Exploring Two Alternatives: Open Democracy Interviews A/UK

The day after our Kings Cross Impact Hub launch in March, Open Democracy's Rosemary Bechler and Adam Ramsay sat down with Uffe Elbaek (Alternativet's leader and founder), Rasmus Nordqvist (another founder and deputy leader - both of them MPs), Indra Adnan and Pat Kane (the co-initiators of The Alternative UK).

We had an intense hour-long interview which very much covers what The Alternative UK is all about, and the way it echoes and develops what Alternativet in Denmark has started. An excerpt below: 

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Party-movements interest us a lot in Can Europe make it? , but hitherto we haven’t come across a party in one country with a movement in another – so what is going on?

Uffe Elbaek (UE): It’s important to underline that The Alternative is much more than a political party. When it comes to our self-image and self-understanding, the way we describe it in Denmark is that first of all we are a political platform.  On this platform you can have all sorts of stuff happening. You can have a political party, which we are. We have ten members in the Danish Parliament now. But we are also a movement, and we are also start ups, and we are also education, and we are also cultural alternatives. Everything can happen on this platform as long as it accords with our six values and is going in the right direction in terms of the direction in which we want society to move. 

So, for us it is not strange that right now we are sitting here as MP’s alongside Indra and Pat who are activists and movement entrepreneurs, because it all fits into the tendencies we are all of us developing as a political platform.

RB: Isn’t it the case that your starting point also contained a criticism of political parties as currently constructed?

Indra Adnan (IA): In the UK, only 2% of people from the available electorate are in political parties. That is astounding and we have to grapple with it! People don’t believe in politics: maybe they would like to. But they are not giving their time or money to the political parties as they exist now. And the crises in political parties are many: crises in leadership, in culture, of structure. They are not delivering to people. 

This is not just a matter of agency – which many people are yearning for. There is none of the feeling for or attraction in this way of life which politics should have if a democracy is truly going to flourish.

RN: But also if we look at political parties when they first started, they were very different from how they are today. They have become very conservative, but before they were part of people’s lives. 

They were cultural, educational, people were going on a journey with their political parties, and this was integral to society at large. Whereas today, this career has become very professionalised. 

It was the same when we started up in Denmark. I think it is 3.6% of the Danes who are involved. 3.6% are actually electing the people you can vote for, developing our politics. When we started, we were asking ourselves, “Where is political innovation today? How can we work on a broader basis, get a lot more different kinds of people into the political room, and also open it up?” “How can we work on a broader basis, get a lot more different kinds of people into the political room, and also open it up?”

[...] Pat Kane (PK): This is part of the terrain that we face in the UK.  We had this amazingly divisive, polarising vote over Brexit, and it left 52% disrupting the political order as we know it.

So you can see that as a moment of chaos, meltdown, entropy, disaster. But actually, the phrase that underlay that disruption – take back control – in our opinion, looking at it culturally and philosophically, even spiritually, is one of the most profound things that you can say about one’s life as a citizen. ‘Take back control of what, from whom, to do what ?’– these are the most fundamental questions underlying politics.

So, one can bemoan and remoan the results of the Brexit referendum, but actually it is an enormous opportunity to revivify what we think of as citizenship. Now, how do you do that? There are a lot of people moving into that space. The new right characters like Arron Banks are thinking that they can copy what other network-centric parties in Europe are doing and move in and redefine the terrain. They are actually saying,” Let’s redefine direct democracy!” 

There has to be a force countering that, but if it is still on the same battleground terrain as the political parties – “My manifesto is better than your manifesto!” – “My list of facts is better than your list of facts!” – it won’t work.  

So what we think is that there has to be a cultural option. You have to construct spaces that are culturally driven. And not just culture as in arts and culture, but cultures of the locality, for example. 

You have to get down to the basic level of saying who you are and what you dream about and aspire to in your society. That requires unconventional techniques. 

We tried some of those last night at the launch by mixing together advertisers and policy people and futurists and reformers, and we wanted to give all the input that came into these rooms the same status. Someone with a degree in PPE from Oxford could come into the room but have no more status or impact than a singer or a local activist or a fashion designer, people from the 98% who are making their lives purposeful and meaningful. Now there is a politics in that 98% and we have to find it. But it will not be in the usual ways, with the usual tools and the usual vocabulary. That is the task we have set ourselves, given how broken the representative political system is in the UK. ‘Take back control of what, from whom, to do what ?’– these are the most fundamental questions underlying politics.

Full Open Democracy interview here.