Alternative Editorial: This is what an Alternative Party looks like

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of The Alternative UK

 At Alternativet's congress. All pics by Indra Adnan

At Alternativet's congress. All pics by Indra Adnan

As we tell everyone that arrives at the door of The Alternative UK: we are not a political party, we are a political platform. In the British first past the post voting system, it’s a waste of energy and resources to create a new party. As it is not proportional  - in which every vote counts and corresponds to the number of seats each party wins – you can have between one to five million national votes but only one seat in the UK Parliament 

And once inside the walls of Westminster you are trapped in the old political structure, obliged to work with the old political rule-book within the old political culture. One that only attracts 2% of the population to become party members.

Yet we often fantasise about what kind of party would fit with the new politics that we are identifying on The Alternative UK platform. Community driven, autonomous by nature, ambitious for deep rich human connection and for making an impact on the planet – how can that bundle of political motivations, so vibrant at the grass roots, connect to power at the national level? Not easy.

So it’s an indulgence for us to occasionally visit the Mother Ship, Alternativet, where they have been in an open political experiment in Denmark for five years now. Founded by Kaos Pilot founder Uffe Elbaek, Alternativet (by way of a proportional voting system) became the fastest growing party in Denmark from its first showing, and now have 10 seats in the national parliament. At the recent local elections they won 23 mandates including two mayoral positions and one vice mayor – becoming the third largest party in Copenhagen.

Which is no mean task in a country that regularly boasts a 78% turnout for local elections. Compare that to our poor showing: while the figures are not yet out for last week’s elections, the 2017 average in England was 35.1%, for Scotland 46.9%.

Even so, Alternativet were - and remain - a radically new political proposition. They launched without a political programme but a loud call to make politics more enjoyable and more relevant to people’s daily lives. Presenting as a green-oriented party, they linked the flourishing of the individual to the flourishing of the planet and named six values that framed all their activities: Generosity, Empathy, Courage, Transparency, Humility and Humour. So they were not explicitly Left or Right – a categorisation that splits communities from the outset - but a human social space that depends upon respect for others, conflict resolution, and the powers of imagination and creativity to inform their planning and policies.

After their launch, Alternativet crowd-sourced a new political manifesto through political laboratories around the country: a model of grassroots participation that has continued to be the badge of their organising.

A few days at the Landsmodet

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So how is that going five years later? On my visit to their annual national congress – Landsmodet – the ideal was being actively tested in a number of ways.

That the culture and human-centred nature of the movement was alive and kicking was clear. While we were gathering in a cavernous hanger, the seams of the building were lined with spring flowers; on the tables were balls of wool and knitting needles to keep participants minds engaged while they sat through the inevitable procedural tasks. The food - vegan and freshly cooked by local Somali members - was dished up in washable or re-cyclable dishes. The atmosphere was warm, humorous: while there was contestation, it was more in the manner of a friendly football match than a Cup Game.

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I spoke to members throughout the day, who came from all over the country, irrespective of responsibility – it was open to anyone who wanted to attend, on a pay what you can afford basis. The largest part of Day 1 was reserved for open contributions and proposals for anyone that wanted to bring them: some of which had immediate responses from the floor through hand-held electronic voting keypads. More general motions were carried or rejected through the use of green bits of paper held aloft. Large tables broke into small groups regularly to re-imagine practice or policy.

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The party had been through some rough times in the previous year when the press had made full frontal attacks in the run-up to the local elections. Everything that makes the Alternativet special, also makes it vulnerable. Its ‘party’ culture - in the convivial sense - is portrayed as lacking in seriousness, or even hedonistic. Its emphasis on friendliness means that any sign of conflict is pounced upon as a failure, even hypocrisy. Its diversity makes it vulnerable to conservative shaming. The last few days before the elections were hard.

But the victory was sweet. As Uffe said in his opening address, it took the Danish People’s Party twenty years to get their first mayoral post, Alternativet got it on their first try. Another video followed with the buoyant theme “it’s our party we can do what we want” that showed the steady advance of their political objectives, despite the media’s portrait. And if that sounds triumphalist, it’s because I’ve failed to do it justice: it was more moving than defiant, a celebration of wins, hard-won through keeping the spirit alive.

