Transformative democracy: bringing the outside world in

Is there hope for a new politics in European institutions? One insider-outsider says yes.

Julie Ward
30 March 2016

Performance of “Make do and Mend,” November 25 2015. Credit: Flickr/the S and D group at the European Parliament. All rights reserved.

In November 2015, a middle aged woman called Ann from a social housing project in a poor part of Greater Manchester sat in a meeting room in the European Parliament, watching a play about domestic violence based on the testimonies of victims just like her. She was one of 45 people from my constituency of North West England who had been invited to the Parliament for a day of activities designed to raise awareness of Violence Against Women and Girls, and to share ideas about how to deal with its causes and consequences.

Sitting opposite her were the Spanish chair of the Parliament’s Gender Equality Committee, a member of the Luxembourgish parliament, a former Education Minister from Belgium, representatives from the European Commission, and me. The play, called “Make Do and Mend,” was performed by three women from the north of England speaking in their local accents. At one point in the performance one of the characters offered her knitting needles to the MP from Luxembourg who proceeded to knit several rows, an act that did much to set the tone for the discussions that followed.

Throughout the play the atmosphere was electric and edgy, but also welcoming and safe. Somehow we managed to create a space in a parliamentary environment that encouraged a meeting of minds among an unlikely group of people, held together by the threads of shared, real life stories. Afterwards, members of the audience commented on the play and the issues it raised by asking questions, suggesting answers, and challenging the politicians with their concerns. As I left the room Ann stopped me and said, “I've never been to a conference before, but now I will go to lots more.” I like to think that this is a small example of ‘transformative politics’ in action—and we urgently need much more of this kind of engagement between the European Union and its citizens.

At a watershed moment when Britain is faced with a referendum on EU membership, it’s crucial to illustrate that Europe can be a political platform that empowers its citizens rather than alienating them. Indeed, all our political institutions must be made relevant by reforming them to make citizens feel truly included, and able to participate. Through my work as a cultural activist as well as an MEP I’ve experienced how European networks can bring like-minded people together across the continent for cooperation and common cause. This could be the beginning of a new story for Europe, and I want to be part of it. 

It’s always interesting to throw one's hat into the ring not expecting to be elected, but wanting at least to challenge the system, both in terms of traditional party politics and the wider political landscape. Prior to my election to the European Parliament in 2014 I had no track record as a politician, and politics was not part of my career plan. This gave me enormous freedom to communicate on a different level when I started to campaign. My background was in community theatre, which equipped me with a range of human-scale communication tools and direct experience of using empowering participatory processes with marginalised communities.

From the outset I wanted to bring my old world into my new one by opening up the European Parliament and its processes to a range of people from different walks of life, especially those for whom politics seemed irrelevant. Being as accessible as possible, using social media to communicate, sharing my own journey of discovery in an open way and developing relationships with grassroots campaigners are all central to my work.

Strange as it may seem, there’s no written job description for MEPs which is both scary and liberating. To some degree I’ve been able to make things up as I go along, trying to find ways of bringing something new to the table like theatre, policy-making workshops run by young people, giving student volunteers resources so that they can work on self-directed projects, and submitting my office to regular scrutiny by a youth group called Investing in Children.

Other MEPs are pursuing similar ways of working like Belgian Socialist Democrat Maria Arena, who organised a group of pregnant women and their children to attend the women’s rights committee meeting en masse when contested maternity leave legislation was being debated. Their presence highlighted the human impact of the Parliament’s decisions, causing embarrassment to members in the process. The mums were not drawn from radical left wing campaigning groups but from a much wider demographic.

Many might not normally be interested in politics, but they wanted to join in with this action because it was relevant to their lives and it was audacious and disruptive, serving to remind political elites that not everything is a done deal behind closed doors. Gender equality is clearly an area where transformative politics can take root and grow, as ideas, energy, creativity and commitment move to and fro between the establishment and the fringes of society.

For too long politics has been something that is done to us or without us—a mysterious world that’s far removed from reality. It uses a language that people don't understand and is carried out in places that seem inaccessible. Politicians are viewed through the lens of the media which perpetuates a vision of the ‘chattering classes'—policy wonks and geeks talking to each other while everyone else is excluded. Yet democratic processes that truly engage with the electorate can and should be expanded.  

The Peoples Assembly Against Austerity, for example, was born in the UK after the 2010 election, and has grown from local meetings in back rooms to a mass movement that can mobilise tens of thousands of people to demonstrate against public service cuts. Alongside direct action, local assemblies run workshops on creative campaigning and organise comedy nights, concerts and film screenings as ways of enlivening politics.

Or take The Complete Freedom of Truth (TCFT), launched by British activist Tina Ellen Lee to work with young creatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I spent 12 days volunteering with them in Srebrenica in 2015, helping to promote the use of public spaces for political discussions. “Democracy is freedom in a framework, powered by people working together for each other with equality, kindness, respect and responsibility.” This was their mantra. The challenge for young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not engagement but how to enact their vision for political change in a country that’s still riven by ethnic tensions. So when a European Parliamentary delegation visited Sarajevo in November 2015 I insisted that TCFT and other civil society organizations were invited to observe the proceedings.

Real politics really is about everyday life, or at least it’s the process by which we can develop trust and accountability with those who govern the institutions that structure so much of our lives and allocate resources. But when public engagement in politics declines, these processes become moribund, paving the way for even more control by vested interests.

When people don't vote because they think politicians are all the same, or are only in it for themselves, or because they believe their vote won’t make a difference, the chasm between the electorate and the elected grows even wider. Building bridges across this divide has become an obsession for me, especially since I was someone who was once on the other side—disaffected, dismayed and disappointed. But I was also angry, and it was my sense of outrage about social injustice that prompted me to step into the political arena. 

Like any other form of deep social change, transformative politics is something that people must own and shape. It requires a constant challenging of the status quo, energetic engagement (especially with those on the margins of society), the ability to listen as much as speak, and a change in power structures so that they are not captured by elites. While politics remains the preserve of the moneyed classes and dominated by old white men, little progress will be made.

On the other hand if we could transform the environment by inviting in new voices and upending the very processes of politics, even the European Parliament might help to grow a generation of active citizens who could be the agents of change that Europe so desperately requires. 

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