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As ridiculous as it may seem, I think that last night’s protests are evidence that more needs to be done to empower and organise people in Britain, and that government has a role in this.

As ridiculous as it may seem, I think that last night’s protests are evidence that more needs to be done to empower and organise people in Britain, and that government has a role in this.

Let’s contrast the reaction to two events that occurred in the House of Commons yesterday; the vote on changes to student financing and a statement from the housing minister on his vision for social housing.

The changes to student financing will mean far less government subsidy for teaching,  and far more of the cost of university education being born by students. The changes to social housing funding will mean far less government subsidy for building new housing and far more of the cost of this building being born by new tenants.

As I have written before, the coalition government has an underlying consistency of approach. In this case, reducing direct government support in the form of grant, increasing fees, trusting market mechanisms to improve quality and retaining the provision of various safety nets (housing benefit for tenants and maintenance grants for students).

Although the proposals are very similar, they have been met with very different responses. The increase in tuition fees has been met with organised, passionate, large scale, concerted acts of civil disobedience. The proposed changes to social housing have been met with barely a murmur.

Obviously, this is an unfair comparison, since the vote on tuition fees was a far more significant legislative milestone than a statement by the housing minister. However, I do think that the contrast is illuminating and concerning.

To put the situation crudely, students appear to be far better than social housing tenants at making their points to government.

I have written before about the dangers of government trying to empower people but it is clear that if things are left as they are then the quietest voices will continue to be unheard. The government seems to understand that “something must be done” on this matter and has proposed training for community organisers and a grants programme called the Community First Fund.

As I see it there are two risks for these programmes. Firstly, that they shun any support for anything that looks remotely like campaigning and secondly that they end up supporting a professional campaigning apparatus which does little to empower those who are currently disempowered.

There are already signs that the government wants to draw an artificial distinction between support for Big Society projects which focus on local action on the one hand and campaigning on the other. To say that you will only fund the former is futile and arbitrary.

At the same time, there is little point in the government paying for projects which produce worthy, well researched documents which call for major changes to the structure of our society e.g. Gilding the Ghetto from 1977. Government’s are not best placed to support campaigns against themselves!

There is a middle way (to coin a phrase) between funding purely local action and funding research on the structural conditions of late capitalism. That middle way is support for activity which supports “collective action to bring a community's preferences to the attention of political decision-makers

If the government supports effective practice in this field then we would hear nearly as much from social housing tenants as we do from students. I will leave it to you to decide whether that would be a good thing…


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