The play thing of London media types or something more substantial?
The former editor of The Independent Andreas Whittam Smith (AWS) kicked this off in early September with an article about broken democracy in the UK. He then followed it up with a ‘manifesto’ for a project to do something about it. Make of it what you will.
It is broke, but how do we fix it?
If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be here.
Understandably there is a ‘something must be done’ feeling about the situation we are all in. But what and by whom? Over the past decade or so I’ve seen various attempts to either politically crash Westminster or bypass it completely. Things like Stop the War‘s attempts in the early 2000s, Vanessa Redgrave’s Peace and Progress Party, the Respect Unity Coalition, the Coalition of Resistance, the National Health Action Party, to other movements at the opposite extremes, for example the Referendum Party of 1997, which benefited from up to £20million of James Goldsmith’s fortune. Then there’s the eternal debate as to whether people on ‘the left’ should stay within the Labour fold or move outside of it – such as to the Greens or the ‘structuralist’ far left.
All of which have made me go: “Meh – I’ll just stick with Puffles if that’s alright.” Yes I like discussing, debating and learning, but I don’t like being told what to think and then being expected to fall into line. Hence why tribal party politics is not for me.
Democracy2015 has something of a Jury Team 2010 feel to it. Big name, a bit of money, stand a few independent candidates…not that they were successful. When you look at aspirations 1-7 halfway down this article, the idea that within two-and-a-half years you can build a grassroots movement and political party capable of standing candidates in every constituency with a credible chance of being elected…exactly.
If a new political party is the solution, what is the problem?
The problems that AWS has highlighted may not be the problems or priorities that are in the minds of other people. As one response to AWS said:
All of the movements I listed at the top all had a feel of ‘if only they would listen to us.’ In a world of saturation advertising, it is very difficult to get anyone to listen to you. Why should they? Getting people to listen to your message, let alone engage with it and respond to it is actually very difficult.
We have a problem with this cage – so we’re going to get ourselves locked in it
“My argument is X based on evidence Y therefore we must do Z” is the feel of the two articles by AWS. As any blogger will tell you, the moment you start doing that there is always someone with more time, energy, expertise and passion (or a mix of all these) who can unpick at least one of those things. They’ll unpick the evidence base, which means the argument is on shaky ground which means the proposed actions are less likely to achieve the desired effect. The information listed/requested in a-d already indicates that whatever AWS has planned, it looks, sounds and feels likes a standard political party – locking itself into the very cage he claims to be complaining about.
Why have you already frozen out – and even declared yourselves hostile to those that might want to help?
By effectively saying that the solution is a new political party, every other person who is a member of a political party will see this entire project as something that needs to be crushed – quickly. Even though the rest may be vaguely interested in solving the problem of the democratic deficit and associated symptoms, their parties’ constitutions will bar them from getting involved. It’s helping political opponents. They’ve also potentially frozen out those people who don’t want to be in political parties or are unable to participate because of their job or vocation.
Don’t expect your political opponents to stand still either
The Westminster political parties know there are huge issues with the democratic deficit, and have experimented with a whole host of different things – whether the open primaries for the Conservatives or the all-women shortlists for Labour. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. They will have activists on the ground, deeply embedded in local communities. Turning up into a community and expecting to overturn things in a matter of a couple of years is highly unlikely – & takes a set of circumstances unique to an area for it to succeed. One size does not fit all.
Are you people like me?
It’s one of the criticisms that’s thrown at the current Coalition, as well as some at the top of the Labour party. Yet when looking at the list of volunteers gathered for the launch (see end)…well, I’ll leave you to decide how representative a cross-section of society and income groups they represent. [Oi?!? What sort of a name is "Puffles"?!?!?!]
That’s not to say they are not nice people – I’m sure many of them are very personable and that I could spend an entire afternoon talking politics and things with them. But party politics isn’t about being nice – as others have commented. It’s one of the reasons why I try to comment from a safe distance and in a manner that won’t ruffle too many feathers. I’m not cut out for the rough and tumble of personal insults that unfortunately is par for the course.
So…should they all give up and go home?
So…what should they do?
Part of me is hesitant to use the phrase ‘should do’ but here are some thoughts:
They say Britain has got talent, don’t they? How about reaching out with eyes and ears first? This is the hardest part – because it involves engaging with complete strangers. Start with the basics – literally. Such as “What do you think about politics?” The answer that comes back could completely torpedo the solution of setting up a new political party – especially if the responses lead to further comments such as “We hate political parties”. It doesn’t really make sense to follow that up with “We’re about to set up something that you’ve just told us you hate – care to join?” Exactly.
The initial steps have to be an evidence-gathering exercise. Given that there are quite a number of young people involved in Democracy2015, getting them out and about on the ‘front line’ for me would be an essential step – especially after all of those years being institutionalised by the education system. Get out and about to community groups and grassroots charities, whether in their own neighbourhoods to other parts of the country where they otherwise have zero representation/coverage/volunteers. There are also organisations and charities already out there trying to reverse the democratic deficit. What learning can Democracy2015 gain from their work?
The responses and the analysis that emerge from those initial exercises should inform what sort of solutions they are looking for, for the problems they have identified. (My personal take is that such audiences need to be given the chance to unpick those problems for themselves, rather than being presented with a: “We’ve identified these problems, do you agree? We’ve identified these solutions, do you agree?” approach.)
Hearts are in the right place, but not sure nearly enough thinking and preparation has been done.