If the rising sense of alienation from the political process is to be reversed in the long term, it will require more than a quick dose of populist rhetoric or tinkering with the way politics is organised.
The British public’s attitude towards politics has not always been like this. The Beveridge Report, for example, which led to the setting up of the UK welfare state in the 1940s, was a bestseller. More than 600,000 copies were bought and it featured on popular comedy programmes of the time.
Since then the sense of connection with the politics of the local and central state has been whittled away. New routes for people to engage with politics are now essential. What’s clearer than ever after the Brexit vote is that preaching top-down progressive solutions to people who feel marginalised doesn’t work.
And if what’s needed is a new kind of participatory politics, this shift isn’t going to happen through calls for more old style organising and collective action. Generalised allusions to the power of new social media and networking are equally unlikely to help and raise their own issues. Trolling and the hostility of online commentary can actually reinforce feelings of isolation, and not all groups have equal access to the internet. Instead we need to think, talk and act differently to rekindle a popular politics of the everyday.
A number of new political techniques have already been introduced such as citizens’ juries and local, citizens’ assemblies. But these kind of initiatives tend to privilege the usual suspects who are more likely to be engaged in politics anyway. What’s needed are inclusive conversations.
Talking about what matters
First we need to develop different narratives about the things that matter to people that politics are meant to deal with: from housing to childcare and job security. These are unlikely to be forthcoming through a UK mass media that is more skewed to the political right wing than ever in living memory.
Those of us who want change must stop just talking to each other and instead reach out to talk to others – anywhere, in shops, streets and buses. Instead of canvassing at election time to sell people a political party and all the old membership rituals of filling envelopes and attending endless meetings, we should take a leaf out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ book through reaching out and knocking on doors. Not to get people to vote a particular way, but to begin to listen to what worries and troubles people – and with them co-produce new narratives and campaigns for action.
We can learn from Macmillan Cancer Support’s Big Coffee Mornings that bring people together at the sharp end of cancer. Reconceived, these could take us beyond people’s individual difficulties to generate inclusive conversations about how best to save our beloved NHS and other support services. Reading and literacy groups, such as Reading Groups For Everyone, offer a model to help people make better sense together of the divisive messages they received from dominant politicians and mass media.
It is perhaps time to re-imagine the old pre-war cycling, rambling and walking clubs. These were left-of-centre groups that provided sociable opportunities for people to meet in a spirit of “freedom and fellowship” to explore their own lives and interests. Some of these clubs are still going, but they need to be renewed and re-popularised.
Popular, not populist
We have to generate a new sense of social responsibility. Rather than filling in colouring books on our own or struggling with mindfulness in painful isolation, here’s a chance to create public artworks together and join with others to create alternate visions of physical and mental well-being.
We should learn from people who receive long-term health, care and welfare benefits who’ve been at the sharp end of some of the most painful and damaging changes taking place in UK society, policies and services. Instead of just being victims they have been at the vanguard of pressure for change. It was partly this pressure that led to the government’s turnaround on reform to welfare benefits in 2016.
Getting together provides the starting point for acting together. It’s time to identify alliances where we might not previously have realised they were there to build on. It’s also time to look beyond marches, demonstrations and photo opportunities – undermined by their ever-diminishing returns and their alienating effect on many. We need to think more in terms of a proactive Pride Festival than a reactive mass meeting against more government cutbacks.
We should remember that the best way of challenging big lies is small acts of truth and kindness. That’s why the good works of churches, temples, mosques and synagogues have always had a disproportionate significance to society and to people’s consciousness.
Every one of the ideas set out here is happening now – and many more too. But what is still needed is to line up all these ducks in a row and make them the key direction for a much-needed, concerted attempt to develop a new popular, rather than populist politics.