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How you consult, matters

January 25, 2009

column-picture2Wednesday was the first day of ‘business as usual’ for the United States’ 44th President: Barack Obama.

Despite (as my granddad would have called it) the razamatazz of the Inauguration being done with, the sparkle of hope will remain.

What a phenomenal achievement it has been for the American people. Not only finally to get rid of ‘Dubya’, but to replace him with a man of thoughtfulness and erudition. A man of talent and potential. A man, no doubt, with the World’s hopes weighing heavy on his shoulders.

Let us hope that he will deliver. Especially for the people of Gaza.

I am half-way through Obama’s bestseller ‘Dreams from my Father’.

It is extraordinary that, following this memoir, first-published 13 years ago, in which Obama writes about (among other things) community organising in Chicago, the oppression experienced by Black Americans there, and the ceilings for Blacks in the workplace, he has been elected Commander in Chief.

There is no way that I can fully comprehend what this must mean to ‘people of colour’ in the USA.

But I have taken some lessons from Obama’s experience of Altgeld and South Side Chicago in the mid-late 1980s. He writes about residents, with help, becoming angry about the way the public authorities failed to listen to them time and time again, and failed to meet their needs. He writes that despite the election of a Black Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, Blacks continued to remain in the worst housing, with the worst incomes and the worst prospects.

I don’t believe that we have the same sort of racism in the UK, nor the same sort of segregation. And I don’t believe we have Chicago South Side racism in Hastings & Rye. We do have a more active BNP contingent than we might want, but as I have written in this column before, this is as much to do with the Government’s inability to close the gap on inequality as anything else.

What we do have however are pockets of residents across our constituency that are excluded from the political process and who feel that politics makes little or no positive difference to their lives. ‘They’re all the same’ those politicians – just out to feather their own nest…

Over the past weeks, I have been actively involved in the consultation over communal bins in Hastings and St Leonards. I have been encouraging as many residents as possible to return their surveys to the Council, and saying as loud as I can that the vast majority of people that I have spoken to on the doorstep, and who have contacted me by email (from across the different consultation areas) have grave reservations about the scheme.

The consultation as an exercise has provided an interesting insight into the way that the local Council operates. And it will be even more interesting to see the Conservative Cabinet decision come March.

Given the mistakes early on in the distribution of information, as well as the number of people who say they have not been sent any consultation forms, there is a high likelihood that the Council has failed to contact all those people that will be affected by the proposed changes.

Whilst there were, as I understand it, two centrally organised explanatory meetings about the bin changes, there was no outreach built in to the consultation plans.
The public meetings that I attended were arranged by local residents themselves, not by the Council.

And, not surprisingly, these residents were articulate, home-owning, confident.

I am pretty sure that the Council will not have done any outreach consultation at all in the poorer areas of Hastings and St Leonards.

And it’s here that there’s a parallel with Chicago.

If we want people truly to believe that politics can help to change their lives and it’s worth them getting involved, or even just casting their vote, we have to start with the basics. We have to consider how we conduct our consultations.

I will be writing to the Conservative Leader of Hastings Borough Council to say so.

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