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Entering the political wilderness?

February 5, 2015

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Those who know me well know I am something of a political geek. For a long time now I’ve lectured my apolitical friends about the importance of getting involved, because I truly believe we get the politics we deserve. But the fact is, while I still believe this, I feel more and more dubious about channeling my commitment to being involved in politics into supporting a mainstream party.

Having attempted (and failed, by 100 bloody votes, since you asked) to get elected locally myself last year, I can’t shake the feeling that trying and succeeding to get elected has the massive downside of shriveling people up. Just look at the twitter feed of any political hopeful. Endless ‘selfies’ (“look, we’re really down with the kids!!”) on the campaign trail, RTs of party HQ messages, not a single personal view expressed at any cost (Jamie Reed MP, @jreedmp, may be an honourable exception to this). Beyond Twitter, and more significantly, I fear those people who are really serious about getting elected are forced (or choose??) to give up their opinions, their social lives and their family commitments.

The kind of blind promise you’re expected to give to your ‘tribe’ risks making our politicians brittle, bland robots, focused on their opponents in Westminster rather than on their constituents. We, the public, are treated to repeatedly parroted lines cooked up by youthful yet frazzled special advisors, in language that’s supposed to convey ‘I get it’ (Cameron’s ‘rolling up his sleeves’; Miliband’s dropped ‘t’s). And, as happened to Ed Balls the other night, these dessicated people are inevitably and constantly on the defensive, terrified that at any moment they might trip up and say something they shouldn’t, leading to a media frenzy whipped up by bored lobby journalists who get their kicks off making our MPs look opportunistic, jumped up and ideally corrupt.

Is this really what we want from our politics? In the past I might have asserted that however bad it is, any mast is better than no mast when it comes to pinning your colours (as an aside, check out this great site if you’re trying to work out where you stand). But as time goes on I find myself becoming more idealistic. It’s not just that I’d like a more functional way of doing politics: we need one urgently, unless we want the non-voters to become the biggest ‘party’ in town (only 41% of people say they would vote if there were a general election tomorrow, the lowest number ever recorded).

We need politicians who aren’t afraid to argue for their beliefs, and can do so publicly without fearing accusations of trying to oust their leader or split their party. We need politicians who are able to raise their families alongside their work without asking their partners to do more of that hard work than is fair. And we need politicians who inspire through their authenticity rather than revile through their predictable conformity to the ways of the political elite.

Anyway I can’t let this post just be a rant. So let me share two things that give me hope today.

First, the incredible surge in support we’re seeing for the Green Party. Anything that forces the Labour party to think long and hard about their radicalism and ambition gets my support. As George Monbiot argues so well here, we cannot create a successful alternative to mainstream politics until we are able to vote for it.

Second, and this really does excite me, is the creation of the Alternative Party by Uffe Elbaek. Uffe is an amazing guy, an idealist who had a go at ‘doing politics’ in a mainstream way in Denmark. This new border-crossing party is in part his response to that experience. I can only love a political party that puts this at the heart of their manifesto:

The Alternative is curiosity. About developing our local societies, cities and nations. We want to take back ownership of the economy and of democratic decisions. At our workplaces and in the places where we live our lives. Without losing the global vision for the responsibility for finding mutual solutions with our neighbours – including those who live on the other side of the world.

Which begs the question: how do I best apply my commitment to being politically engaged in this new world? It feels like it might be time to walk away from mainstream politics. I wonder all the time whether more direct forms of participation are now our best hope for knitting democracy back into our everyday lives. But is that really the right thing to do? And where do I go from here? Answers on a postcard please.

(if you’re interested, the T-shirt in the picture came from Cassie Robinson’s brilliant Civic Shop currently residing in Somerset House. Go and visit.)

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