"We need somewhere to go in a moment of crisis." The A/UK take on the Euro Elections
We sit on a Monday morning, watching the many, many responses to the European elections which took place over 23-26 May. Although each claims to be the ‘correct’ analysis of what just happened, the variety proves we have a wide set of lenses – and agendas – through which to look at the results.
Our agenda within these elections are simple enough: a healthy democracy and a healthy planet. Let’s expand on those a little. Firstly, is there any sign that people are participating better in decision-making about their own lives? Because doing so would give them more personal agency, belonging and meaning. Secondly, is the political result going to make the survival of our planet any more likely?
As we described in our editorial this week, we have to learn to see past the big headlines: too many of the mainstream papers are reading the results through the melodrama of “whose humiliation is the worst?” Of these, probably Tommy Robinson’s derisory vote (ref) has to win. A result we would only mention to bring into question again the constant amplifying in the media of the activities of the extreme right. (And a result which can also be contrasted with the vibrant ex-mayor of Sheffield’s Magid Magid, profiled here already, winning an MEP seat for the Green Party).
From the binary perspective of whether or not this was a confirmation of the UK’s desire to leave the EU, it was not. In a proportional vote as this was, the clear vote to Remain (comprising the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Change UK) beat the clear vote to Leave (Brexit and UKIP) decisively (see picture). However, when we are used to looking through the major party-political lens, the Brexit Party was the single biggest party. In the UK, used to first past the post voting, this may well be played as a win for Leave.
Staying with the democracy issue, two out of three eligible voters were not counted (average 36.7% UK turnout). The majority simply did not vote, but some were denied their vote. In addition, some of the most politically active, well informed and committed people in the UK today – the school strikers - are excluded by age.
Pundits will say: that’s not unusual for European elections, don’t fuss. We say: when the future is at stake like never before, this is a calamity. Politics is broken. We need a serious alternative.
From the perspective of planetary survival, there was an improved vote for the Green Parties of England and Scotland. Yet it’s clear that our current party political make up has not been able to bring the crisis of our burning house to the top of the agenda. At this point we are still talking about who is going to lead the rescue plan and at what pace. Some are still debating about whether the smoke surrounding the building actually constitutes a fire. There is no clear and irresistible agreement to put the flames out first. As the IPPC report – written by scientists, not politicians – has made clear, soon there will be no escape route left.
The picture overall for Europe is slightly better. The continential turnout was 51% - the best for 40 years, reversing a steady decline. The Emerging Europe website describes it as “having returned a fragmented yet still clearly pro-EU majority, with traditional centre-ground parties losing seats to progressive parties, particularly the Greens. Eurosceptic and far-right parties made modest gains but will remain with roughly a quarter of MEPs.” The Greens may well hold the balance of power in the European Parliament, increasing from 52 to 71 seats (in Germany, they ran Angela Merkel’s CDU a close second, and were ahead of the Social Democrats).
Other bright sparks in the fire of new politics includes Poland’s openly gay politician Robert Biedron (profiled in the DA a year ago), whose Spring party passed the parliamentary threshold of 6.7 per cent and finished third. In the Czech Republic, the Pirate Party – again well covered in these pages – is going to return 3 MEPs to European Parliament.
As a pan-European party, Diem25 were disappointing, electing only one MEP in Greece (and commiserations to our inspirational friend Rasmus Nordqvist in Denmark, who stood there as an Alternativet member of the Diem25 European Spring platform).
We need prototypes for a better quality of engagement
So, on these islands, where do we put our energies now? Many, including many of those in favour of a new politics, are anxious. Even if it’s clear that the numbers above suggest we are ripe for a true shift in the way we do power in the UK, the worry is that the ‘wrong’ people are best prepared to take advantage of the breakdown of the old system.
What does ‘wrong’ mean here? It means a political force that relies on emotional triggering of a certain demographic of vulnerable people, rather than a commitment to better engagement with the whole of a diverse polity. It means a kind of politics that has little time for the climate emergency, choosing instead an idea of freedom that puts the right to consume above the right to survive.
Our anxiety is compounded by the evidence that soft power is stronger than hard power. Enabled by the PR machine that drives his agenda - which now includes, weirdly, all the ex-Trotskyite skills of organisations like the Institute of Ideas and Spiked – Farage is shameless in his instrumentalization of the vulnerable. He will promise whatever he discovers they want or need, without a single plan to deliver any of it. And calls that democracy.
However, there is an alternative way to look at this. What happens next may well be the continued breakdown of the two-party system in the UK. A new Conservative leader may not be able to command a majority in the House (how could the DUP, for example, back Boris?). And a General Election might be called. For the first time, both of the previously dominant parties may be forced to create electoral alliances with others, within which their shared agendas may well go beyond the European issue.
Will that be the moment for the climate deniers to be flushed out, in contrast to those that are ready to put their full weight behind a Green New Deal?
Another possibility, arising more directly from Farage’s call for a better democracy, would be a renewed call for proportional representation at the UK level (indeed, it would be logical for the Brexit Party to take up a constitutional agenda on that basis). That could bring with it, more devolution too. Why not allow the call for more autonomy to be translated into a shift into regional governments, municipalism and even localism?
If that happens – and it could happen very fast – those of us who believe in a better future for everyone have to get our act together faster than we are currently doing. We need to be ready with models for citizen action that do not simply trigger and jerk people into reacting to our multiple crises.
Instead we need prototypes for quality engagement: spaces for deliberation that recognise the complexity of our needs. Offering people diverse speeds of introduction to the mechanisms of power that may be newly available to them.
More than that we need the possibility of re-enchantment with the future. We won’t sustain the momentum for a new politics through fear and dread alone. It’s time to birth a new vision of what is now possible for all of us. To link a new politics directly to a concrete image of a better life. Many of you reading this will have been working on exactly that for a decade or more. More than ever, now is the time to collaborate.
The Alternative UK exists to support all such efforts, with a particular emphasis on a healthy and vibrant future. As a media platform we bring focus to your projects and forge a new narrative for what is possible. As networkers of networks we work at the system level to build a new model for climate justice.
But most crucially on the day Nigel Farage won the headlines, we are building Citizen Action Networks to give every kind of person somewhere to go in a moment of crisis. To get you on the road to finding your community and the solutions already available. Not just a place to extract a vote from you.