CITIZENS UK Blog the national home of community organising

5May/100

Press Reactions

Yesterday's historic assembly has splashed (almost) everywhere -- not least on last night's Channel 4 News and Ten O'clock News on BBC1. In today's newspapers, the Guardian gives the best coverage: the front-page story by Patrick Wintour ('Battered Brown finds his voice') highlights what most of the press stories have run on -- the PM's eleventh-hour discovery of his political soul. Brown, says Wintour, "dramatically threw off ths shackles of his foundering campaign to deliver one of the most passionate speeches he has ever given".

Inside, Allegra Stratton ('Brown triumphs in unofficial fourth leadership debate") describes the Assembly itself, while Marina Hyde sketches it: "Citizens UK", she notes, "is the largest coalition of civil society organisations in Britain. Their manifesto aims include affordable family homes and an end to the practice of detaining children. Each time a leader was ushered onto the platform, they were made to sit while we heard testimony from real people whose excruciating stories have been chosen to shame politicians into adopting those policies". After describing the testimony of Tiara Sanchez -- the girl who broke down describing what it was like for her family on less than the living wage -- Marina notes, referring to Duffygate, that "this had that bit more gut-wrenching power than an inquiry about whence east Europeans were flocking" . And she wishes us luck with the "rematch" -- when the elected leader returns to a Citizens UK Assembly.

In the Guardian online, Michael White - -who, like Hyde, sat through the assembly -- described the gathering as "the most uplifting election rally in years" under the headline: "Gordon Brown sparkled on night that reaffirmed our democracy". Jonathan Freedland says Citizens UK is a "truly extraordinary movement of trade unions, religious groups and community organisers" and praises "the electricity on display at the Citizens UK event".

In the Telegraph, Andrew Gimson writes that "this vast gathering was a sign of the revival of the religious impulse in British politics. The event was organised by Citizens UK, which is an alliance of Christians, Muslims and Jews who are trying to take practical steps to better the lives of the poor."

"Party leaders experience people's power in action" was how Reuters headlined its coverage. "Days before Thursday's election, the three party leaders appeared in turn to address a boisterous 2,500-strong crowd at Methodist Central Hall in central London, the largest live audience they have faced together during the campaign. The event was organised by Citizens UK, that is harnessing people's power to influence politicians in Britain in the same way as community activists do in the United States."

The Times, which didn't bother to come to the Assembly, failed to grasp the (in) significance of the protester leaping in front of Gordon Brown, and amazingly makes it the headline. Perhaps Philippe Naughton thought it was news because Mr Murdoch's TV channel thought it was, too.

In The Independent Simon Carr thought Brown's was "the speech of his life", but say much about where he gave it -- though there is is a brief mention in the newspaper's editorial.Jason Beattie in the Mirror also thought Brown gave "the speech of the election campaign" -- but again, doesn't say much about where he gave it.

We turn, then, to the blogosphere for a piece that really gets what last night is about. "A historic moment for civil society", writes Guy Aitchison at Open Democracy:

The Citizens UK gathering in Westminster Methodist Hall on Monday which brought together all three party leaders was something quite breath-taking. I’ve written before about how their events combine extraordinary spectacle and political theatre with a high degree of discipline and the projection of real grassroots community power. There were 2, 500 people in the hall from over 150 organisations, including mosques, churches, schools and ethnic groups and a small number of trade unions.

It was billed by Andrew Marr and others in the media as the “fourth debate”, but it wasn’t a debate in the traditional sense like a hustings with questions taken from the floor. It was in reality a highly structured conversation between civil society, organised as an assembly of citizens, and the politicians who aspire to represent it. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown were each challenged on where they stand on the Citizens UK Election Manifesto, six policies drawn up democratically by its members over the course of 1000 one-to-one meetings.

And he ends:

The Citizens UK meeting felt like a profound and historic occasion for civil society and our politics in general with the party leaders literally brought face-to-face with some of the poorest and most desperate people in our society. Another first for this election. It was a shame that at times the party leaders weren’t as vigorously questioned over their policies as they might have been: sometimes they got away with promising to set up a “working group” on the issue where experience of previous assemblies would lead one to expect they'd be pinned down and forced to make a commitment by their interrogator. But of course there’s a balance to be struck here and it was a fantastic achievement just getting them to turn up. Citizens UK won commitments from all the party leaders that if they become PM they would meet with them every year and attend several assemblies over the next Parliament – and this was the most important commitment as far as they were concerned.

Anthony Painter at Left Foot Forward is also exuberant. "On the evidence of this remarkable afternoon, civil society is vibrant, messy, optimistic, powerful, brilliantly organised and inspirational."

Still, not everyone was happy. Will Heaven at the Telegraph has never heard of us -- which is rather hard to believe: doesn't he hear how we persuaded Boris to pay the Living Wage? Does he get out? Does he read newspapers? -- and therefore thinks we must be creepy.

He bases this idea on a blog post at the ... wait for it ... Wall Street Journal. Iain Martin doesn't know much about Citizens UK either; and on the principle that what you're ignorant of can't be worth considering -- until, presumably, you've heard of it -- he thinks that "it says something slightly disturbing about contemporary politics that one organisation can simply attach UK to the word citizens and then get all three leaders to dance to its tune on the eve of an election."

If only it were that simple, Iain.

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