The Alternative UK and Scotland: Towards Good Societies

From  The National

By Pat Kane, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

(This article is based on Pat's column in The National, 4 Mar, 2017) 

It’s not often you get the chance to be involved in the launch of a new political force. But I took it this week as one of the co-initiators of The Alternative UK, inspired by and connected to Denmark’s Alternativet party, which describes itself as being for “sustainability and entrepreneurship”. 

Our soft launch in London was full of the diversity, energy and global embrace which that world city can provide, and which always makes this Scot welcome. (It also shows what a bum steer Mayor Khan was given by his Scottish comrades recently). 

But we were at pains to tell our audiences and interviewees that we were not a political party, but a political platform. Explaining the difference will be a starting point for a much bigger discussion in this column. Which is whether the current design and behaviour of political parties really express our political needs and wants properly. 

So why a platform, not a party? In the case of The Alternative UK, there’s a few reasons, the bluntest of which is to do with the differing national electoral systems across these islands. In Scotland at least, proportional voting has allowed the presence of parties and independents beyond the usual historic players - take the Scottish Socialists, the late Margo McDonald and others.  

And of course now the Scottish Greens effectively hold the balance of power with the SNP in Holyrood. It’s by no means a perfect picture of democracy - but it at least shows some complexity. (Alternativet’s ten seats in the Danish parliament proportionally matches their percentage of the national vote). 

However in England, under first-past-the-post, with its boundary commission about to gift more seats to Tories, who seem installed for a decade or more… Argh. What space for a new political party in that cramped universe? 

If a new centrist party is about to emerge, coalescing Blairites, wet Tories, the Lib-Dems and others, it looks like being as stiff and hectoring an affair as the Remain campaign was, mounted with grotesques from the nineties. 

And that leads to the second reason why The Alternative UK is a platform rather than a party - which is the crisis, social and cultural, of party politics itself. 

“What crisis?” you might instantly hear from the SNP, Scottish Greens, or Corbyn Labour (let alone UKIP), pointing to surges in membership as a consequences of the indyref or the 2015 UK general election. (Though a recent leak from Corbyn Central showed that 27,000 have left the party since his re-election). 

Yet zoom out on these surges, and the overall picture across these islands is structurally odd. Out of those who actually participated in the 2015 UK general election, just over 3% were paid-up party members. 

Historically, this is a tiny upswing from a precipitous decline. In the post-war period the Tories had 20 times more members than they have now; Labour members fell off a cliff after 1979. 

Europe’s party memberships are also declining long-term. Though the UK is still near the foot of the table, the age of mass membership for at least the settled political parties would seem to be over.

Again, is Scotland that different? A bit. Party members as a percentage of those who actually voted (55.6%) in the 2016 Holyrood election turn out to be over 7% - and the SNP chunk of that on its own would be over 5%. 

But still, think of the millions, whatever nation we’re counting them in, who are not willing to give a little money, or a bit their time and energy, to a political party.

Compare this to volunteering. The Cabinet Office’s annual Community Life survey notes that 47% of UK residents are volunteering at least once a month. 73% had given charitably in the last month, with about 63% giving £10 or more (13% giving over £50!). 

(Notably, these stats are lower in Scotland - according to Volunteer Scotland, only 27% of Scots regularly volunteer. Is this because the Scottish state does more of the social-caring work? Or what? Worth exploring.) 

But even if some of these activities is party-political membership, it’s clearly just a bucket in a much bigger reservoir of social and civic engagement. Never mind the large majorities who don’t volunteer, and the large minorities who don’t vote. 

So to throw another placard-waving party into this set of conditions might not seem like the best move. But when conventional ways seem frozen, oftenopportunities to experiment and innovate with how things are done open up. A political platform - understood in the same way as we think of digital platforms like Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, as structures that support a diversity of self-expression and creation - would be a more open place to do that, than a party with a clear manifesto and ideology.

In the context of the rest-of-the-UK, where a majority in the largest country carried the day for Brexit, it’s not difficult to see the Leave vote as one massive experiment in this regard. 

We can rail at the fiendish manipulations of the Brexiteers (or the Trumpsters) - their tricksy psychological models joined up with their harvesting of our online behaviours. But their victorious slogan, “Take Back Control” - of what? From whom? To do what? And why? - actually answered a profound and deep cry from the collective heart. 

In a precarious and unpredictable world, who could be blamed for an impulse toward self-rule? We can regard the triggering of the primal emotions of Leave voters around fear, anger, insecurity, identity, by Cambridge academics and Etonian toffs, as a terrible, pitiable spectacle. 

Or it could be an opportunity to construct spaces - within theatres, community halls, sports centres; wherever conviviality happens - where the emotions and longings that underpin political positions can be more deeply explored. 

In Denmark, Alternativet ran countless “political laboratories” - friendly meet-ups, from which their eclectic mix of policies were eventually formed. 

Yet we’ll have to do these political labs differently on these islands. Our event in London mixed together futurists, ad-men, independent “localists”, teenage activists, along with drama-makers, singers, facilitators and beat-boxers. 

Culture, psychology, technology and personal testimony were more to the fore than policy (although we did hear the funkiest case for universal basic income ever). This was cosmo-London, so the lab was tailored to these conditions. 

However we believe that it’s possible to set up these events right across the towns and cities of England and beyond. They will honour the historic complexity of each place. But they will also - through a mix of arts, ideas, craft and participation - try to open up a vista of future alternatives. 

As much as possible, they will be based on the rich lives and practices of the large majorities of people who live way beyond the party-political bubble. The media dimension of The Alternative UK’s “platform” will relay the news and discoveries of these laboratories. These will hopefully then inspire people to set them up, and feed back those results to us, generating a virtuous, movement-building loop. 

Those of you who were deep in the Yes campaign of 2012-2014 will probably recognise this attempt to bring culture, as it is lived in Scotland, right alongside political expression. Indeed, those of you longer in the tooth may recognise it as what we’ve been doing for the last 30-odd years. (Phil Teer, our UBI advocate, happily threw up an Alasdair Gray slide).

Will it take that long for a process like ours to generate, say, an authentic, regionally-based desire for an English federalism? I hope not - I don’t have that much time.

But as a long-standing and eternal supporter of Scottish independence, I am involved in A/UK because it’s not in my interest for our giant neighbour to slip deeper into sullen despair. 

Yet their resources for hope will be quite different from Scotland’s - and it will be fascinating to see what surprises and new practices emerge from these political laboratories. As Scotland readies for its own next leap, please regard this project benignly. Good societies can happen in two places at the same time. 

pat kane