By Tony Koutsoumbos, President of the Central London Debating Society
Nadine Dorries has been unfairly judged. In fact she should not be judged at all. We have been so busy arguing whether she has brought herself and Parliament into disrepute by flying out to Australia to share a platform with B-list celebrities and eat Marsupial genitalia, that we seem to have forgotten all about the original question she was trying to answer: how can MPs and indeed all public officials of every office, from mayors to parish councillors, reach out and re-connect with the public? Have no fear Nadine, I am here to help. Come on home and I will show you that the very people you are looking for have been right under your nose all this time.
I speak not just as a seasoned student activist and ex-local politician, but as a pioneer of a world seemingly unknown to politicians and yet inhabited by a plethora of unengaged (and undecided) people from an array of different backgrounds, who give up much of their free time each week to open their minds to new ideas and share their opinions with anyone who will listen. This world is a melting pot of public speaking clubs, debating societies and public engagement forums. It is essentially the largest focus group in the country. It would be my utmost pleasure to offer Nadine Dorries, and anyone who wishes to join her, a guided tour of this inspirational world, which in London alone commands a collective audience of over 10,000 people.
Where is this world? Just outside her own Westminster doorstep, infinitely cheaper and more convenient than flying to Australia I think you’ll agree, for many of these clubs pack out the public houses of Fleet Street. Here is a glimpse of just some of the people she can expect to meet on her guided tour.
The Central London Debating Society
An Occupy LSX campaigner who opened her speech with a poem, an ex-soldier who opened our eyes to the reality of warfare, a teacher who won over the room with her ideas for reforming the education system, and an Intellectual Property lawyer who systematically dismantled the case for the criminalisation of copyright infringement. These are the people Nadine Dorries would meet if she spent an evening with the Central London Debating Society.
My very own pride and joy, the club had just seven members when I founded it in 2009. We now have in excess of 900 and have held public debates every two weeks for the last 3 ½ years. We have one rule: every debate must be free of charge and open to all, while our guiding ethos is that the people who have spoken the least are the ones we want to hear from the most.
The Society of Cogers
The Cogers can quite reasonably lay claim to being London’s longest running speaking club having been founded in 1755, during the craze for coffee house debating societies, by friends of the maverick MP, John Wilkes. The Cogers have been a bastion for free speech ever since. A club dedicated to providing a platform for anyone and everyone, its members have historically included former Liberal Prime Ministers, William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith.
Today you will find experienced entrepreneurs clashing with squatters’ rights campaigners one moment and sharing a drink with them the next – with pretty much every other spot on the political spectrum well represented too. Yet, perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Cogers is how it has managed to stay true to its roots by retaining its 18th century rules while providing such a warm and welcoming environment for newcomers, including a significant number of non-native English speakers, many of whom had never addressed an audience in English before.
Global Net 21
The best way to describe Global Net 21 is as a democratic think tank which brings together the general public with a panel of speakers, each selected because of their expertise and experience. They have grown exponentially in just a few years and now regularly host events in the Houses of Parliament too at the invitation of MPs themselves. So, if Nadine is not already aware of them, she knows where to find them.
The first Global Net 21 event I ever attended was titled: “the role of government and changing public attitudes and behaviour” – fairly topical right now I’d say. Meeting in a cosy hall in King’s Cross, we heard from a social policy professional, a politics professor, and a journalist about the risks and consequences of government and business intervention to change public attitudes. Many of our law-makers could do a lot worse than sample the wealth of knowledge and insight that was on display that night both from the panel and Joe Public.
Is Debate Dead?
This is where I would take Nadine if she wanted to meet people whose top priorities are to earn a decent living and enjoy time with their friends and loved ones, yet still pay attention when somebody stands up to say something about the wider world around them (in other words most of the population).
This club is run by events company ‘Thinking Bob’ and built around the theme of ‘socialising with a difference’. They attract the biggest audiences of all the Fleet Street clubs as their aim is simply for people to relax, enjoy themselves, and meet others like them. The purpose of the debate, which is impromptu yet always attracts on the spot volunteers, is simply to guide the conversation to a slightly higher level than you might ordinarily get from a visit to the pub. Everyone gets involved and everyone leaves feeling that they’ve learnt something that would never have occurred to them otherwise – if that’s not the point of public engagement, I don’t know what is.
What’s more is that we all work together. This year, the Central London Debating Society, the Cogers, and Thinking Bob, combined to create the first online directory of the capital’s speaking clubs, called the ‘London Debating Hub’ and we’re growing day by day. Meanwhile, Global Net 21 has often helped to promote other clubs’ events and indeed many people are members of more than just one group.
Yet, we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential on offer to policy makers as we can only fathom how many more clubs just like ours exist across the entire country, but remain hidden from the view of those who need to hear from them most. Exploring this new frontier is certainly next on our agenda and we can’t wait to get started.
This is my world, Nadine. Come home and let me show you around because the people you will meet here don’t want to see you on “I’m a celebrity…Get me out of here”, but to share a platform with you as equals and to know that you are ready to listen to what they have to say.