Growing a new politics from the personal
At the end of this month (July 2013), a small change will take place which will make not the tiniest ripple in the political fabric of our country. In fact, it will go completely unnoticed beyond my family and immediate circle of friends. That it represents a significant change in my life, is in that sense, neither here nor there.
But in deciding not to renew my Labour Party membership, I wonder if I might just be able find a fruitful point of contact with others caught between old loyalties, realism and a desire to move towards a renewed thinking about politics.
I have been a Labour Party member for many years. I have been a Branch Secretary, a Constituency Chair, a Press Officer, a candidate and a local councillor. I have trudged the streets during elections in various parts of the country, canvassing and delivering leaflets. I have made friendships that are precious to me and had experiences which taught me a great deal and convinced me that what are often called 'ordinary' people deserve better than our current politics seems capable of delivering to them.
During my years of activism, I spent many hours trying to convince members who were becoming disillusioned with Labour's policies and direction of travel that the best course of action was to stay and fight for change from within. Those arguments no longer work for me.
The simplest way to summarise my estrangement is to say that Labour policies and procedures do increasing violence to the Quaker Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth. I am not so naïve as to believe that any other political party ticks all those boxes, but I do believe that if we are to ever have a more honest politics, individuals must eventually come to their own “here I stand, I can do no other” moment. Perhaps mine should have come sooner. When Tony Blair scrambled so eagerly aboard George Bush's war chariot in 2003, I took the kitchen scissors to my membership card. But I did not follow up its destruction with a letter of resignation. On reflection, I think that was because I still believed that a Labour government could offer a better chance of equality and justice than could any other party or combination of parties.
Although I really do not wish to abandon that belief – cynics may call it a sentimental illusion – it no longer has much basis in the evidence. As the Tory-led coalition claims that the only means of managing the economic crisis is by inflicting the greatest pain on those who did the least to cause it and who have the fewest resources with which to resist its destructive outcomes, there is no sign that Labour will do very much that is different.
With a few honourable exceptions, Labour politicians act and speak in a manner which is scarcely distinguishable from the Tories and Liberal Democrats. No one seems willing to speak out against the demonisation of benefit recipients. No one condemns workfare or challenges Iain Duncan Smith's base and mendacious way with statistics. No one seems to have the will to stand up for the disabled, for immigrants, asylum seekers and minorities. Little resistance is offered to the dismantling and sale of our public services. In summary, no one is offering any effective opposition to the increasing division which the Tories are engendering in our society, nor to the destruction of the humane and enabling state.
But – and perhaps this may seem strange in the light of so much injustice and self-serving – the final straw came for me in the form of something which may seem trivial but which I really believe to be significant.
In March, Hilary Mantel delivered a nuanced and perceptive address (later published in the London Review of Books ) entitled 'Undressing Anne Boleyn' on the manner in which the tabloid press manufactures and then exploits royalty, with particular reference to Kate Middleton. Predictably, David Cameron produced a knee-jerk piece of pro-royal indignation. But then Ed Miliband did exactly the same. If he had not read the piece, he should not have permitted himself to be bounced into such an action. If he had read it – and I believe him to be a man of far greater moral and intellectual power than Cameron – then what he said was unforgivable. Either way, it was one transgression against integrity too far for me.
It also illustrated the fear politicians display when it comes to confronting populism or standing for principle. Every public utterance seems to be weighed for expediency rather than for integrity. And we – the electorate and the media – are far from blameless here.
We are mired in futility by a political climate in which every change of mind is pilloried as weakness and the admission of error is fatal. We need to become more forbearing and realistic about such matters and seek instead for the seeds of constructive and shared action. Most of us have learned the necessity of doing this in our families, workplaces and friendships. Failure to apply it to the world of politics, and to show politicians that we are sickened by that failure, only entrenches the sterile and confrontional culture which has led us into mistrust, venom and abuse.
Politicians themselves must bear much of the responsibility for the low esteem in which they are now held. The expenses scandal has not been forgotten, while the choices, lifestyles and language of government and opposition MPs alike remind us daily of the gulf between well-paid parliamentarians and the struggling, increasingly desperate victims of austerity.
The contempt and anger directed against politicians has reached a level which is doing huge damage to the health of democracy. There are many who no longer believe that democracy even exists any longer and this creates a very dangerous vacuum.
Membership of all parties is at an all-time low and political activism is considered to be almost a lunatic fringe activity. The idea that this kind of democratic engagement should be rooted in every community and understood as a positive means of nourishing justice and equality in our common life has almost vanished from popular thinking.
If this is to be changed, the response can no longer be 'more of the same'. Our politics is broken, its concepts, manners and assumptions outmoded and its practitioners despised. Radical changes are essential if democracy is to have any chance of renewal. Those changes will not come about unless, we – the people – refuse to go on accepting and giving tacit support to the failed model while permitting ourselves to be drawn deeper into a toxic slough of hatred, resentment, polarisation and negativity.
Maybe those of us (and there are many) who can no longer see a way forward with the present system could start to combine – an 'occupy democracy' movement perhaps – and begin to lay down some challenges to the political status quo. Most of these are not exclusive challenges to MPs – they do not operate in a vacuum – and our own personal attitudes are also significant. Here are a few basic requirements and pointers for self-examination:
Though comment is free, facts should be sacred. Lies, distortions, misrepresentations, false statistical claims – these are all destructive and insulting. The electorate knows that water does not flow uphill. When you seek advantage through mendacity, no one will trust you even when you are being truthful. If you are a party supporter or activist, there is also a responsibility to refrain from false witness.
Consider it possible that you may be mistaken Conviction does not confer inerrancy Listen, learn, absorb experience of lives which differ from your own. Admit error. Don't try to defend the indefensible.
Examine your desire for point-scoring and short-term advantage
It's ugly, stupid and lacks both integrity and utility. Few people will change their minds through being jeered at or bullied. Do you want to have the last word or to advance understanding and dialogue? If it's the former, you have a problem. This applies far beyond the green benches.
Develop it. Use it. If your own advancement comes first, the Whips will always own you and your constituents will have no reason to respect or trust you.
Cooperate wherever possible
No party has a monopoly of good ideas. Some borders define essential beliefs; others are the foundation of prison walls. Be discerning. Partisanship may often be the enemy of integrity. It isn't betrayal to make common cause for justice, nor to admit that new thinking may come from unexpected quarters.
Move on from 'class war'
Like all forms of war, it is more likely to destroy and embitter than to liberate. Our focus needs to be on increasing equality, protecting the most vulnerable, enabling their voices to be heard or giving them a voice where they have none. The liberation theology concept of the 'preferential option for the poor' is a better compass for the 21st century and serves as a reminder that class, wealth and oppression are not inextricably bound together.
New parties have a poor history of success in the UK. For a while, they may speak to our concerns or form a focus for discontent. Perhaps their most lasting contribution to political life is that over the longer term, some of their thinking may feed into and effect change in the mainstream parties. It seems to me that the most promising course for renewal and reform of our politics is to accept that the present parties will continue in some form and that people will continue to be of the 'left' or 'right'. These categories are of diminishing value but it is difficult at present to avoid them.
But by standing back from official party allegiance, we may create a space in which labelling is kept to a minimum and a freer exchange of ideas, based on justice and eschewing pointless 'oppositionalism' and tribalism might be enabled to flourish. It is through the combining of individuals seeking personal renewal that wider reforms begin to happen. Just as a change of climate introduces new species into an eco-system, a change in our political ecology might encourage the growth of politicians with a more mature and creative moral intelligence.
There is very little to lose and a great deal to gain.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
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