We are living in an era in Britain where there appears to be little hope, little faith in mainstream politics, where extreme groups are gaining credence and where the majority of our national press insist that we are off to hell in a handcart.
We face a general election this May where the campaign will be fuelled by fear and hatred. In a climate like this, most people feel powerless.
What we are fed does not, I believe, reflect the reality of most people’s aspirations. A recent national survey of 17-22-year-olds (first time voters this year) shows clearly that they are against pessimism, insularity and negativity and are instead socially liberal, pro-European, see the positives in immigration and will not vote for Ukip.
And over the past four years, I have been privileged to chair the Hexham Debates, where up to 200, mainly senior citizens, gather one Saturday morning each month, to debate the critical issues of our times, such as climate change, arms trade, human rights, sustainable and socially just economies.
This gives me hope that, behind the negative picture painted – which seems to guide the statements and decisions of those in power – there are a great number of people who care about social justice and want to see a better society. What many feel is the lack of a vehicle for doing so.
On January 9, 2012, the Journal’s front page story featured a Declaration, written by a group of seven local citizens - of whom I was one - calling for a fairer, more tolerant society, an end to poverty and a fair deal from government for the North East region.
Some 400 people signed up to this Declaration and through the following year, a series of discussion groups were held, to discover exactly what the issues were that concerned our signatories.
From these discussions, we distilled what the Journal called a Manifesto for the North East, which was published in January 2013. Concerns included youth unemployment, tax avoidance, the need for better transport links for the region, the need to support public transport, a living wage for all and joined up local government.
This led us to make contact with Citizens UK (CUK), which for 25 years has been the focal point of community organising in the UK, with broad based citizens’ alliances established in several cities.
We invited CUK to address a conference, held last January and attended by over 150 people, on the theme of tackling poverty and inequality in the North East.
At the end of the conference, there was an almost unanimous vote in support of CUK exploring the possibility of building a broad based citizens’ alliance here, starting in Newcastle.
Membership of a CUK alliance is from civil society groups, such as trade unions, student organisations, faith, refugee and residents’ groups. It does not accept funding from statutory sources, relying on membership dues and grants from local and national foundations and trusts.
The Group of 7 entered into a contract with CUK to fund the first phase of building what is temporarily called Tyne Citizens. Carina Crawford-Rolt, senior organiser with CUK, has been visiting the region on two days a month for the past few months, meeting with primary leaders and has met with enthusiasm and encouragement.
Carina would welcome contact from anyone whose group might like to be a founding member of Tyne Citizens. She can be contacted by email, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, in January 2015, again through the columns of The Journal, we are moving our campaign on a stage, by asking civil society groups in the Tyne area to get in touch with CUK, with the aim of establishing a citizens’ alliance here.
A concern about rising poverty and inequality in our region, which was shared by seven citizens over three years ago, has slowly grown to a point where this concern and others can be addressed through a recognised and experienced organisation.
There may not be a magic formula but here is a vehicle to channel the positive energy I have seen in our region, with the aim of building a fairer and more tolerant society, from the grass roots upwards and outwards.
- Mike Worthington is the former Chief Probation Officer, Northumbria Probation Service and is Vice President, the Community Foundation, serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland