Real change in the political landscape

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 Jul 2009

The traditional parliamentary summer recess is turning out to be something a little different in 2009: a summer re-assess. There is certainly plenty to mull over.

In the past 12 weeks we have witnessed a rolling MPs’ expenses scandal, a row over the semi-closeted Iraq war inquiry, disastrous results for Labour in the May elections, Euro gains for the BNP, partly resulting from low poll turnouts, Gordon Brown’s disappointingly partial attempts at political reform and a growing sense of anger and disillusionment among the general public.

All of these storms have been brewing for some time. But the particular combination of recent events has produced a larger political and constitutional challenge. As someone remarked to me recently, “circumstances have spoken.” But who will speak back and with what ideas or solutions?

While some MPs have taken holiday flight and some returned quietly to their constituencies to lick wounds and appease supporters, others in both Houses – the ones usually referred to as ‘career politicians’ – are continuing to throw themselves into anxious debates about the future of their parties and of the governing system as a whole.

A few others are thinking in more ambitious terms than survival. This month sees the initial launch of Real Change: The Open Politics Network (http://www.realchange.uk.net/), a broad coalition of civic-based organisations. The driving force is the small team behind the recent Convention on Modern Liberty (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6866), working closely with Unlock Democracy (the former Charter 88 campaign for constitutional reform), openDemocracy, a web initiative which has become a hub of debate around political transformation locally and globally, and others.

The Real Change agenda is substantial and its stance is one of engagement rather than easy and predictable oppositionism. Some key reformers from the major political parties are involved, alongside those whose approach is rooted in grassroots initiatives, research programmes and long standing extra-parliamentary campaigning. There are unusual alliances and configurations at play here, not just ‘the usual suspects’.

The galvanising manifesto for Real Change argues that two things are needed to replace the disintegration of historic trust in the legislature of this country, described by the 19th Century radical John Bright as the “Mother of Parliaments”. First, an intelligent, self-governing citizens’ movement to hold our representative institutions to proper account. Second, a serious public debate about the future of modern democracy, liberty and human rights, drawing on the best of international ideas.

“Reform so as to preserve” is still the mantra of the political elite, argue Real Change’s movers and shakers. Those who have dominated the political landscape since the Thatcher years continue to hope that the recent waves of popular outrage will again crash and dissipate into passive acquiescence.

But this time a consistent series of opinion polls reports a record 75 per cent of UK voters hankering after genuine changes to the system. What is needed, the civic-based activists declare, is a strong movement from below that turns these private views into influential demands.

One intriguing question concerns what role churches and faith groups might play in reviving local democracy and supporting community-based involvement in working for a fairer social and political order.

The answer will depend upon their own ability to change and their willingness to adopt ‘living by example’ rather than ‘seeking control’ as their modus operandi.

Ekklesia is pleased to be part of this emerging movement for change at its earliest stages. We believe that ‘good faith’ is critical to the development of civic goodwill and healthy politics in Britain today.

In his introduction to the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's classic treatise Discipleship and Political Responsibility (http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=1551), the US theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas reminds Christians not to be "mesmerised" by the language of democracy.

He's right. 'Power to the people' only works if the persons so empowered can learn to behave in ways that enhance the wider good, to renounce greed and violence and to use the litmus test of the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable as the moral ground for their political action. That means a radical change of heart and mind, such as the Christian message proposes, not just a tinkering with structures still mired in injustice.

But that is not a recipe for un-involvement or for regarding all kinds of politics as the same. It is about engagement in active transformation, the generation of communities of character and upholding the best possibilities for checking the misuses of power in our societies - and in our faith communities.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He and Jonathan Bartley are alternating members of the Real Change steering committee. See: http://www.realchange.uk.net/

Also by Simon Barrow: 'Reinvesting democracy with hope' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8417

Ekklesia's 'alternative politics' briefing - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/independent_politics

Ekklesia's articles and features around the Convention on Modern Liberty can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6866

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