The weekend’s election results reveal politics in a state of flux – change is in the air and we need to understand why and what we do about it.
On the one hand the incredible rise of UKIP, echoed across much of the continent in a surge of support for populist anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties, is a grim omen of things to come. A party with some very unsettling messages, and even more unsettling people, has just won a nationwide election. But on the other hand, their dramatic rise in support jolts us into confronting these seismic shifts taking place. Moreover, at the very time the old politics is disintegrating, new ways of being and doing are opening up that give us hope. UKIP maybe leading the headlines, but there’s much more going on in politics beyond the main parties.
We can read off the usual electoral responses – despite the UKIP surge the truth remains that only David Cameron or Ed Miliband can be Prime Minister after the next election. So despite all the turmoil, will anything really change? If the endless game of Westminster top-trumps is all you care about, then no. But that’s not all we care about. We want to a build a good society that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic and this cannot be done on the basis of mainstream politics as usual.
According to the Ashcroft polls of key marginal seats, Labour is still on course to win the most seats next May. However, no one can guess the effect of an up-turn in the economy (however fragile and uneven its basis) and the inevitable thunderous campaigns of the Tories and the tabloids. And we can’t be sure that as one leading MP said at the weekend, Labour orientated voters will ‘return to the fold’. People are not sheep!
This sense of longing for a return to politics and economics as normal pervades Westminster and the London media as they feed off each other in ever decreasing circles – whilst at this very moment we are going through a revolution in the way both economics and politics work.
The very first response to an article by John Harris at the weekend said “desperate people will seek desperate solutions”. So many people feel anxious and insecure and with some justification, they don’t believe the promise of a political class who say they can bring back social justice, security or some semblance of control over their lives and world.
This is because the 20th century of organised capital and organised labour is unraveling fast into a 21st century world of networks built on both speed of light information and decisions. The world is fragmenting and the foundations of the past – the solidity of jobs, place and identity are melting away. This is the world in which UKIP thrives because they at least speak to people’s fears, albeit with a backward-looking, distorted and exclusionary analysis. The answer is most certainly not to try to out-tough UKIP on immigration. The answer lies in being confident in our values and building a positive case for immigration that is more human than – ‘it benefits the economy’. Instead, together we need to develop a positive case for immigration which builds towards a shared progressive European future.
On the left so far, the response has revolved around the politics of a better yesterday; an attempt to reconstruct the world based on the same centralised and top down tool set used after 1945. It means well, but one more heave is simply a desperate recipe for exhaustion, not the basis to claim a fast moving future.
Despite being local and European elections, Labour at least, had little to say about their vision for either. But there is so much opportunity at both levels of politics, just take two examples – a financial transaction tax levied across Europe would do something about banks that are still too big to fail. Equally, if councils could raise local taxes they could build the platforms for community renewable energy schemes that would push back against climate change. But the risks for the politicians in the Westminster bubble, even for such modest moves, are too big to take.
So even if Labour ‘wins’ next May it is building a cage for its own victory. You cannot hope to build one nation, let alone responsible capitalism on (at best) 35% of the vote, or 1 in 4 voters on a 60% turnout, especially when all of us on the left have yet to confront the huge intellectual and organisational challenges we face to build a good society. Yes, Labour has some bold policies but they have a way to go in convincing people they are deliverable and a part of a wider vision.
This is not just a problem for the left in the UK, but across Europe where social democrats are pegged back by the difficulty they have letting go of their top down, command and control past or addressing the public anger against the banks and austerity.
But what is pulling us apart and disorientating us can all help us make sense of the world and re-orientate ourselves.
A new economy is waiting to be fashioned via companies serious about climate change, through peer to peer lending schemes to really challenge the big banks, through crowd sourced investment like Kick-starter and sharing platforms in which we borrow and lend big ticket items we don’t often use. A myriad collaborative projects made possible by new technology, democratic initiatives like Abundance and big ideas like B Corps that change the very social nature of companies.
The same trends towards collaboration, self-organisation and social networks will infuse our politics. From 38 Degrees to Frome’s Flatpack democracy, from the great success of Hope Not Hate in defeating the BNP to Transition Towns, we need a citizen led politics of everyday democracy not just a vote once every five years.
This fragmentation of voters and parties means we urgently need to switch to proportional representation. It looks increasingly unlikely we are ever going back to a state of affairs where one party gets over 40% of the vote. A system designed for two party politics cannot contain multi-party politics which freezes out smaller parties, like the Greens in particular. When the voting system is changed so will an adversarial politics of small differences.
But political leadership still matters, as evidenced by Theresa May’s recent electrifying speech to the Police Federation. Ed Miliband’s intervention on Murdoch was of this vein. The task is to link up the new horizontal politics to a more vertical, but open, party politics as Compass has suggested in The Bridge and in our work on Open Tribes.
While we cannot expect a sea change in politics in the next 12 months, all power should go to the elbow of Jon Cruddas running Labour’s policy review and others of all parties and none, preparing and seeding the ground for the transformative changes in attitudes, behavior, policy and organisation that are going to be needed.
The election result makes the case for a new politics overwhelming. The future can neither be denied nor avoided. The world is changing – we either bend it to us, to build a good society, or we will be forced to bend to it. Which way it goes depends on our ability to change and on how good we are at politics – our wit, wisdom, insight, good faith and perseverance. Now more than ever, we cannot say we weren’t warned.