Alternative Editorial: The Only Chance We Have

Fiddling While Rome Burns from The

Fiddling While Rome Burns from The

Exhilarated and exhausted. Anxious and inspired. Angry – raging! - and full of love. And maybe the most challenging set of internal contradictions we hear so much about these days: powerless and so, so, powerful.

Working at the edge of so many different movements for change is instructive. That sense of the steep acceleration of urgency in the public space is common—but so is the diversity of responses.

Just this week we encountered innovations in all three realms of personal, social and global agency. New trainings to help individuals thrive psychologically in the space of collective trauma. New structures for moving the tech community practically into civic engagement (see Impact Hub, Birmingham’s Civic Square project). And new plans for shopping centres to become relate-spaces for communities

Perhaps the most thrilling and appalling event happened just yesterday – an extraordinary uprising against climate change on the streets of major cities all across the world. Look at all the tools and practices that are now facilitating the unprecedented expression of the youth call for a different world.

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The initiatives go from the - almost random - image of one young school girl striking alone in front of her country’s parliament tweeted and instagrammed to the world. And then move through to yesterday’s global headlines describing four million people, mostly schoolchildren, waking up to the catastrophe we are in.

This gets filmed for Youtube—which in turn become into the new emotional capital of petitions and challenges to the lawLook what happened in Australia, who onlyrecently elected a climate denier as PM. Given Australia’s recently publishedplans to increase the use of fossil fuels, the soft power of these strikes alone could change the destiny of our planet. 

At the heart of it is a 16-year-old girl, whose behaviour captures the whole, messy, painful, brave, failure and triumph of the moment we are in. Witness her vulnerable strength: willing to stand up in the brightest of spotlights ready to stumble, or cry. As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to watch: though it causes so much support to flow her way.

She deflects adulation the best she can, by pointing consistently at the people – scientists, school strikers - you should believe in. With the help of her growing network, she now uses all the tools that have been made available to her movement, to accelerate it.

For those who align with her goals, Greta’s power is visceral: she re-wires us with a new, felt sense of what integrity is. Not taking a stance and taunting the opposition, but reframing every one of us as vulnerable to sinking together. Turning fear into the greatest motivator of collective action. To see this young girl giving her life and the world responding – both for and against her – is an experience of your inner and outer boundaries shifting.  

What needs to happen now is radical collaboration

The one consistently notable exception to all these signs of behavioural change is in the very space where the hard power lies – politics. 

As I write, we are in week two of the party conferences. In the first week the Lib Dems – the centre party – vowed not to work with either of the major parties to find solutions for the political and environmental collapse we find ourselves in. 

Instead, the newly elected Jo Swinson, prefers to go for broke: with only 18 MPs today, she whips the party into a frenzy of ambition to make her PM. On the promise that on day 1 she will undo all the work of the past three years to come to terms with Brexit, just handing the victory to the losers of the referendum. 

In the second week, on the first day of the Labour Party conference, one faction is doing its best to destroy the other. Not through debate, but by inviting the members to abolish the post of the deputy leader. Literally pulling the rug from underneath his feet.

Meantime, the Conservative party leader continues to polarise his own party by populating the cabinet with one faction, while firing 21 long-serving members of the other.

Have any of these political actors noticed that their legitimacy as representatives of the people has all but collapsed? With millions of people on the street asking for full attention to the climate crisis, they remain fixed and reactive to party political issues. 

It’s not the survival of the species, but the survival of their party which grips them – or even the faction within their party that they champion above all others.

Of course, as Jeremy Corbyn and others are at pains to point out, such standard political strategy is aimed at winning power, stepping into government. Which will then enable them to turn their full attention to beating austerity and implementing a Green New Deal.

But this linear schedule defies reality. As Greta – and increasingly, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren – would point out, the building is burning. Arguing about who gets to lead our way out of the inferno is tantamount to staying where you are. Sacrificing yourself to the flames. 

Even if a convergence around radical green policies wins – Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP all want to wear that mantle - no change in the political culture means that every bill they try to pass will be opposed in principle and maybe defeated. Each party can then continue to display their credentials as leaders of a tribe, rather than stewards of the nation.

What needs to happen now is radical collaboration. But where are the mechanisms for that in our current political system? Only a government of national unity could begin that process, but what are the chances? 

There was a brief flurry of enthusiasm for this in March, when former PM, Sir John Major called for a united front for more effective negotiations with the EU.  Caroline Lucas, our only Green Party MP, was also trying to find a way to cut across the divides when she suggested an all-female, emergency, cross-party cabinet. But, as journalists on both the Left and Right agreed, neither of these options was never going to happen. 

But in a small corner of the UK, five years ago, that was exactly what happened. A group of cross-party citizens, including former councillors, got together to form the Independents from Frome (IFF). 

Fed up with the self-defeating nature of party politics, which had led to general apathy from the citizens, they took on the council and won. As promised, they tore up the rule book on Day 1 and began the task of regenerating political culture so that people were able to participate meaningfully at all levels. Today there are 21 similar councils and many more in the planning. 

Peter Macfadyen, who became Mayor of Frome during that first term of office, wrote up the process in Flatpack Democracy– underlining how simple it was, once you got the principles of collaboration and ways of working. 

His second book, just published Flatpack Democracy 2.0 shares what happened next. Both are fascinating reading, not just for the clear logic of a different political culture, but also for the light it shines on the more subtle aspects of change that may not yet be available in Westminster. 

Collaboration is not a given capacity amongst political actors – not everyone is skilled or even emotionally predisposed. Letting go of previous ambition to be the winners: to be seen as right and subsequently to be chosen. Not as easy as it sounds. 

Some politicians will have had it drummed into them, from early school days, that it is their obligation to lead. Others will have invested all their belief in a class or tribal divide: to work with the opposition will appear as a betrayal of their people. 

To work alongside others within our diverse and complex system involves trusting others to play their part while you play yours. If we are a multi-tribe nation, then the leaders of each will have to be prepared to appeal to their members on their own terms, without making the others the enemy. 

It requires a generosity of spirit we haven’t seen much of lately, if ever, in the chambers of Westminster politics.

Yet, when the failure of a system is palpable and the need to transform is inescapable, even the most determined strategists might find themselves giving in to something they haven’t tried before. 

This is that moment. We stand on the brink of the 2020s, a decade that must shift us all into a new gear. We need more than new policies, we need new behaviours,giving rise to new structuresand culturesthat can pull us forward together. 

Whether there is a miracle in Westminster or a seismic shift caused by the sort of movements we have been documenting now for two and a half years, we need to come together.

It’s the only chance we have of beating what is now, a life or death crisis.

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