Alternative Editorial: The Spectacle of Breakdown
Yesterday I was standing in the midst of the March for the People’s Vote, calling for a second referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. As I arrived the BBC was reporting 10s of thousands people marching. An hour later the headline said hundreds of thousands and from the stage the whoop was for a million people counted. On line the petition to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU was edging 4.4 million.
Of course none of this challenges the figures achieved in the referendum itself: 17.4 milion (51.9% of votes counted) to Leave and 16.1 million (48.1%) but, from what I read, that’s not the point. The point is to challenge the story Theresa May has been hammering out – and all the mainstream newspapers have been carrying relentlessly - that Brexit is the ‘will of the people’.
Since the EU referendum three years ago in June, the Prime Minister has seen fit to talk about ‘the people’ as if they were in solid agreement. Instead, in an echo of the wider political structures – but not in alignment with it – the vote was split almost down the middle. Given there was only a 72.2% turn out, that percentage drops to 37.4% of said people in favour of Leave. It was beginning to irritate.
The hope is that, at this very difficult moment when the UK Parliament tries to deliver the impossible – see here for Anthony Painter’s view of why this vote was illegal, and mine - the PM will stop using ‘the people’ to force a bad result. Instead, the rather polite request (see photos) is that she recognises that much has been revealed as bogus since the original vote, and grants the people another vote, on a choice of true options. After all, she has claimed the right to have three votes on the same Brexit deal (without any substantial changes), why can’t we?
The last time a million people came out on a march in the UK, it was against going to war in Iraq. Fat lot of good that did you might say. However, we are in very different circumstances now. In 2003, marching was the only way that people could get to see each other en masse. The government, led by Tony Blair, quickly reframed the issues, using his own powers of persuasion to bring Parliament on side, skilfully manipulating the message of the march.
At that time, we had no voice to come back with. Social media was a fraction of what it is today:. Facebook was still FaceMash. Avaaz, the largest on-line petition site we almost take for granted today (despite a global membership of 51 million) was only founded in 2007. It had yet not become second nature to express ourselves in the public space.
Improving on the old intransigence
Today it’s not difficult to communicate. Politicians tweet outwards towards their followers; voters tweet outwards towards theirs. Both hoping to be seen by the other. Everyone can have an opinion published, we are less shy than before and in a plethora of different ways, we are accessible.
Yet when Theresa May – or indeed, any other politician – claims to understand what the people want, they are faking their understanding. Like salesmen, they would have you believe that they know something they simply cannot—because there are no accurate mechanisms for finding out. Despite all the new learning about quality engagement with citizens as well as advances in technology to deliver results, Westminster continues to govern arms-length, unwilling to connect meaningfully with the people.
In that sense, what we witnessed on Saturday is far more than a march for a vote: together with the on-line petition, it’s a rehearsal for a different relationship to power. In the almost three years since the first vote, new facts arising have made it impossible for MPs to deliver on their original offer. Europe cannot offer us a better deal than the one we already have, without breaking the Northern Ireland Peace agreement. Which they cannot, or will not. Hence, the offer should have been Remain or No Deal.
Witnessing the Parliamentary implosion as MPs nevertheless vie to look as if they can deliver, at least one section of the public is asking, can we try that again? Knowing what we now know? It seems reasonable – something of a dialogue between citizens and parliament. A simple improvement upon the old intransigence.
Instead we have the old-politics as usual: in the bunker, surrounded by red lines, refusing to acknowledge the limitations of a very old system.
However, given that a referendum is still a relatively crude tool - a single vote with no role for deliberation – is that the answer to the bigger question this moment is posing? Are we really only asking for a re-run of a race that was fought so badly in the first place? Even as we march, Nigel Farage is scrambling to establish a Brexit political party, no doubt ready to repeat the lies that he told (and retracted after the vote) last time.
Or is this a moment for political innovation? One that might not only impact upon the European issue, but, ever more urgently, upon climate breakdown?
Imagineering a better future, locally
At A/UK, we prefer to take this more ambitious view. Ever since the murder of Jo Cox on the eve of the Brexit vote, we have been pursuing The Alternative to this broken politics. After two years of working steadily with nascent peoples’ movements, civil society organisations, social enterprises, inspirational entrepreneurs and others, we are seeing clearly that a genuine revolution in how power is exercised is not only possible, but already underway.
At local and municipal levels, citizens are organising themselves under the radar of the national political parties, to bring communities together. Our Daily Alternative describes personal, social and environmental initiatives of all kinds which put community cohesion above tribal loyalties. Citizen networks arise from sharing spaces and practices and increasingly, different forms of Imagineering – meet-ups that discuss possible futures of all kinds.
New political practice, such as Flatpack Democracy, is has prompted independent politicians standing in 35 places in Devon alone this May election. Their simple aim to take back control of their own futures where they live. Take a moment too, to read this week’s blog on a politics of the future.
Some of these are from South Devon / Plymouth where we have been working with local people to help create the conditions for this emerging new politics to flourish. Next week, on the day we would have been leaving Europe, we are co-designing a citizens action network (CAN) with Plymouth Octupus and the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO). From here, citizens – across all the usual divisions – will be able to have better choices and influence in their own area.
Our Plymouth – a digital network recently re-launched to give people better access to the eco-system of initiatives and services available in the area – will be working alongside The Commons Platform (see our blog) to help design that holiest of grails: an effective and responsive, whole-community platform.
Once the mechanisms are in place to have quality connections with citizens where they live, which provide spaces and resources to have meaningful discussion, the conditions are present for a new politics to go live. There will be no excuses for misrepresenting the people, not just once every four years, but in real time.
In many ways, those conditions have been present for decades, but there has not been a clear motivation to step up to realise them. It’s sad but true, that for that urgency to arise, we can thank the IPPC report on climate change. And Brexit.
From this perspective, Saturday’s March was not so much a protest, as a starting gun. All we need to do is hold our nerve.