rely on and trust?
Individuals and social groups don’t all have the same capacity to formulate and disseminate values that are necessary to them to express their existence.
4. What happens when there is a majority of people experiencing a sense of powerless in a community?
Communities develop a shared memory which grows through shared experiences, particularly through shared suffering — such as powerlessness — which becomes harder to forget.
This “communalisation” takes place when social relations are based on the emotional feeling of belonging. Socialisation on the other hand takes place when these are founded on a social contract. Where the social contract has either been broken or cannot be agreed, communalisation will take over. It is these pockets that populism seeps into.
What the members of any community have in common is less important to them than their relation to other groups. When such a community realises that “we aren’t suffering from excess of civil disobedience, we’re suffering from excess of civil obedience“, its relations with those in power will become conflictual. That community will develop sources of counter-power– whether it’s students against tuition fees or mental health service users against budget cuts.
5. What about communities developing alternative sources of productive power?
For example, Transition Towns provide the space for people to gain power to shape not just their own lives but the destinies of their communities.
Protest movements develop the power to be resilient in the face of shocks and the arbitrary power of others.
Social innovators and community organisers build up the power for others to shape the social world, building the capacity for people to develop the power to redesign the services they work in or use for the former and getting local community groups to demand power from the people that represent them for the latter.
Power to shape the social world is defined as the “ability to shape the wider social and political environment, which affects both the course of one’s own life and the lives of others”. Nick and Dave definitely have that ability, but can those involved in more informal forms of politics also claim to affected the course of people’s lives?