openDemocracyUK

This is the moment for the young to take the lead

As UK politics trembles on the edge of a hung parliament the new generation need to reshape the democratic movement around them
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 May 2010

This is the moment for the young to take the lead.
 
The polls are now steadying. They suggest:

  • The Tories are significantly ahead, but at 35 rather than the 40 per cent which they need to redraw British politics as they planned.
  • Labour coming third in popular support, but only narrowly, which may ensure its gains a disproportionate number of seats.
  • And the Lib Dems seem to have consolidated a historic breakthrough but without the momentum to put them in the shaping position they deserve, perhaps due to the campaign against a hung parliament in the tabloids.

If this is the picture and it holds, we are entering a moment when determination and unity on the democratic left will be of critical importance. By democratic left I include Lib Dems, left and rightwing Labour supporters who support rights, liberty and fair-voting, Greens, SNP and Plaiders, independents, in short a whole bunch of people whose organisers spend most of their time fighting and loathing each other, but whose followers jointly represent perhaps a majority of voters across Britain. 
I want to emphasise the larger public sentiment. It has broken with the political class. But while one part is populist, hostile to politics as such and this feeds into powerful resentments over immigration and the EU, another wants more deliberative, consensual behaviour and an honorable politics. What’s needed is to link the anger of the first and the intelligence of the second. The Lib Dems are achieving this at the moment. But if they are frustrated in terms of the number of MPs the likelihood is their being immediately thrust into parliamentary bargaining after 6 May, with the tabloids howling at their heels. A process designed to undermine their democratic distinction.
 
If this happens, what can be done?
 
I want to emphasise where we have come from as this must shape any answer as momentum is decisive in politics.
 
Over the last decade there has been a steadily growing disenchantment with the political class: Iraq, the EU (especially the disappearance of the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty), the bankers bailout… no need to continue. Then the expenses crisis broke. Trust in a political system – the legitimacy of which depends on trust - was broken.  This is the force that then played havoc with electoral expectations.
 
Nonetheless, it seemed that the political class would keep its show on the road as it prepared for a normal election with the now usual low turnout, where people would ‘vote the rascals out’ by voting Cameron in. Then they could pretend that ‘change’ had happened. But the hundreds standing as independent candidates and a slew of ideas and initiatives being declared were symptoms of the fact that official politics was failing to connect to the reality – I emphasise that word - of a profound demand for change. I was one of these symptoms, writing ‘Hang ‘em’ in the New Statesman, Suzanne Moore’s even earlier in the Mail on Sunday column was another. A group of us set up Hang-em. Many were taking parallel actions. One man, Peter Lloyd, even started his own Peoples Movement of Britain.
 
Then the Lib Democracy breakthrough occurred. There was no point in campaigning against them. On the contrary, they are the change. We put the Hang ‘em campaign on hold but continued to use its facebook page as a means of aggregating reports and links to the issue of a hung parliament  (two other Hang ‘em campaigns started up, planned pre the Lib Dem surge to stop a Tory majority through pro-Labour tactical voting). Independent voices from Sunny Hundal in Liberal Conspiracy to the Guardian came out for the Liberal Democrats as the force for change.
 
What do we do if parliament is indeed hung in the way that seems likely?
 
The big fact is that hitherto, all reformist campaigns and politics since the sixties (including Lib Dem) have been wake-up calls. This is no longer necessary. It may still be sleepy-eyed and bewildered but the public has woken up. It is against the system. It does not need to be shouted at or talked down to.
 
This means that it is the public duty of reformers to create the widest possible unity post the election. George Monbiot wrote an excellent call for this in the Guardian last week.
 
We don’t need dozens of campaigns. We need unity with a difference. A reform movement defined not by who you are but by whether you are capable of cooperating with and learning from those who think differently from you, but who also want to see a pluralist, democratic future for the UK. Reform has to be about self-empowerment through the encounter with difference…. in other words, democracy.
 
So, we don’t want people to ‘sink’ their differences as if their previous work and thinking are so much waste-water to be flushed away. We don’t want a top-down consensus, headed up this time round by the Lib Dems and corrupting them in the process. In short - it’s not another political party that’s needed but an inventive, open-minded and peaceful movement in which differences are welcome but we are united in a single main aim, to turn popular demand for a fair democracy in which our votes count properly and our parliament belongs to us into an effective force for change.
 
Clearly, the main organisation representing this is the Lib Dems. We who are not Lib Dems should not be threatened by this, while they should be welcoming of other parties or forces to the left or right of them (to use those terms) like the Greens. The Lib Dems should seek to build a wider alliance for change than themselves.
 
Labour activists will have to realise that their party is defined by Peter “filthy rich” Mandelson and Gordon “database state” Brown. The two have cynically tried to run a campaign that positioned Labour against the nasty establishment Tory party. But they are seen with good reason as just as nasty and established. They are indeed part of the political class. Labour cannot claim the mantle of insurgent reformers and the home of ‘hope’ just by going into opposition. But a united democratic opposition needs the better side of the Labour tradition, its humanity and solidarity.
 
Uniting in this way means that no single argument however seemingly profound e.g. collectivist vs. individualist, or communitarian vs. cosmoplitan, or trivial – e.g. my tribe rather than your tribe, or my funding rather than your funding  - should be what matters. Conflicts should be resolved by opening up the debate to widening circles.
 
This will mean being open to new approaches provided these are themselves proposed in an open-minded fashion. (For example, I think that an English parliament is part of the way to get a parliament and a politics that belongs to us, I don’t want to be part of a movement that forbids this thought and says it must only to be about reforming this House of Commons, just as I am happy to join forces with someone who does want only that in the fight for fair voting.)
 
The critical moment could be just days away, immediately after the election. The Lib Dem leadership (remember there are more Lords than MPs in its parliamentary party) may want everyone to pipe down while they negotiate. The message from the corporate media from the BBC to Murdoch will be to lock down politics under their own control and stereotype opposition to this as fringe if not lunatic. Our job is to create as open and simple a way for the majority who want the system to become a much better democracy to make its voice heard and its influence felt.
 
We need to do this in a way that strengthens the Lib Dem demand for change, shakes Labour from the grip of its leading clique, attracts Conservatives suspicious of Cameron’s Blairite ambitions, and brings together as many as possible who want reform but don’t like any of the big political parties.
 
Which means this is a moment for a generational shift. One that alters the entire field of force in which the reform movement and its many campaigns and lobbies have operated for twenty years. Those who have grown up under the diarchy of a New Labour state and the Murdoch media now need to take the lead. It is around them that a popular unity can form.
 
This is not because they are young, this is not a matter of youthism, it’s for three reasons:

  1. They have suffered the lies, avarice, incompetence and surveillance of Britain’s old regime at its worst but are not tainted by it.
  2. They are not Tories but also they are not New Labour, this is the first generation not formed politically by questions of loyalty to the two main parties
  3. They have grown up with the new social networking forms of organisation and its culture of quick, light action and its potential wisdom of the crowd.

The new generation can reshape the reform movement around them.

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