Indra Adnan: Why Jo Cox's death was a turning point

By The Alternative UK's co-initiator, Indra Adnan

One year ago today I was standing on the island of Bornholm in Denmark, attending an annual political festival as a guest of a new political party called Alternativet.

As a writer and Director of the Soft Power Network, I’d been invited to be ‘in dialogue’ on stage with Alternativet’s enigmatic leader, Uffe Elbaek and later host a discussion about the future of Europe on the eve of Brexit. News of Jo’s death had spread around the island and people were coming up to me, simply because I was British, expressing their grief and offering whatever support they could imagine might be helpful, in a moment of collective dismay at what was happening to all of us.

Until that moment I was deep inside the political bubble, committed to a fight with the ‘other’ – whatever form it took. Left v Right, Progressive v Regressives, Remain v Leave – I knew who the opponent was. But over the course of a day with Alternativet, I shifted my position and began to see how we are all at the mercy of a politics which is utterly broken.

It sounds like – and of course, it is – a cliché. Brokenness is in the eye of the beholder and, more than that, a tool in the hands of those who want to shame others. David Cameron’s mantra about a ‘broken society’ delivered us all into the hands of those who can barely see the families, communities and isolated individuals who have been decimated by systemic austerity over the past ten years. His project for a Big Society – great idea, poor execution – took funding away from the millions of small and helpful responses that had arisen over the years rather than invested in them.

So what do I mean by broken and what can be done about it? Just before Bornholm I had published a paper for Compass campaigning group called Is the Party Over? in which I detailed why political parties were becoming obsolete on at least four counts: the poverty of the user experience (offering tea towel merchandise, instead of participation) their structure (top down), their culture (inconsistent with the values they espoused) and their leadership (disconnected from the members). Yet I could see signs of development – captured by the Sanders (USA Democrats) / Corbyn / YesScotland (UK) style of organising. Plus, the rise of new political parties in Europe – Podemos (Spain), Pirate Party (Iceland), Syriza (Greece), Five Star (Italy) each of them modelling a different relationship between a political movement and a party.

Even so, the fact that only 2% of people in the UK are members of political parties – including the Corbyn and Scottish Independence surges – is staggering. 98% of the voting age population don’t think it’s worth their time or money to participate actively in the political discourse. Politicians and their co-dependents, the mainstream media conceive of this vast majority as apathetic. But are they? Or are they, rather, disinterested – preferring to invest themselves elsewhere?

In the two days I spent with Alternativet – which was a viscerally new experience of what politics could be - I began to see three major mismatches between politics as we know it, and society as it presents itself. Firstly, current politics sees the human being as ‘homo economicus’ driven by economic needs first, with everything else arising from getting that need met. That’s why elections are about taxes and the economy rather than loneliness – the single biggest cause of mental health problems in the UK. Outside of politics we know humans are complex – bio-psycho-social-spiritual – beings: self-development is the biggest publishing phenomenon of modern times. But politics + mainstream media can’t grasp it. Is it any accident that the EU referendum, fought on highly emotional terms – the need for control – saw the biggest UK wide turn out in our political memory? What are the other major emotional drives that shape society – do we know? What might a politics of the complex human being look like?

Secondly, political parties and the government at Westminster cannot see us as fundamentally social animals, operating largely in networks (from families to football clubs), constantly looking for belonging and status. While we generate our own human and cultural capital, we never get the chance to have any collective agency. Power is handed down in dribs and drabs from on high, all the important decisions made at national level. Democracy is limited to a vote once every five years and instead of helping us build community, it divides us into tribes. What would a politics of citizenship and collaboration look like?

Thirdly, what is the party political and mainstream media stance on our world, the planet we live on? Despite the scientific consensus on climate change, the inescapable crisis of international movement and the impact of globalisation on jobs and security, there is minimal commitment to transnational discourse. ‘Other countries’ are still divided into those with us or against us, as blocs and pecking orders.

Contrast that to the borderless internet. Or the multiculturalism of our food, music and holiday destinations. Or the growth of the vegetarian, renewable energy and fashion for finding out our global heritage – all of which imply a compassion for the planet and global citizenship our Prime Minister demeans. All our shared problems are global problems: we know we have to find a way to come together – yet our politicians talk only about how to compete.

With the Alternativet in Bornholm I heard, saw and felt something different. Uffe’s CV was not political but cultural: as founder of a global school for entrepreneurs called Kaos Pilots he had spent his life training for creativity and agency. After being drawn into politics by the Social Liberal Party to become Denmark’s Culture Minister in 2011 he quickly jumped ship to form his own political party Alternativet, which is now the fastest growing party in Denmark.

Instead of a fixed ideology and set of policies, Alternativet is based on 6 values – courage, humility, generosity, empathy, openness and humour – which shapes both behaviour and policy. They opened political laboratories all over Denmark to crowdsource their first manifesto within one electoral cycle which gave them 10 seats in Parliament. They insist that politics has to be fun – or why should the people get involved? – and that everyone is a politician tasked with translating the life they choose into a politics that can deliver it.

By the time I left Bornholm, I had committed to initiating (with Pat Kane) The Alternative UK political platform as a response to the crisis we were facing in the UK: going beyond our current political culture to find more shared agency, seemed not only vital, but possible too. 

Three days later the UK voted to leave the European Union and four months later America voted Donald Trump as President of the USA: today we have a very different idea of our world than the one that Jo Cox left. Not only are we in national and global political upheaval, but we are under threat from increasingly random terrorism, climate change denial, and – with the tragic event in West London – vulnerable to the gathering impact of austerity politics on our society.

Yet Jo was one of those rare politicians that seemed to live and resonate outside the political bubble – the 2%. Her mantra – “there is more that unites us than that which divides us” has been championed by movements and initiatives all over the country and the world, irrespective of their political orientation. As much as her death was a physical reality with heavy consequences for all that loved her, it was also symbolic: a blow to what brings us together as humans.

One year on from that day, The Alternative UK is steadily building the political platform that honours the 98% and its natural desire to come together and find consensus on the way forward for our society. Our Daily Alternative is a friendly challenge to the mainstream media, highlighting the innumerable small (and large!) initiatives that harness people power, welcome the possibilities of technology for liberating the future and draw on the arts and other creative practices to help deliver complex messages in a simple way.

Our political laboratories – still in the early stages of co-creation with local communities around the UK – are giving voice to ‘small p’ politicians, those citizens who are beginning to step up to play their part in shaping the future.

And our plan for a Living Manifesto – heralded here by ten Alternative Manifestos offered in the run up to the recent general election – is beginning to take shape. We are developing the right software to allow maximum participation across the country.

Will this be a political party in the future? Who knows – unlikely within the first-past-the-post system. Either way, the important work of creating the conditions – the new narratives, cultures, behaviours and leadership for an alternative politics to emerge – has begun.

While we are a fledgling initiative ourselves, The Alternative is an international network of alternatives –  breaking the surface across the globe (currently Sweden, Norway, Nepal and the UK). Sharing the six values and remaining coherent across what I described above as the I, We and World realms of action.

One year on, inspired by them, this is our gift to Joe Cox and her family: with our thanks for all they have given and continue to give all of us.

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