Reflections on “People Power Politics”

‘People power politics’. Writing these words down, reflecting on the theme of the Blavatnik School’s Challenges of Government conference, I am struck by how rearrangeable they are. By swapping the words around and changing punctuation, I can shift the dynamic between ‘politics’ and ‘people’, or make them disjointed and meaningless. The new phrase ‘people power, politics’ suggests that politics is merely people power, while ‘power people politics’ seems to advocate people-politics as a panacea.

But what does the original, unscrambled, phrase – ‘people power politics’ – mean? This was the question that I, along with over 200 other conference attendees, asked earlier this week, as we went beyond Facebook and Twitter, and mulled over issues such as youth activism, citizen empowerment, transparency, privacy, and the stewardship of natural resources. The resultant conversations gave me one answer: ‘neither of the above’.

Panel discussion
Karuna Nundy and Jeremy Heimans at the conference

Speakers spoke of their experiences in countries as diverse as Chile, India, Kosovo, Brazil, China, Botswana, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Australia and the United Kingdom. Tellingly, ‘people power politics’ is not simply a synonym for ‘democracy’. Karuna Nundy, a lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court, discussed the significance of mass street protests in India, following the fatal gang rape of a 23 year old female medical student in New Delhi last year, in leading to new anti-sexual violence laws that came into force in early 2013. Jeremy Heimans, CEO of the movement- and venture- building organisation Purpose, talked of his past involvement in co-founding the political activist group GetUp in Australia in 2005, to provide an alternative voice to the major political parties after the 2004 federal election saw the Howard Government gain control of both Houses of Parliament.

People power politics is, then, a different kind of power, which acts alongside, or against, traditional political structures. As the conference unfolded, so too did my understandings of this power, until, in the end, I was left with just one: heightened responsibility.

I learned that people power politics requires heightened responsibility from both governments and social movements. People power politics is the offspring of discontent, whose source and expression is magnified by technology. We can, we were told, see the risk of middle class protests in a rapidly urbanising China if the Chinese government does not manage economic growth with issues like quality of life in mind; that the discovery of natural resources in a country will fracture that country if the government does not temper citizen expectations, and manage the process prudently, so that wealth is translated into long-term, sustainable returns; and that open data and big data give new power to the people.

And on the other side, we heard that the most successful people power movements are those that are top-down organised and strategized, with a leader, clarity of values and ideas; that look long-term, and build professional institutions that both pre-date, and endure after, the crowds; and that are politically independent, and gain the trust of the broader population.

Geoff Mulgan
Geoff Mulgan at the BSG Conference

On the first day of the conference, Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, started his presentation with an addendum to Abraham Lincoln’s description of democracy in the Gettysburg Address: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ has now, he said, a fourth proposition, ‘with the people’. This is the essence of ‘people power politics’ that I took away from the conference.

In the end, my word rearrangement was not fruitless. The phrase ‘people power politics’ is, I think, well-paired with its mirror: ‘politics power people’. Together, they describe a world where people – especially, the youth – expect more of their governments, and are reacting – in new, more vocal and diverse ways – with what politics is, and, significantly, what it is not.

The challenge is, for the people, to channel their collective sense of urgency and momentum, and to not merely react but also build; and, for governments, to engage in politics that sparks a positive power, and to not ignore or misunderstand their changing relationship with the people.

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