Barry Sheerman: Our duty to those who gave their lives

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NEXT month will mark 100 years since the outbreak of a war that engulfed the world and costs the lives of millions of its citizens, followed 25 years later by a second war in which more sophisticated weaponry delivered an even greater toll in lost lives and misery.

Now, with clear evidence of the spectre of nationalistic and religious extremism rising across the planet, surely we owe it to all those who sacrificed their lives to seriously attend to maintaining the fabric
of the democratic civil societies that deliver our hard fought rights and freedoms.

By some measures we don’t appear to be doing a very good job. Our civic institutions and our democratic processes all appear to be either under attack, or more insidiously, taken for granted or shunned.

The recent European election results were a grim reminder of the level of public disengagement in the democratic process as a paltry 36 per cent of the British electorate bothered to vote. Although we weren’t the worst in Europe in this regard, our propensity to vote in general and local elections has been declining steadily.

Any but the most complacent politician is aware that interest in politics, in political parties and in activity in trade unions is desperately diminished and many of our constituents believe that it isn’t worth the effort to get involved.

As I campaigned in the May elections, I lost count of those who told me that they thought we were all the same and that voting wouldn’t change anything.

This is a far from healthy situation in a “mature” democracy. If we are being honest, we should take a fair share of the blame for this level of apathy.

Many politicians today seem to come from a very narrow political class and very few have real experience of life outside politics.

The background of our MPs is often very similar, educated at the same universities, apprenticed into politics as an aide or adviser straight from college, which supposedly serves as an apprenticeship for becoming a parliamentarian. There are far too few of us with grounding in the “real” world.

Active citizenship isn’t just about voting, and although the sneering dismissal of the ballot box by Russell Brand doesn’t help, the real challenge in this country is to encourage and promote an informed, engaged and active citizenry. Members of which learn at home, in school and in the workplace the essential ingredients and value of a truly active involvement in their community, their society and their country.

A real citizen gets involved in the warp and weft of the community, cares about what makes their locality work, whether it’s the local playground or nursery or the quality of support for the elderly and the vulnerable. The good citizen turns up for doctor’s appointments, values and supports their children’s school, pays their fair share of taxes and takes an interest in the local environment.

In a time when we know there is an epidemic of loneliness, particularly among the elderly, it is also about reaching out to our neighbours and sharing in mutual support.

We must value our social bonds that transcend class, ethnicity or religion, and we must value the social contract which undergirds our society.

How in our busy lives do we renew this active citizenship and how do we introduce the young, or the new arrival into our country to the deep value citizenship. There have been attempts to tackle this vital issue in the past but frankly the results have been disappointing. Most schools deliver citizenship poorly with little idea of what to include and who should teach it. Its isolation as a discreet subject simply will not work, rather, it should suffuse the life of every aspect of the school.

When I recently asked David Cameron whether he agreed with me that we need an active commitment to a real citizenship programme he appeared unenthusiastic, but I believe our country is in peril if we do not move rapidly to a system of citizenship training that will reach out and embrace every child and young person and everyone who wishes to live
here.

My preference would be for a compulsory year long programme of citizenship training for every young person, a no nonsense National Citizenship Service which school leavers and university and college leavers are obligated to undertake.

Ideally this will encompass working in communities and facing a range of opportunities and challenges, preferably away from the comfort of their home environment. In my mind this could encompass looking after the elderly, working in the environment, military service, working with charities and social enterprises and much else besides. The crucial thing would be to have young people from every different background mingling and working together.

I am well aware that such a plan and programme might be controversial but why should this be the case? Could we not encourage all the political parties to support a cause that could renew and reinvigorate our communities, our civic culture and our politics? This is not a party political issue; it is something that we should all get behind.

• Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.