From the Bottom Up
A new mobilisation could revitalise politics in the UK - but only if you get involved.
For the first time in my life I resent paying my taxes. Until now I have seen this annual amputation as a civic duty - like giving blood - necessary to sustain the life of a fair society. Suddenly I see it as an imposition. Its purpose has reverted to that of the middle ages: subsidising the excesses of a parasitic class. A high proportion of the taxes I pay will be used to bail out companies which, as the Guardian's current investigation shows, have used every imaginable ruse to avoid paying any themselves.
I think that for many people this is the final blow: the insult which seals their alienation from the political process. The small Welsh town where I live, many of whose inhabitants are among the very poor, was once a haven of progressive politics, built from nonconformist religious sects and a long tradition of social solidarity. People from these valleys were transported to Van Diemen's Land for demanding the vote.
Now almost everyone I speak to says the same thing - "what's the point? They're all as bad as each other" - and I can find no argument to refute it. Had their forebears been told that, 125 years after the first agricultural workers got the vote(1), the poor would be bailing out the rich and (thanks to the first-past-the-post system) the votes of only a few thousand citizens would count, I doubt they would have bothered.
We are trapped in a spiral of political alienation. Politics isn't working for us, so we leave it to the politicians. The political vacuum is then filled with heartless, soulless, gutless technocrats: under what other circumstances could political ghosts like Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Alistair Darling, Hazel Blears, Peter Mandelson or John Hutton remain in office? Unmolested by the public, corporate lobbyists collaborate with this empty political class to turn parliament into a conspiracy against the public. Revolted by these phantoms, seeing nowhere to turn, we withdraw altogether, granting them even richer opportunities to exploit us.
The government talks of re-igniting public enthusiasm for politics, of bringing out the vote, but balks at any measure which might make this happen. The reform of the House of Lords has again been postponed until after the next election, if at all(2). The promise, in Labour's 1997 manifesto, of a referendum on electoral reform is long-forgotten. It now looks as if nothing will be done to stop MPs from moonlighting, as our representatives argue that they cannot possibly get by on £63,000 a year (plus lavish expenses)(3). I wonder whether they have any idea how that plays in a town like this.
Consultations are rigged. Citizens' juries are used to lend a sheen of retrospective legitimacy to decisions already taken. The Big Conversation turned into a lecture. LabourList, mercilessly satirised by Catherine Bennett in this week's Observer(4), seeks to create a grassroots movement where no grassroots exist.
But I doubt that the government could revitalise politics, even if it had the best intentions. If the people of this country are to be mobilised, if new life is to be breathed into politics, we have to do it ourselves. As soon as you acknowledge this, you see the problem: we have lost our base. The affiliated trade unions have turned into the government's nodding dogs, continuing to fund the Labour Party even as it destroys everything they claim to stand for. The old social democratic and non-conformist movements have gone. All we have left are the NGOs and a series of informal direct action movements. They have proved to be good at raising public awareness, less good at building sustained, multi-faceted campaigns. We require a permanent mobilisation, and it might be just about to begin.
For several years, activists have been proposing a MoveOn campaign for the United Kingdom. MoveOn.org is an web-based coalition in the United States that has mobilised around three million people to demand progressive change. It was launched in 1998 as a petition to Congress "to censure President Clinton and move on", rather than impeach him(5). Since then, it has been credited with revitalising the Democratic Party and changing the face of American politics. Some of the claims its promoters make are exaggerated, but no one disputes that it has inspired hundreds of thousands of alienated people to re-engage.
At the beginning of every year, MoveOn polls its members on their political priorities and then mobilises them around those demands(6). It encourages them to bombard their representatives with emails and phone calls, to raise political funds and to propose new legislation. Every year it scores small victories, on issues as diverse as Medicare reform and Facebook privacy(7). It also appears to have contributed to some very large ones: some people claim that neither the candidacy nor the presidency of Barack Obama would have been possible without it. MoveOn has made mistakes - its position on the Iraq war, for example, has been hopeless(8) - but it's obvious that the model works.
There have been campaigns a bit like this in the United Kingdom, but they have tended to concentrate on a single outcome and to disperse or relax when it has been achieved. The Big Ask, run by Friends of the Earth, mobilised 200,000 people to demand a climate change bill - and got it(9). The Local Works coalition drove the Sustainable Communities Bill through parliament(10). The closest relative of MoveOn in the UK so far is Unlock Democracy, which, with far smaller resources than its American cousin, has already changed the way we are governed. Last month, for example, working with groups like enoughsenough.org and mySociety, it managed to stop MPs from hiding their expenses from the public(11).
Today Nick O'Donovan, a British academic working in the US, launches a movement in the United Kingdom built overtly on the MoveOn model. Dosomethingaboutit.org.uk is a rolling petition which seeks to ensure that the people who sign up don't lose touch with each other. When there's an important vote in parliament or when the government is threatening to shut down a useful public service or to waste our money on subsidising the rich, it will set up a petition and mobilise its members. Like MoveOn, it will also poll them over the issues they want to champion. At elections it will help people to decide which candidate in their constituency to support, in order to avoid splitting the progressive vote. Its purpose is to strike fear into the hearts of our self-serving technocrats and, it says, to make "the moral high ground electorally viable"(12).
I hope O'Donovan and his colleagues know how much they are taking on. They will be fighting party machines which have refined every dirty trick in politics; the hopelessness that arises from 12 years of broken promises; a labour movement that seems to have abandoned every political aim except driving foreigners out of the workplace; an electorate that has ceased to believe in itself. But none of this is a reason not to try.
Dosomethingaboutit is a bold and wildly ambitious scheme. Can it work? That's up to you.
1. The Representation of the People Act 1884. This extended the vote to some rural men, but only if they owned land worth £10 or paid £10 a year in rent.
2. George Parker, 14th July 2008. Straw seeks to defer Lords reform. Financial Times.
3. Sam Coates, 2nd February 2009. Peers can carry on lobbying despite payments row. The Times.
4. Catherine Bennett, 1st February 2009. Does Labour really think John Prescott is the new Obama? The Observer.
11. Unlock Democracy, 21st January 2009. People power forces Government to back down on MPs' expenses. http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/?p=1808
Published in the Guardian, 3rd February 2009