The events of early autumn demonstrate why New Labour has never been and will never be a party of the left. Allowing speculation about an early election to run unchecked, and then visiting Iraq in an abortive attempt to draw attention away from the Tory conference, showed that Gordon Brown had inherited all the worst features of opportunism and spin that characterised the Blair era. Then stealing the Tories’ clothes over taxation only confirmed that we have two virtually indistinguishable right-of-centre main parties, appealing to a narrow segment of ‘swing’ voters in marginal constituencies.
These events also reminded us of the serious flaws at the heart of British democracy. The first-past-the-post electoral system deprives the voters of effective choice and discourages them from turning out to vote. Enforced internal party uniformity discourages active membership and diminishes political diversity in parliament. Single party rule in a highly centralised system of government gives the premier unique personal control over executive, cabinet, parliament and country. And the anachronistic power to call an election at will fuels indefinite election speculation as well as giving the governing party a wholly arbitrary advantage over its opponents.
Is there any realistic prospect that any of this will change? Among the first acts of the Brown administration was the publication of a green paper, The Governance of Britain, which acknowledged the serious decline of public confidence in our democratic institutions, and set out proposals to ‘forge a new relationship between government and citizen’.
Unfortunately, the green paper’s diagnosis of the malaise in British democracy is limited, and its proposals for change correspondingly feeble. Certainly, removing some of the executive’s prerogative powers (to deploy troops abroad, to ratify international treaties, to recall and dissolve parliament and so on) and handing them over to parliament is a step in the right direction. But while the governing party leader enjoys such power of patronage and sanction over MPs, the distinction between executive and parliament is more formal than substantial. Moreover, the section on local communities envisages no serious rebalancing of power between central and local government.
It is when it comes to the role of the citizen – supposedly at the heart of the democratic deficit – that the weakness of the green paper is most apparent. What is offered, on the one hand, is more focus groups, consultations, citizen juries and so on, whose agendas will be carefully controlled from above. On the other hand, we are promised a great national debate on Britishness and British values, involving ‘local regional and national level events and opportunities for deliberation and debate’.
But what actually is Britain? It was constructed by the Act of Union at the start of the 18th century as an essentially imperial project, which is sustained today in surrogate form through subservience to the USA. And any ‘British values’ worth celebrating are mostly ones we share with the rest of Europe, though their European character cannot be openly acknowledged. Flying the Union Jack on all public buildings hardly makes up for this hole at the heart of the concept of ‘Britishness’.
Most problematic of all is the green paper’s analysis of the huge drop in voting by young people (18-24) over the past two general elections. The cause is identified as their ‘lack of appreciation of the importance of the democratic process and of the need for active citizenship’. And the solution? A new Youth Citizenship Commission ‘which will examine ways to invigorate young people’s understanding of the historical narrative of our country and of what it means to be a British citizen, and to increase their participation in the political sphere.’
No mention here of the mass participation of young people, including large numbers of Muslims, in the demonstrations and school walkouts against the Iraq war, or the failure of the government to listen to them. No mention either of the fact that this generation is the one that had already been exposed in school to Blunkett’s civics curriculum.
This curriculum may have introduced them to the importance of the United Nations, to the need to resolve disputes by peaceful means and to the values of representative democracy. What they learnt in practice from their political participation, however, was that parliament and government can defy the UN and invade another country when they choose, and that they give more weight to the views of a foreign president than they do to the voices of their own people.
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry