Politics – mainstream and radical – is badly failing us at the moment

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 21st 2019

Politics has never mattered more than it does now – from climate change and the future of the planet, to arguments around Brexit, Scottish independence and Trump, not to mention, the gathering global economic storm clouds.

Political party membership in the UK has rebounded after decades of decline. In the last six years, party membership has increased more than two-fold – from 0.8% of the electorate in 2013 to 1.7% in 2019, showing a renewed desire for political engagement.

This comes on top of two twin pillars of disruption, the 2014 Scottish indyref and 2016 Brexit vote, which upturned mainstream politics, brought excitement, controversy and division centrestage, and challenged the belief of the political classes that they knew best.

Yet, this new-found interest in, and forms of, political engagement has not yet remade our politics into something positive and permanent. Instead, here and across the West we seem to be surrounded by a constant swirl of claim and counter claim, by dodgy players and practices, and a crisis of legitimacy in how we do politics and political authority. This at a time when more than ever, for the sake of humanity and life on this planet, we need an effective politics.

The Return of Party Politics

Take the rise in UK party membership. This has seen marked increases in members of late for Labour and SNP, but also for the Greens in England and Wales and Scotland, and even recently, the Lib Dems. Labour increased its membership in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader in 2015, while the SNP saw their membership surge after the 2014 vote. Labour’s membership has subsequently declined a bit (currently 485,000), but remains much larger than previously; while the SNP on its latest figures (125,534), is at its highest ever.

However, in both cases, more is going on than aggregate party figures. Political parties are about activism, energy and cultures. Academic studies of both parties reveal that the new influxes have not changed the proportion of members in Labour and the SNP who are active, and that instead the vast majority of new members are completely inactive in party affairs, and an embodiment of modern day clicktivism: just paying their online subs and doing little else.

There are differences between the two. Labour’s surge saw the creation of the left-wing pro-Corbyn pressure group ‘Momentum’ which has tried to galvinise the party’s grassroots through events, workshops and training days. It has been portrayed by some Labour MPs as a bogeyman and entryist organisation out to deselect parliamentarians, but the aim of the group has been about more than that, in trying to remake a culture of activism in the party.

The SNP surge in members has seen no remaking of party culture, and no attempt to galvinise and organise grassroots members. There has been talk by party officials about trying to create a SNP ‘Momentum’, but therein lies the problem: a bottom-up group sanctioned by the party hierarchy would be a strange beast, and not surprisingly has remained just an idea.

What are striking are the similarities. In both cases, neither party leadership has any fully formed plan for their increased supporter base. Although they are continually referred to as a source of strength, little has been done officially to change party structures and strategies. In both, the burgeoning memberships have become a resource to be tapped for money and something to be administered.

Missing has been the notion of using political education to make a new cadre of activists – and in both parties this has caused problems, with some Corbyn supporters engaging in intolerant left politics on deselection or anti-semitism, and some SNP members getting impatient on the lack of progress and direction on indyref2. Both these reflect growing pains of parties unable to adapt to being mass parties, leadership ambivalence, and a contradiction between official rhetoric and reality.

After ‘the Big Bangs’ of the Indyref and Brexit

Related to this is the experience of the indyref and Brexit vote. The former saw a three-year campaign, 84.6% turnout, and politics reach into parts of society and places it had long given up on. Yet, life after this ‘Big Bang’, an intense release of energy, which has changed the environment, has been a series of disappointments. Instead, of an indyref dividend of ideas, initiatives and new thinking, we have seen in an age of upheaval, Scotland’s political parties and public institutions, try to put all that in a box and return to business as usual. That might make sense for pro-union opinion, but it doesn’t for the SNP and independence supporters. The SNP leadership have been cautious and controlling, showing that they don’t fully approve of a politics of independence that involves, well, people getting above their station, and acting independently.

Even more markedly the Brexit vote aftermath has been a tale of confusion and deception. The 2016 leave victory did not see any agreed version of what leaving the EU meant being proposed, and three years of acrimony and division have not brought forth any further clarity. Instead, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU was rejected by the Commons three times, and rather than a compromise emerge from this, ultra-Brexiteers have used the opportunity to promote a hard line version of Brexit which no one promoted in the 2016 vote. If this state of confusion were not bad enough, the main UK opposition parties, Labour and Lib Dems, are jockeying for position in disagreement on how to stop a No Deal Brexit, arguing over who should get first shot at being Prime Minister, if Johnson loses a vote of no confidence, which he might not.

