The turmoil of politics both in this country and others have been breathtaking by any standards in the last 12 months. Who could have predicted Brexit, Trump, or even a second Corbyn victory? The fact that we are in turmoil was really exposed by the two referendums. The first one, in Scotland, demonstrated the fragility of the Union and the second, the referendum on membership of the EU, demonstrated amongst many things that many of our political leaders haven’t really got a clue what’s going on with the electorate.
The referendums also showed something else. The Scottish referendum showed all the positive aspects of a nation having a proper conversation with itself and about itself; the EU referendum showed exactly what happens when you close down the conversation or choose not to have that grown up conversation that’s so needed.
We are not a nation at ease with ourselves and have not been for some time. The disillusionment with MPs and a feeling of a general malaise in the body politic is pretty widespread but at the root is a political system that either needs a refresh or needs binning because it’s well past its sell by date.
The first-past-the –post system winner is increasingly discredited. Look at the 2015 general election where the Green Party got a respectable one million votes but gained just one seat whilst the SNP got 56 seats with 1.5 million votes. According to the Electoral Reform Society given the marginality of so many seats just 10,000 votes can change the course of a general election. As it was just 24% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives in 2015, the other 76% was left wondering either what in the hell had gone on, or not give a toss.
Yet this is not matched by a lack of interest in politics. Look at the interest in the US election, the engagement in the EU referendum and the debate over immigration. The challenge is to recognise that expecting the traditional political parties to deliver in the way that it has done in the past is simply unrealistic. The world has changed and moved on, but they haven’t constrained by the confines of first past the post and the old ways of doing things.
The system also makes politicians timid – frightened by what the focus groups may say, fearful of those Golden Voters in the marginals, fearful of the media. So the reform of the second chamber is ducked despite public opinion because of its use of patronage, and the decision on Heathrow delayed again for fear of by-elections and the loss of important Tory seats in West London.
There is the golden rule that if you keep on doing things the same way you will get the same results and increasingly the voting public are saying they don’t want things to stay the same. It will take a leap of faith to do things differently, but there clearly is an appetite for that. There is increasing interest to break away from the old tribal party loyalty and form new alliances of common interests.
This has been done to some effect with the anti-fracking movement and other movements around social housing. And just as the old political models are being questioned so are the economic models. There is huge interest in many communities around the concept of sharing and supporting sustainable local economies, privatisation is no longer seen as a panacea, and the current big debates are about mental health and wellbeing, not the wellbeing of shareholders.
There are a number of things in Sheffield that demonstrate there is a new dynamic. The role of the Fairness Commission in Sheffield, a Council led Commission, has now morphed into a fairness campaign – Our Fair City – with the laudable aim of making Sheffield “a city that is eventually free from damaging disparities in living conditions and life chances, and free from stigmatising discrimination and prejudice, a place in which every citizen and community knows and feels that they will be treated fairly.”
It has developed a Fair Employer Charter and launched Sheffield Money, a not-for-profit community benefit society. Other initiatives around Fair Food and Fair Futures are in the pipeline. Sheffield is also a student city with two big universities in the City Centre. But the referendum played its part in helping for forge new relationships and alliances that are genuinely progressive and break with all the old traditional allegiances. Building Bridges Beyond Brexit is a strong cross-party and no party group looking at mitigating against the worst impacts of Brexit on the city and looking at a positive future.
Progressive alliances are demonstrating already that they are change makers. Go in any city and look at what’s going on beneath the surface and you will find vibrant community initiatives. Nationally there are some great things happening – Generation Rent, Move Your Money, the work of Citizens UK. They reflect more of what people want to see – they smell, feel, act like us and the way we live because it is us. Or it can be if we want it to. But unlike some of our politicians, we also have to be brave and not timid.