Powerless peers

5 min readMar 16


I still remember the shock when I moved from Battersea Square to Limehouse. I'd gone from the 39th most "powerful" constituency to the 586th most potent one, almost at the bottom of the pile. Had all that power drained out of me, or had I just moved from an area full of rich kids to one with greater poverty?

1. Halfway between the gutter and the stars?

This reminded me of the Power Gap publication, which analyses what constitutes power in the UK. All the energy drains and boosters seem to exist in isolation — what are the relationships between all 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 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 compared to a supermarket?

Occupational status and workplace power seem to be defined hierarchically — shouldn't we like more egalitarian forms of energy, such as the occupational worth of workplace democracy?

Defining political power in the form of seat marginality and voter turnout is a very Westminster-centric way of looking at energy. If this is the case, then it 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 most significant political power are mainly situated in the home counties, and yet where have the most critical 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 regional assembly? What relationship exists between Birmingham's most powerless constituencies and the most thriving online activism?

The report highlights that some areas whose residents have the least power feel they can influence their local area. In contrast, those with the most incredible power don't necessarily feel they have that influence. The authors suggest this may be due to people's different 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 do we redefine power as resilience?

Suppose we compare the "Power Gap" and "Sinking and Swimming". In that case, we can see how power corrupts, and so does powerlessness, creating vicious circles where those who lack ability "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 our choices 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 stay the same, 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? This links back to power, defined as resilience, a central theme in Sinking and Swimming, 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 critical — 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 significant role when you look at the "poverty premium" people pay when their household income is meagre.

During the miners' strike, the mining communities became potent places despite their low occupational status and income. 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 have different capacities to formulate and disseminate values necessary to express their existence.

4. What happens when most people experience a sense of powerlessness in a community?

Communities develop a shared memory which grows through shared experiences, mainly through shared suffering — such as powerlessness — which becomes harder to forget.

This "communication" occurs when social relations are based on the emotional feeling of belonging. On the other hand, socialisation occurs when these are founded on a social contract. Communication will take over when the social contract has either been broken or cannot be agreed upon. 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 an excess of civil disobedience, we're suffering from a lot of civil obedience ", its relations with those in power will become conflictual. That community will develop sources of counter-power– whether 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 the 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 ability 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 life and the lives of others". Can those involved in more informal forms of politics also claim to affect the course of people's lives?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese