6 March 2010
At first sight the question sounds trivial. Who would choose to be powerless? Many though have no choice but to remain politically powerless. Around the world, millions live under dictatorships where power is jealously guarded by the few. Any attempt to produce change can result in imprisonment or death.
In contrast, we live in one of the freest societies on Earth, where power is dispersed and readily available to those who seek it.
Despite this, looking at the Muslim community today, one sees a community that has relatively little political power. Muslims are just over 4% of the population. As there are 646 members of Parliament, 4% would represent over 25 MPs, yet there are only 4 Muslim MP’s today. Conversely, the Jewish community represents about 0.5% of the population, yet the Jewish Chronicle newspaper has printed a list of 52 Jewish MPs. Mathematically, these statistics mean that on a per person basis the Jewish community has 104 times the political influence of the Muslim community!
Simply railing against government policies is a sign of powerlessness, and of itself changes nothing. Changing government policies takes time, effort and strategic thinking. There is a long list of actions open to all citizens, some very easy and others more difficult.
Politicians need votes to gain office.
Imagine if you could guarantee to all politicians that you would never vote under any circumstances. Immediately, you would have made yourself electorally irrelevant; no politician need care ever again about what you think or feel since you are never going to vote.
Instead, the first step towards becoming politically relevant is to vote in every election, and even more importantly make it clear to every politician you speak to that you will vote, depending on how you assess the issues, and that your vote cannot be taken for granted. In general elections, about half of the people do not vote. That means the government is chosen by the rest, who do vote.
Politicians and newspaper editors do pay attention to letters they receive and are influenced by both the quantity of letters received and by their quality.
The more effort you put into writing a polite, clear and well crafted letter, the more impact it will have. I have twice spent several hours composing a one-page letter to a national newspaper editor to complain about an article; the reward for the effort was receiving a letter of apology from the editor.
One caution is not to use email; it is too easy to ignore.
A paper letter that you have printed, signed, paid for to be posted, and physically gone to the letter box to post has far more impact than an email where you spent 30 seconds cutting and pasting someone else’s text before pressing “send.” The paper letter sits on the politician’s desk until he chooses to ignore it or respond. Most of the time you will get a reply. No matter how curt or deadpan the reply, you will have made your point.
Joining a mainstream political party
This is the single most important thing that any citizen can do to increase his or her political power.
The price in money is very low. When I last checked, the minimum subscription was £38 pa for the Labour Party, £25 pa for the Conservative Party and £10 pa for the Liberal Democratic Party. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the local or nationalist parties are also valid choices. Under our “first past the post” electoral system, joining any other political party means choosing to be powerless, since those other parties have no realistic prospect of national or local power.
The time commitment afterwards is up to you, and can be as little as attending one meeting every five years. That is the meeting at which candidates for the general election are selected. It is the political parties that decide who gets onto the ballot paper, and usually every party member in a constituency is entitled to vote in the selection process.
Being active inside a political party
This involves no more money, but will require time being spent on activities such as delivering leaflets and attending internal party meetings. In return, you can rise in the party hierarchy.
It is activists who form the short listing panel which interviews aspirant candidates to select those who go forward to be voted on by all the party members in a constituency. If you become the chairman of the constituency party association, you can be sure that the MP will answer his or her phone when you ring!
You can do all of the above by single citizens acting alone.
However it becomes easier, and the impact is greater, if you can get other people such as your friends and relatives to join you. For example, if you want to get elected as chairman of the constituency party association, you will need some votes in your favour. (Often surprisingly few votes, since many constituencies have very few party members in them.)
What can be achieved?
In a few months or even a few years, increased activism may achieve relatively little.
However if you want to see how much can be achieved by focused effort over many years, you need look no further than the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the USA (documented in the book, The Israel lobby and US foreign policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt) and in the UK.
Muslims will not achieve that level of influence overnight; it will take decades. However, every step forward, every individual who joins a party, makes a difference. Never underestimate how much impact even one person can have. The choice to have some power or to remain powerless is yours.
Where will the Muslim community be in 10 years time?
The American baseball player and manager, Casey Stengel, said that predictions should always be avoided, especially about the future! I have no more power to predict the future than any other person. However, with application, in the course of a decade Muslims could transform their representation within political parties, including roles such as constituency party chairmen, and be well on their to dramatically increasing their representation in Parliament.
Finally, remember Plato’s quote: “Men who refuse to be involved in politics are condemned to be governed by those less worthy than themselves.”
The original with readers' comments can be read at the MCB Youth Committee blog "The Platform".