Alternative Editorial: Independent Of What?

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On March 1st 2017, almost two years ago, we launched The Alternative UK with the phrase: If Politics is Broken, What’s the Alternative? Last week we had an eerie echo of that same phrase as seven Labour Party politicians broke away to form a new Independent Group, citing the rise of political extremists in their party, the mishandling of anti-semitism and the cross-party consensus on an inevitable Brexit as the cause. The following day another Labour MP joined them with threats of many more to follow.

It was not a shock – in fact, so many people had been expecting it for so long that it had become a standing joke: is today, finally, the day that Chuka Umunna will start a new party?  Ever since Corbyn seized Labour for the Left, away from Blair’s progressive centre, the tear has threatened to become a split.

Their deep differences in political motivation and stance have long been an argument for more pluralism in politics. If both Labour and the Conservative Party gave way to the divides within their parties, it would break up the dominance of the two parties and open the door to new ones. In so doing it would usher in a more representative, more proportional voting system.

But there is a calculation – or deep fear - on both sides, that without a majority in Parliament, under the whip system of top down control, they won’t be able to get much done. They will be in constant negotiation. Competition is much more efficient than collaboration, they say.

Nevertheless, the split had a political precedent - in March 1981 when four of Labour’s most popular MPs left to form the Social Democratic Party. Their move was more pro-active, with a clear agenda regarding the centre ground in British politics: a mixed economy, a decentralised state and more European integration. They named their project using familiar political terms, showing their alignment with similar parties abroad. While the Independent Group have done what they could to avoid pinning themselves to a manifesto or policies for now (though they have released a statement of principles).

However what came after their leap was historic. On Day 3 of the political upheaval, three MPs from the Conservative party also jumped ship and joined the Independent Group. They also cited the extremists in their former party. That was expressed as a disgust with PM Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, and with their colleagues’ cavalier attitude towards the fate of the country, in the event of no deal being agreed with Europe before the deadline for leaving.

Is this new alliance a true shift in British politics? Yes and no. Yes, because this hybrid of Labour and Conservative is a first. No, because the middle ground between two entities that are the monoliths of the old political culture and structure does not suggest an alternative to the old politics – just its midpoint. It’s still a party in the old mold, it still has the tone and language of the old politics (very much so!) and it hasn’t made any mention of the revolution in community, localist and activist power that is happening outside of Westminster.

They invoke a new politics but seem to have an expectation that it will come to them – through the usual vehicles of polling, voting and funding. They don’t seem to want to go to the citizens in a new way, to support what has been arising from the grassroots over the past few years. What is really being described is a new(ish) agenda: nothing more.

However, there is a strong symbolism about their decision to meld these party-political positions, that might - in the future - signify this as the moment everything changed. That they called themselves the Independent Group could mean one of two things. Most likely it signifies independence from the party each of them left behind. Or, along the same lines - but much more of a claim - independent of the current array of vested interests.

What it’s unlikely to mean is the thing The Alternative UK networks have been calling for: a preparedness to represent the new generation of independent politicians. By these we mean those who are not representing a tribe or an ideology embedded in a national level party, with zero or minimal mechanisms for hearing the citizens. These “independents” are deeply connected with their own community of citizens at the grass roots. And they collaborate within regional, national and even global networks of citizens and civic actors to find ways forward for themselves and their planet.

Of course, the term “independent” prompts an awkward clash with Nigel Farage’s so-called UK Independence Party which was a top-down call to leave Europe. Unlike other independent actors, Farage’s relationship with the grass-roots was instrumentalised to the point that, as soon as he had achieved his personal goal – a mandate to leave Europe – he abandoned them. But just like the term ‘alternative’ which has been interpreted so many different ways over the years, we have to be prepared to contest it. (See AUK’s Co-initiator, Pat Kane’s column on the potency of the term ‘independent’).

For the kind of new politicians at national level we are looking for, we could look to Australia. They have a history -  and recently a new wave - of independent MPs who take it upon themselves to hold the two dominant parties to account. Alice Thompson, standing for Mackellar, tweets: “After 10 years of policy paralysis we have no time to train L-plate Liberals on the issues and how Parliament works. Vote capable independents like myself who can hit the ground running, bring significant expertise and a track record of delivering the public interest in government.

“…As an Independent I will answer to the people of Mackellar - not the LNP or ALP & their donors. I will not compromise our local values to secure marginal Queensland seats. Infighting & factionalism distracting from the real war being waged on the environment. No party is doing enough. Environmental protection is core economic policy. I'll take the Greens ground and then raise it! Don't call me left, this is mainstream thinking”.

In a system very similar to that in the UK, one in four Australian voters are now voting for minor parties or independents.

Even more radically, Alternativet in Denmark was launched – almost five years ago now – without a political programme at all. Standing on a simple manifesto dominated by seven key values, Uffe Elbaek was voted into parliament after jumping ship from the long-in-the-tooth Social Liberals. From there he opened political laboratories around the country to crowd-source a political programme that won 9 seats in the next election. It has allowed Alternativet to come up with radical Green policies and futuristic visions for a ‘Next Denmark’ that are re-shaping the mainstream constantly. That’s a new politics: a genuine alternative to the failing political structure and culture we have today.

We often encourage the participants in our community collaboratories to use science fiction to re-imagine their community, be it town, city or region. What can we imagine as the outcome of the leap into the dark that the Independent Group signifies?

A rapid redistribution of political allegiance that obliged the major parties to give way to proportional representation in Westminster? A sudden shift of dynamics that caused municipalists and environmentalists to seize the initiative at local level? One or even two national level parties vowing to step back at local elections to allow the independents to come through? By 2025 a completely transformed political landscape?

Dream on, we hear you say. And - in the good company of all those currently building personal, social and political alternatives – we certainly will.