Is this how you revitalise British politics?

Nick Barlow
Apr 24 · 4 min read
From Radix

Last night I went to an event hosted by Radix on “Revitalizing British Politics”, linked to their new book A Guide to New Political Movements: How To Do Politics In The 21st Century. Having had a chance to think over what was said there and now read the book, I think that while it may have featured lots of people who want to “revitalise” British politics, I’m not sure any of them have an idea how to, or that their ideas of how to do politics in the 21st century match up to any of the realities of the 21st century.

First off, take a look at the list of panellists and presenters at the event. Yes, that’s one woman (Layla Moran) and seven middle-aged white blokes. Zoe Hodge, the co-author of the book, ended up being on the panel too, but Parliamentary business meant Layla was unable to attend, so it didn’t affect the overall balance. Even by 20th century standards, that was a pretty terrible failure at representation, let alone for an event talking about how to do politics in the 21st century.

The other point that struck me, especially reading the book afterwards, was how process-oriented the whole thing was, with values barely getting a look in. Revitalising British politics wasn’t about bringing in big new ideas for how we can run society and respond to the big challenges of the 21st century, but about what form parties need to take to campaign and win more effectively. Winning power is the important thing, what you do with it afterwards is something you deal with when you get to it.

This is something that the book further exemplifies. It looks at four different parties — Italy’s Five Star, France’s En Marche, Spain’s Podemos and Canada’s Liberals — and their ways of working in an attempt to draw some parallels across them. You might think that at least one of those parties is not like the others (and on hearing Trudeau described as an “insurgent” last night, I almost backflipped off my chair from eyerolling so hard) and it goes to the heart of something I’ve written about several times before. Political parties (even ones that see themselves as new “movements”) are part of the political culture, system, and history of their polity, and assuming you can blithely transpose something from one country to another is to make a big mistake.

And at the heart of this, this is the problem with those who seem to think that what Britain really needs, right now, is some kind of new centrist movement, given that their preferred scenario of sensible centrists taking charge of either of the two main parties in the immediate future seems a very remote possibility. It’s looking at other countries, seeing what’s happened there and thinking “well, that could happen here” without stopping to wonder if it already has.

What do these dreams of centrist glory normally involve? Some kind of party or movement that brings in lots of people who weren’t involved in politics before, something that’s more streamlined than existing parties, something with a strong, dynamic, and charismatic leader who represents the people and engages directly and practically with members, activists, and the public. They’ll be mostly non-ideological, breaking out of the old ways, taking the best from left and right, more interested in what works than being hidebound by old ideologies.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s New Labour up to 2001. Or it’s Cameron’s Tories before the 2008 financial crisis. Or the Lib Dems in the heady days of Cleggmania. In terms of British politics, it’s nothing new (and hey, it turns out there are still things we can lead the world in) and crucially, it’s something the electorate have already seen in practice in its multiple variations and they don’t like what they ended up with when they tried it. “What if Blairism, but on Facebook?” isn’t the dynamic new thing some may think it is.

Simon Franks of United for Change was one of the people speaking last night, and I’m somewhat amazed who has spent so much money and time on a political project still seems to have so little understanding of politics, and the practicalities of actually delivering on promises. He seems to genuinely believe that “ideology” stops people from having all the Nice Things, like I wrote before:

(I)t will be politics, just with all that stuff about being political somehow removed from it, replaced by Nice People who only want to ensure that everyone gets Nice Things. It’s the politics of “everything would be easy if people just agreed I’m right about everything”.

The thought process going on here is “the people want change, this is a change, therefore this is what the people want” without any real consideration about why people want change, or different forms that change could take. Our political system is broken in many, many, different ways of which the current parties are just one example and symptom, but I’m not convinced that rebranding and relaunching the ideas, methods, and promises that got us to this position are the way to revitalise British politics.

Nick Barlow

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Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Running the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.