It is perhaps human to think that things were always finer in the past. Where politicians were honest and behaved as statesmen, rather than being weak and populist and bending to every whim of the news agenda. But what has changed in the last decade is our ability to know what is going on. Today we’re armed with the internet and social media, and the remarkable ability to see in, to see how the metaphorical sausage machine inside the traditional establishment actually works.
The problem however, is while we may be better able to see dysfunction in the BBC or the police or relations between journalists and the royal family, or among MPs, all we seem to be able to do in response is to get angry and to protest. We can no more use the internet today to become a MP, traditional journalist or top police officer, but we can use the internet to better see how nefarious these people can be.
This is the sort of deep cultural change brought about by the internet that Alex Smith describes on LabourList and Total Politics, and he proposes some solutions about how the Labour Party needs to open up as a result. The problem is that I am not sure whether his ideas are even close to being enough, and I think some lessons from Occupy and other social movements can start to explain why, because change is not only about seeing in, it is about being able to personally take responsibility too.
Since first reading Mary Kaldor’s piece at the LSE EUROPP blog this autumn about alternative social movements I’ve been fascinated by the practical meaning of the term “prefigurative action” that she mentions. Her description of the term is “the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that the participants imagine” – i.e. to behave in politics in the way that we behave in our normal lives. This, I think, is absolutely central to the problems our traditional party structures face, and it remains the reason people are inspired by Occupy, even if the practical outcomes Occupy can bring are so thin.
Take, for example, the new craze within the Labour Party in the UK to brand everything “One Nation”, started by Ed Miliband in his conference speech in October. I am a member of the party, but I have no idea how the mantra came into being. But now everyone follows it, shadow cabinet members and think tank wonks repeat it, and it has become party line. That process is not normal, it is not healthy. It is not practicing the kind of politics the participants imagine. Try changing the mission statement of a large corporation so abruptly and there would be harsh counter-reactions among the employees. In Labour there is slavish, flaccid loyalty among the devotees (at least in public), and a shrug from the 99.5% of the UK population that are not party members.
The problem is that being in a party for a decade squeezes the life, the straightforward honesty, the originality out of people. It is not that party people become dishonest per se, but more that the spontaneity, the vitality is drained from them. They will Google themselves compulsively to check how they are being perceived, rather that using the net to really make political change happen. They will use social networks to repeat the leadership’s line and show how diligent they are on #LabourDoorstep, rather than building networks beyond the party. Party politics is no “ecosystem fizzing with ideas”, the words Alex uses to describe the social innovation sector in the UK.
The problem is that the old ways still can win elections in the UK. Labour and the Tories can muster up enough activists in the 2015 election, and the first past the post election system will, as ever, mask that a third of the votes will be for non-mainstream parties, while 2/5 of the population will not vote at all. And in the meantime the media will frame all of this as a victory for some party or another, and yet our political system and the quality of our politics will be poorer as a result.