Cultural renewal is essential to a better politics - for the left, but also beyond the party labels


It’s encouraging to see the traditional political parties in the UK begin to embrace the importance of experiences beyond the usual political expertise. But it’s only a beginning - in what we believe, at A/UK, is going to be a longer haul than is generally assumed by those on “the left”.

 This cover article from Red Pepper reports on how pulling together The World Transformed, an ideas-and-arts festival that fringed the last two Labour Party conferences, led the author (Red Pepper’s editor) to consider how it could shake up the party’s thought-processes: 

 [We saw] the aim of the event as to create a space in which ideas can be freely exchanged and collectively developed, and those in the movement see themselves as being able to contribute meaningfully. At this year’s event in Brighton we hosted over 300 activists, politicians, musicians and artists as they produced more than 200 hours of sessions, much of which also provided the opportunity for attendees to participate in the production of ideas as well as to learn.

Of course, such a space is temporary, and undoubtedly exhibits the power dynamics often associated with spaces of political education (whose voice? whose ideas?), but we hope it kick-starts a much larger process. The ‘Take Back Control’ series of events we ran across Britain this summer were designed to create similar spaces and empower the local activists we organised with to continue the process, as many were doing already.

At the heart of our approach is a commitment to broadening the scope of how we engage with political ideas – integrating art, music, films and poetry, and placing an emphasis on creating welcoming and dynamic social spaces in which political conversation is encouraged and ideas are given further room to breathe. In sum, it is a project intended to contribute to a much broader cultural renewal of the left.

We’ve also noted the start of a discussion about Cultural Democracy by The World Transformed activists - see their manifesto here. 

We would only note - from the perspective of our own development of the Alternative’s laboratory process over the last year, over a number of private and public events - that the Red Pepper piece still very much operates within a “recruiting” approach.

That is, bringing people into a convivial, creative and exploratory environment - but almost entirely in order to build the “movement” (and membership) behind the Corbyn Labour Party.  

Our own approach to using culture and the arts, as a means of the empowerment of citizens in their localities, deliberately tries to evade or transcend the existing right-left polarities. For one thing, the great divisions in contemporary British society - as evidenced in a news report out yesterday (see research here) - are much more generational, geographical/regional and values-based, than expressible through the old party-political spectrum. 

There is a deeper strata of public emotions and passions that we feel needs to be accessed, if we are to answer the profound anxieties (and aspirations) about “control”, “identity”, the past and the future, that were raised in the last 18 months of Trump and Brexit. We also believe that a renewed politics should grow from a space that invites creativity and making of all kinds, going in many directions - and not just be harnessed to the ideas-flow of a national political party. 

We want macro-politics, and the systems and laws it aims at “commanding”, to operate in a more responsive and constructive way. But it will operate best if there is a micro-level politics that surges healthily and autonomously from below. One made up of strong citizens newly confident about their take on the world.  This strength would come from them identifying rich resources in their localities - whether human or built, whether a commons of ideas or materials. And on their competence in using new 21stC tools of sharing, making and organising.

That may need an original space - unencumbered by the traditions, symbols and rituals of industrial-era politics, one that allows for genuine flowering, exploration and invention. Which is what our labs will hopefully open up.

The stakes - reviving a creative citizenship, among those who have a thoroughly disenchanted view of politics per se - are high. For us all. There’s more than one kind of alignment of politics and culture.