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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The 'Big Conversation' - A Reason to Listen

Friday, April 16, 2004

 article for Co-operative News April 2004

 

The ‘BIG CONVERSATION’ - A Reason to Listen.


 As politicians we spend a lot of time worrying about speeches - what we say and how we say it - listening is often not high on our agenda. So for me the Big Conversation has provided some excellent opportunities to listen and having held a few events I’m keen to do more.

 

Since my election nearly 200 constituents have written to me about issues of trade justice so I took the opportunity to invite a number to discuss the concept of an ‘international community’. About 30 people attended and we broke up into groups of 8 - 10 people, each group being given information and questions taken from the Big Conversation document. Rather than a debate where people felt they had to defend fixed views the groups explored the complexities of trade and international security, and the organisation of the United Nations (UN). One group began by questioning who worked for the UN, what did they do? Was there a career structure? What were they paid? Feeding back at the end some people had questions rather than comments or answers. Afterwards a party member told me how much he had enjoyed the event. He had expected one pre-determined view to be put forward and was pleased to see openness and discussion about issues of importance.

 

One of the ways I have been keeping in touch with constituents is through meeting with leaders of faith communities, an idea picked up from colleagues. It took a while to establish just what organisations existed in the constituency but two years on we have a lively group of Christians, Quakers, Muslims and Unitarians meeting two or three times a year. It seemed only natural that I should hold a Big Conversation event with them. I asked the various leaders to bring along 2 or 3 of their congregation or members to discuss the topics ‘international community’ and ‘tackling child poverty’. The discussions ranged widely and one constituent commented that she felt it had been valuable and had really lifted her out of day-to-day thinking. Tony Blair would be pleased with that reaction - the idea of the Big Conversation is precisely that - to think about major issues that face and should concern us.

 

With a Further Education College in the constituency I was pleased when they agreed to allow me to hold a lunchtime drop-in session for students. With an open agenda the young people chose not surprisingly to talk about education, but they were also keen to discuss wealth distribution both nationally and internationally. Some students thought that all education should be free; others were surprised about the detail in the Higher Education Bill and felt that there needed to be more information - a sentiment echoed by their lecturers. They all agreed that greater political education in schools and college was needed. I will be happy to do what I can by making this a more regular event.

 

Two street stalls have provided opportunities to talk about anti-social behaviour and have shown how much new street wardens are valued, and the levels of concern about drug use on local council estates. The responses from all of the Big Conversation events will be fed back into the national Labour Party policy discussions. Some party members have expressed concerns about this process; for my part there is nothing wrong in opening our debates to a wider public. We need their engagement in the political process. If we are clear about our values just what is wrong with inviting others to express their views and ideas? Who knows maybe some people will decide that a party that wants to engage in this sort of public consultation is a party they might want to join.

 

I’ve yet to hear a bad word about the Big Conversation from anyone who has taken part in an event. There is sniping from the sidelines but if we’re serious about finding new and better ways to engage directly with our electorate then this has a lot to recommend it. I’m going to suggest that when the Big Conversation is over the party should continue such events under the heading ‘Still talking?’ which perhaps more accurately for parliamentary representatives should mean ‘Still Listening’.

 

Meg Munn

 

Why not take part at www.bigconversation.co.uk


 


 


 


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