Alternative Editorial: Reimagining Politicians

Public Art as a Driver of Urban Transformation in Douala in Re-Imagining the African City: The Arts and Urban Politics. 

Public Art as a Driver of Urban Transformation in Douala in Re-Imagining the African City: The Arts and Urban Politics. 

This is an editorial from our Alternative Weekly Newsletter (sign up here, and previous newsletters here) which begins to pull together the many strands of socio-political change reported in our Daily Alternative blogs and give some shape to the emerging politics of the future.

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Who’d be a politician in this age of chaos? At national cabinet level, you are facing not only a globalised world whose dynamics are poorly understood, but a daily press that demands coherence and effective strategy from you at every step.

Worse than that, the mainstream press’ real interest is in stories that arouse their readers - making them share the news with each other so that attention, and revenue, is directed their way. The complex, human truths about the challenges of wielding power rarely surface in a way that might help voters to empathise with their leaders.

For backbenchers it’s even trickier. Each day they must carry the promises of their national-level decision makers back to their own constituencies, whether they took part in making that agreement or not. Their task is to mobilise their constituency behind the Party. Members of the public hold them accountable in a debate far removed from the daily reality of their own community, believing that somehow politicians have the power to harness national resources at the local level. Communities' frustrations with the hardships they have to endure end up landing squarely on the shoulders of the MP they voted in to make it all better.

Top UK political pundit Andrew Marr recently made a compassionate call for politicians training to be taught at school – but the models for successful leadership are not obvious. If existing politicians have only been increasingly failing to serve their citizens well, caught in a top-down structure that leaves them powerless to act substantively, what lessons could - or should - be taught from all that? How to manage the press by fabricating the news? How to facilitate a meeting so that everyone believes something is happening when it can’t?

So what could a politician be in a reimagined future? What is the nature of political leadership, in an age so focused on individuals’ freedom to express their views, and where communities' desire to act autonomously is growing? If politicians are to be the servants of the people – which democracy demands – what can they deliver?

To begin addressing that question, we have to step outside of the current political bubble. The prevailing structure, culture and felt experience of 20th C politics is unlikely to give rise, directly, to a style of leadership that can help people within their communities access the possibilities on offer for the 21st C.

For that we need to look at quite different developments. First and most obvious is the growth of technology, from information sharing to 3D printers, that give people new capacity to resolve their own problems without waiting for permission. Keeping abreast with future developments in artificial intelligence, automation and biological enhancement – not least in order to be able to resist change happening without public engagement – is key.

Secondly, reimagining community is most effective from the ground up. When politics divides those living cheek-by-jowel into clear-cut camps, making each other the enemy to progress, neighbours have to find ways to prioritise their common needs and experiences to bring them together: to make cooperation possible. This is why localism is growing in popularity – it feels good to work together with those you might meet in the street, finding agreement, making stuff happen.

Thirdly, the fashion for self-development (if you can call something fashionable that has always been happening but only recently been acceptable to the mainstream press). These practices give people back a sense of control over their own lives. This is not just an elite pursuit any more, but something you hear about in soap operas, watch in TV adverts and have increasing access to in your local doctor’s surgery. More and more people doing yoga, mindfulness, health regimes. And what this helps them do is to reclaim their minds and bodies, in ways that make them feel more capable of these times.

Working together within a more localised, networked culture, those that feel stronger in these many ways are in a much better position to notice and help those still on the margins, unable to access the benefits of modern society. As George Monbiot describes so well in Out of the Wreckage, ‘thick’ local networks are generating previously unimagined solutions.

Does that make politicians irrelevant to the future? Not if we reimagine them acting within a very different dynamic of power and agency. Less about passing on instructions and restrictions from the top, more about acting as conduits of local need and initiative, that then go on to shape national decisions on the distribution of resources. Turning the structure upside down.

Such politicians would be much more than transactional servants of the people: they would be responsible for holding the public imagination for what’s possible, when individuals and communities develop their own potential. Their interactions with people would be less performative – looking to be admired and followed – and more facilitative, helping constituents to be seen and heard, helping them into community. And in turn, these politicians would agitate for communities getting radically more decision-making power over how they do energy, food, welfare.

For that we need new concepts, cultures and structures – the political party has to be entirely redesigned. At this moment that’s a pipe dream in the UK – but experiments like this are happening all over the world with different levels of success.

In Denmark, Alternativet’s ongoing political experiment continues to grow in popularity – now the third biggest party in Copenhagen after local elections with one Major and five Citizens’ Representatives to enter City Hall. As an international party with a growing network of political platforms, their trials and tribulations will be shared quickly and their successful prototypes copied and adapted.

It may take some time for the current system to give way to something better. But the time to start making that alternative available is now.