After the coronavirus: the case for a new political movement in the UK
The UK needs a new kind of political movement to turn the upheaval caused by COVID-19 into lasting social change.
A decade ago, Iceland was engulfed in an existential crisis comparable to what we now face in the UK. With its outsized financial sector, Iceland was particularly vulnerable to global economic shocks and in 2008 its main banks collapsed, plunging ordinary people into debt and threatening total economic meltdown. The resulting political crisis led to the government’s resignation and prompted a period of national introspection about the country’s future direction.
With COVID-19 raging and the population in lockdown, the UK is heading into similar waters. The coronavirus is having an unprecedented impact on our lives and wellbeing, with non-essential activities suspended and a deep depression looming. For now the public are responding to the need for unity, but as the dust settles from the pandemic, serious questions will be asked about the government’s handling of the crisis and about where we are headed next.
Alarming as this situation is, it may yet turn out to be our ‘Iceland’ moment: a crisis so severe that it forces us to confront the need for real social change in this country. But if we are to seize this chance to build a new, better society after the coronavirus, we need something different from traditional party politics. A new voice is needed in British politics. It’s still too early to say what precise form this should take, but it has to be different from the main political parties in three key ways. It must be a post-ideological movement that many of us from across the political spectrum can identify with, it must embrace technology to bring about a genuine democracy of ideas, and it must pragmatically focus on coming up with solutions to the biggest problems of the future.
- We need a new, post-ideological movement we can identify with
When participants in a British Election Study panel were asked in 2018 how they speak about the Remain or Leave side in the Brexit debate, around 60% of respondents said that they usually say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’. When this question was asked about Labour and the Conservatives, only around 25% responded in the same way. In some ways the relative weakness of party political identities this indicates is unsurprising. While Labour and the Conservatives have achieved consistent success in recent times as political parties, as movements they are the creations of a different age with different choices from those we face in the 21st century.
Labour have always been associated with the trade union movement and the working-class, while the Conservatives have traditionally represented the interests of the better-off, from landowners to businesses. But as voters have focused more on cultural issues such as Brexit, these norms have been disrupted and significant tensions have emerged from within the main parties. The Conservatives are now faced with the challenge of representing both the interests of international business and the ‘left-behind’ in non-metropolitan parts of the UK, while Labour grapple with the need to balance the socially conservative views of its working-class base with the liberal beliefs of its middle-class supporters.
The identity crises that the Labour and Conservative parties are currently going through and the decline in the number of people who identify with them are both symptoms of a broader realignment in British politics. New political identities are developing based on broader, cultural values rather than the ideological, left versus right debate of old. Any political organisation that will inspire millions to do more than tick a box on election day must speak to these new identities. To engage a broad cross-section of people across the nation in the project of building our new post-COVID society, we need a new, post-ideological movement that we can truly identify with.
2. We need a digital democracy of ideas
As well as a crisis of health, we are also facing a crisis of democracy. Parliamentary scrutiny has taken a backseat to the government’s daily press briefings and plans to conduct essential Parliamentary business online have been too slow and half-hearted. In London, the Mayoral election which was due to take place on 7 May has been postponed a full year and will now take place in 2021: in the meantime, the Mayor continues to rule without a democratic mandate. At a local level, power is being exercised opaquely by local authorities who are struggling to respond quickly enough to the changing needs of their constituents during lockdown.
This is a troubling situation, both for the quality of public decision-making and for the health of our democracy. But while it has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, it is just part of our democracy’s long-term failure to engage ordinary people and to support them to bring about positive change. At every level of politics, decision-making systems are out of touch with the way people live their lives now: online, on social media, on demand. In every other area of life, we use technology to bring an immediacy to our decisions, but in politics that immediacy is shrouded in obscure and archaic processes that exclude many from participation. As such, decisions get taken for people rather than with them, leading to worse outcomes and undermining belief in the value of democracy.
Established political parties have been slow to adapt to this, and so the power to make change remains trapped in the hierarchies of traditional party politics. We need a new wave of civic participation, unleashed by digital technologies such as crowdsourcing and algorithmically-assisted consensus forming to transform the way we as citizens engage in our democracy. This is all the more important now that people are unable to leave the house as a result of the coronavirus. These circumstances cannot mean that ordinary politics and decision-making becomes unaccountable, and ordinary people excluded from the decisions that affect their lives. A tech-friendly political movement would increase civic participation and help us move closer to a genuine democracy of ideas, during the COVID lockdown and in the years to come.
3. We need to focus on coming up with solutions to the most important issues of the 21st century
By and large, the recent general elections in the UK have focused primarily on the size of the public sector — a debate framed around belt-tightening for some and numbers of hospitals and police officers for others. This is an important issue, of course. But as the COVID-19 pandemic is showing, in the face of existential crisis, debates on whether the UK should spend 3% or 5% of its GDP on public investment are missing the wood for the trees.
Looking at the next fifty years, the UK faces not only the risk of further pandemics, but a climate crisis that threatens our way of life to an almost unimaginable extent. Even harder to grasp but potentially no less threatening to humanity is the rise of artificial intelligence, which even in the medium term threatens huge disruption to our economy and society as many traditional jobs are automated and huge quantities of our personal data are harvested and analysed.
Yet, in the face of these challenges, the main parties have been distracted by ideology rather than being solution-focused. So far, Labour has been more interested in attacking austerity than tackling the climate crisis, while the Conservatives remain obsessed with their Brexit project. Political debate has been going round in circles for far too long, with priority placed on trying to resolve old arguments rather than addressing the crises of the future. Politics needs to change, and as a society we need to focus on coming up with the best solutions to the most important problems of the 21st century.
Given the existential nature of the crisis we now face, the time is right for a new grassroots movement which can answer the call for a different kind of politics and a renewed sense of purpose in the coming days. For inspiration, we should again draw on Iceland’s experience of the financial crash and the new political movement that was born there less than a decade ago.
In response to the crisis Iceland was facing, a number of digital activists decided that the country needed a new movement to represent its values in the 21st century. In 2012, the Icelandic Pirate Party was founded, standing on an anti-establishment platform to restore trust in politics and renew belief in the value of democracy. This new party captured the spirit of the times, winning 14.5% of the popular vote in the 2016 elections and winning several seats in the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. With its innovative policies and open-source, ‘hacker’ approach to democracy, the party is engaging new parts of society in politics and has the potential to transform Icelandic politics for the better.
As the measures taken by the UK government in response to COVID-19 have shown, almost anything is possible, but we need a fresh source of ideas to find the right direction for our shared future. Like Iceland, the UK needs a new voice in politics to capture the radical spirit of the times and to build the better society we so desperately need after the coronavirus. A new movement inspired by the Icelandic Pirate Party could engage the British people in this shared project by rejecting the ideological politics of the past, embracing technology to reinvigorate our democracy in the present, and coming up with new solutions to the most pressing problems of the future.