So is everything in the garden rosy or am I wearing heavily tinted specs? Are Alternativet doing everything right and it’s just bad luck for The Alternative UK that our voting system is so dysfunctional? Not quite. The huge problem of citizens’ participation still exists on both sides of the North Sea. If democracy – power through the people - was invented in 5th century Athens, it’s still trying to live up to its own ideal. The dictionary definition - a system and culture of governance practised by the whole population of a nation’s citizens - depends as much upon the freedom of the citizen to act democratically as it does upon a politician to be smart.

How does this freedom come about? I spoke to several members in the course of the day who spoke about the challenge of getting people to join in their meetings at the local level. In the exactly the same way that we are facing in communities across the UK, opportunities for participation cannot be overtly political. 

There is little or no trust in parties that have instrumentalised citizens as voters for as long as anyone can remember, gaining their trust to win their votes, only to lose interest in them again, once in power. Like us, Alternativet are busy designing spaces that welcome people, attract them, irrespective of their political stance.

To some extent, the link between people and power has to be re-imagined without political parties intervening, so that energy can return to people in their families and communities. And the future role of political parties is to facilitate and protect that.

We need to move the idea of the human being at the heart of politics away from the traditional homo economicus, towards a more complex bio-psycho-social-spiritual being. Someone for whom the meeting of their material needs will not be enough to liberate their full potential. This is a challenge we two branches of the Alternative recognise and share.

The Next Denmark and the coming politics

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In Uffe Elbaek’s paper, entitled The Next Denmark, published on the day we gathered, he emphasised the role of personal and collective freedom at the heart of the project. A rough translation of the core message might be:

“We need a new story of freedom. One that breaks ties with the belief that economic growth sets us free. Freedom is much more than the right to own things and generate wealth. It's the right to the good life, to well-being, intimacy and nature.”

Uffe published The Next Denmark as a personal set of ideas, rather than a set of policy proposals co-created by the political party, in a top down way. The intention was to offer it as a starting point for anyone to work from - as if they had just been in a conversation with Uffe down the pub. Take it or leave it.

The developing infrastructure of the political party of the future is being imagined here - like a work of art unfolding in real time. One that can be on full receive and ready to be in service to people's ingenuity, coming from how they are leading their own lives in their communities. More prosaically, it’s like trying to reconcile two different speeds. Day to day political policy, largely at government level, changes fast; but the culture and practice of politics, particularly at community level, needs to move slower, careful to engage everyone.

There are, of course, policy laboratories and citizens forums which funnel ideas and initiatives upwards all the time. But the more fractal relationship between the party and the communities - in which both should reflect each other, but neither should be in control of each other - is more difficult to land. Liquid democracy will play its part, but citizens assemblies and even more modest, citizens hubs will also have a role.

In the meantime, Alternativet works at the Parliament end, infecting other parties with their ideas and ways of working. Since their growing popularity, other parties have been vying with each other to show their green credentials. Just recently, the Fenstre party (home of the current Prime Minister) adopted a Green symbol to show their solidarity with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Another recent innovation brought in by Alternativet was to gain the right for citizens to propose topics for Parliament to discuss – requiring only 50,000 signatures each time.

Rather than the tradition of looking for the lowest common denominator in popular feeling, this is a new form of acceptable competition - altruistic competition: the race to the top. But it depends upon a faith in the most people wanting what’s best for everyone. This is not the mainstream Darwinian claim that the media promotes, that most people are selfish.

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For that to become established as a genuine political narrative – not simply a positive stance from politicians harnessing hope for their own gain – what we call the 98% have to start becoming politically engaged again, right at the grass roots, in their communities.

In a speech announcing the co-operation between Alternative and Diem-25 on a long-term project which will be called The European Spring, Rasmus Nordqvist MP, had this to say:

“The potential of this moment to make change at local and global level is unprecedented. But if we do not have the full engagement and co-operation of the people, nothing happens. That potential is lost.”