Trump. Le Pen. Sellner. Corbyn. Farage. Mention these names to any one person in the street and you will receive reactions on a Marmite scale. While all five politicians may have little in common with each other, all have been bolstered, promoted, and been voted into positions of power because of many western citizens’ sense of disillusionment with, and alienation from, the current political establishment.


This ‘political alienation has hit crisis point’ according to Dr Henry Tam, Editor of Whose Government Is It? The renewal of state-citizen cooperation. But it needn’t be so.

Whose Government Is It? sets out to argue that this rift can be addressed and reversed but only if western democracies make a real and concerted effort to promote citizen-state cooperation. Alongside Henry, who was policy head for civil renewal under the last Labour Government, seventeen contributors all put forward their ideas, experiences, case studies and facts on what is needed to renew effective citizen-state relations.

I was lucky enough to speak to Henry as well as David Blunkett, who contributed a chapter ‘The Road to Empowerment’ with fellow former Labour MP, Hazel Blears. Both Henry and David were instrumental in the Labour Government’s civil renewal programme, ‘Together We Can’. Introduced in 2003, its aim was to promote greater unity between citizen and state bodies. The programme, however, was brushed aside by the incoming 2010 coalition government.

With David having totalled up 27 working years as an MP, his lengthy political experience ‘taught [him] that by involving people and empowering them to shape their own futures [and] by working together … we can renew the bonds of solidarity’. But why and at point were these ‘bonds of solidarity’ broken? Throughout the book, the 2008 financial crash and the coalition government of 2010 are cited as having contributed to ever-deepening divergence. But the resentment, divisions and bitterness in so many communities across the UK, and indeed across the western world, are so deep, that surely this divergence precedes more than just a decade of austerity?

David believes that the origins go back to the de-industrialisation of the 1970s, a phenomenon experienced to varying degrees across the western world, when ‘whole swathes of society … where hit really hard’.  The consequences are being felt today, ‘in terms of disillusionment with democracy’ but it is not ‘irredeemable’. So how can this be reversed? If more power and policies are devolved locally and regionally, more people will then have greater access to those in power and, in doing so, be able to influence local policies and decisions more effectively. A so-called ‘bottom-up approach’ is needed in local politics. It will ensure that people start to feel it is worth their while to work with local government, know what solutions work for them and their communities and, ultimately, see that they are making a difference which is ‘the biggest message’ David wanted to put across. There is then less of a risk of people feeling ‘there is no point’ in involving themselves with local bodies, institutions and groups. Those four words, he pointedly told me, have to be avoided at all cost if we are to make any meaningful societal progress or change.

For Henry, he was eager to counter criticism that embarking on a programme to involve citizens could be seen as too costly or difficult, and one we cannot afford, given our current financial climate. He acknowledged that including and involving community members ‘is a sophisticated process, [which] needs expertise, but it delivers value which in terms of democracy, better public service, and public satisfaction’ is so important. And if we are to prise people away from demagogues and those on the political extreme, rather than confront them directly, you have to go back to the origins of the problems that led citizens to seek guidance and support from demagogues in the first place. Only then can the state, and local ruling bodies, gain a true understanding of societal issues and enact policies which will seek to address these problems. In some ways, promoting and supported political demagogues will only serve to further deepen the rift of engagement. By purporting to hold the knowledge of how to rectify societal issues, and so encouraging more people to support them, they continue to hold onto power without making any real or meaningful change. Trump is an example of this. But with regular, meaningful engagement, ongoing dialogue to understand the issues at stake, and a concerted effort to build trust with citizens, democracy can close this gap and, by doing so, can then ‘truly govern with the people’.

Yet is this desire for greater citizen-state unity just some pie-in-the-sky, unicorn notion? Would citizens embrace such a programme? And, as was seen with ‘Together We Can’ it was sensitive to political and economic change, so what is to say that any new programme won’t be vulnerable to the same? For David and Henry, their vision for greater unity between citizens and the state is both achievable and implementable. David spoke of the need to give citizens the tools, backing and support to enable them to take greater ownership and pride in their communities. He mentioned summer festivals, lunch clubs and activities for the elderly which were all set up by those in his constituency. This gave people a greater stakehold in society and, as such, they invested greater care and interest in other issues affecting their community. As for implementing such a programme, Henry and David, independently, cited the NHS as an example of a ‘brand that was so well-established’ by the then post-war Labour government. Henry noted that a lot of work went into educating, communicating and promoting what this change really meant. So much so, that successive governments have only every sought to defend and improve this much-loved institution. It has been embedded into Britain’s psyche.

Aside from the content of the book, the context should also be noted. A decade after the financial crash, followed by political, financial and social instability, it could be seen that the contributors seek a return to a more stable, pragmatic approach to politics, if not to a form of consensus politics. And with the contributors’ backgrounds in centre-left, consensus politics, could there be an element of them reflecting on the calmer, more prosperous years of the 1990s and early 2000s, specifically the Blairite years? I queried Henry who said that he can see why I thought the book may be advocating this, but this was not necessarily the message. Centrist politics, he asserted, isn’t about finding the midway point between two opposing views, but rather, by experts and politicians facilitating discussions, citizens can solve their own problems through an informed basis and whatever conclusion they come to, these may not be a centrist or midway point, at all.

But I also think by promoting collaboration between citizens and the state, this book provides a more subtle, underlying message: a desire for greater accountability of those in power. The 2008 crash is mentioned frequently, but adding that to the 2009 MP expenses scandal and the recent allegations, and subsequent prosecutions, of various forms of abuse from those in positions of power ranging from the media, business, politics and religious institutions, I believe we are entering a new world were accountability is required and, indeed, vital if the public are to regain trust and confidence of those in power. And why not?  Speaking to Henry, he said that ‘accountability is greatly strengthened when it is connected to proper citizen engagement’. He mentioned that some of the most well-respected and popular MPs have been those who continually engage with, and consult, their constituents. This connect ensures that if things do go wrong, then citizens know from whom they can seek an answer. If the public are to trust those in power, then there needs to be greater unity, more open dialogue and meaningful cooperation between those in power and those who are being governed.

Whose Government Is It? is a substantial, go-to text for those who are studying or are interested in political science. It is a complex book, full of facts, analysis and case studies, with even David conceding that it can make for ‘heavy reading’, but, then again, the nature of the topic itself is not a light one. And while the whole premise of the book may appear to be a somewhat idealistic form of democracy, with plenty of examples and case studies of how cooperation between state and citizen has been highly beneficial, it serves to demonstrate that such a goal can be achieved.  It can only work, however, if those in power realise that in order to do their job as effectively and as well as they can, they need to involve those whom they are serving. Only then can the state bring back people from the edges of the political extreme, put such divisive politics to bed, and ensure that the next decade of politics is not as tumultuous as the last.

Whose Government is it? The renewal of sate-citizen cooperation is available from Bristol University Press: https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/whose-government-is-it