The mainstream has failed us, and as things stand we are about to witness the greatest British political failure since Munich and appeasement of Hitler: No Deal Brexit. What is being proposed is not only a failure of politics, statecraft and diplomacy, it is also something no advanced capitalist economy has ever done in modern times: renounce and tear up decades of international agreements, legislation and regulation, and all with a belief from Brexiteers that everything will somehow turn out alright.

If that were not serious enough, this is also a time where radical politics on the left have also fallen short. The Corbyn project has run Labour for four years, and yet for all the rhetoric, the party is still short on detail on its supposed transformative policies on the economy, society and democracy. Things are even worse in the radical currents that sit to the left of Labour, with the politics of ultra-leftism offering nothing new under the sun.

More serious than these examples, too much left politics across the West is shaped by a politics of re-enactment. This entails reducing the politics of protest to one of well-known and worn scripts and ritual: of marching, rallies, petitioning, sit-downs and occasional occupations – drawing inspiration from previous eras of unrest, such as the American civil rights movement and 1960s, but playing out to a narrow audience of active participants, making them feel good about themselves, but in most cases, subject to a law of diminishing returns. It almost a theatre of politics without the drama or a new storyline, and one convenient for establishment interests.

From Walls Coming Down to Walls Going Up

Thirty years ago this week something historic and liberating happened which many thought impossible and which changed all of our lives forever. This was the beginning of the crumbling of the Iron Curtain which divided the continent of Europe of West from East, and which led to the collapse of Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe, and within two years the end of the Soviet Union.

Such tumultuous history began from small seeds. On August 19th 1989 the Hungarian Communist authorities allowed their border with Austria to be opened at one key point. As a result thousands of East German tourists who were holidaying in Hungary were able to cross the border into Austria and from there to West Germany. Within one month, the Hungarians opened their entire border with Austria, and on November 9th, the Berlin Wall itself, that stark symbol of a divided continent and the Cold War, was opened.

Cue then celebrations and the end of Stalinist Communism. But history is never simple and thirty years on from the summer of 1989, walls and security fences are rising where we once though they would ever be seen again. This includes Hungary, which after that historic opening and liberation, has descending into an autocratic country led by Viktor Orban which clamps down on freedom of expression, free media, and dissent.

Orban’s Hungary infamously closed the border between Hungary and Serbia and built a 325-mile fence to keep out refugees and migrants. Not surprisingly, many Hungarians are rather touchy about any similarities between their current frontier fortifications and the Iron Curtain of the Cold War. ‘The Iron Curtain was built to imprison us, the fence in 2015 was built to protect us by a democratically elected government’, commented Laszio Nagy, of the Hungarian based Pan-European Picnic Foundation.

Walls are suddenly back in fashion, physically and mentally, statements of separation and isolationism. There is the much-hyped ‘Trump Wall’ which is an embodiment of ‘America First’ and pulling up the drawbridge. But if we things are that different closer to home then what is Brexit but a kind of separation and remaking of Britain’s borders with Europe?

If anyone thinks that is too black and white a statement, then you only need to look at the attitudes of the UK Government towards Northern Ireland. Ultra-Brexiteers are prepared to tolerate the withering of the Good Friday Agreement, direct rule, and the inexorable threat of more violence to get the Brexit of their dreams. In all of this, the British-Irish border, created unilaterally by the British state when partition occurred, is a critical element and one which if it becomes less open and has more checks, could have a serious impact on peace.

Thirty years after the Cold War and the heady hopes of the summer of 1989, we have fallen far in how we do politics, political imagination, and daring to challenge and change the way things are done. With the mainstream and old style radicalism so hollowed out and incapable of change, if we don’t act the near-future is already predestined: a nastier, more divided and violent version of today. This would be a world where the likes of Trump, Orban and Salvini, were but pint-sized versions, for the authoritarians and demagogues to come.

We need to wake up and realise the state our politics, societies and humanity is in. What we are witnessing is the final exhaustion of the tradition of Western modernity, which gave the world so much in terms of progress and enlightenment, but which also sat alongside empire and the evil of the Holocaust.

Thirty years after Europe reunited and put behind it the divisions of the Cold War, we need to muster the courage, wisdom and insights, to face the demons inside ourselves as well as externally, but are we really prepared for the struggle and difficulties? For some it is much easier to believe in simplistic populists, peddlers of hate, and those who blame easy targets such as minorities, immigrants and refugees.