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On the streets AND on the doorsteps

Politically, more and more people today are drawing the conclusion that protest is not enough. The time has come to provide genuine, proactive alternatives.

November 1, 2003
7 min read

At the moment there is no clear and comprehensive political programme for the disenfranchised of this country to cohere around. Too often, the only choices are between the parties of bombing and big business – New Labour and the Tories – and the party of reluctant bombing and big business – the Liberal Democrats. More radical voices have been effectively marginalised.

Like many others, I would like to see a new political coalition in Britain that would enable the disenfranchised to do two things: coordinate their dissent outside of party politics; and create a shared platform on which the left could field single candidates in those wards and constituencies where there is a realistic chance of either winning or frightening bombing-and-big-business candidates.

If the powerful working alliances formed within the anti-war movement were used to work in a united manner for other important issues, then I believe that it is highly likely that such a coalition could emerge in this country.

I have recently been working with several friends from the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition in trying to initiate a new political alternative. (There will, of course be many differing ideas as to what such an alternative should look like.)

We’ve approached leading members of several national organisations, including the Socialist Alliance, the Muslim group Just Peace, the Christian-influenced Jubilee Debt Campaign and various trade unions. Our aim is to get different people talking to each other. We feel we are in a good position to do this because we are independent of any one organisation. Trust is key to this process.

The anti-war movement brought together a huge number of groups and individuals from every section of society. Many of the people involved were already campaigning around what might have seemed very different issues – Palestine, the environment, the arms trade, etc. All these people are committed to fighting injustice and are confronted by the absence of democratic accountability in Britain.

This huge democratic deficit is increasingly exposed in foreign policy, which is dominated by an elitist and secretive cadre of policy makers. On the domestic front, on the other hand, New Labour recently flouted both the Labour Party conference and unfavourable opinion polls by signalling its intention to forge ahead with foundation hospitals.

But this lack of accountability has great potential for uniting progressive forces. A new coalition that had at its core a programme for ethical foreign and domestic policies, and which was genuinely democratic, could attract a very broad constituency.

If an alternative political force is to take root and expand, however, then there is a need to work on many different levels. Any new coalition would have to be formed through the alliance of existing groups and networks at both national and local levels. It would also eventually need a national framework to provide a cohesive identity and focal point of activity and debate.

Provisional principles

We have drafted and begun to circulate a document entitled “Principles of Unity”. It outlines the values that could form the basis of a coalition. These values include: participatory democracy, social and economic justice, workers” rights, opposition to discrimination and support for diversity and equality, international justice, environmental sustainability, promotion of non-violence and peace, a just immigration and asylum policy and a just legal system.

The document will in time be adjusted in the light of people’s feedback. By contributing to its development, many more groups and individuals will hopefully feel a sense of ownership over the coalition-building process.

We”ve asked various individuals to contribute possible alternatives in specific policy areas. One person who responded positively is George Monbiot, who has approached other progressive writers and experts. So, not only do we have powerful analyses of the current situation, we also have meaningful and practical alternatives.

As with the “Principles of Unity”, these proposals are intended only as catalysts for discussion. One means of facilitating this could be some kind of constitutional assembly at which people could thrash out their differences and policies could be approved. If partners could agree to, say, 80 per cent of a programme, while respectfully agreeing to put their 20 per cent differences to one side in the interests of a united approach and action plan, a workable coalition could be achieved.

No doubt challenges would arise. Already a debate has begun in various national and international movements about the advantages and disadvantages of working as part of a larger alliance. This should be expected and welcomed. Questioning the merits of working through an alliance would, in the long term, strengthen the coalition; the membership would have been exposed to all the arguments, and there would be greater clarity and commitment around any agreements.

A new coalition should work with all those who agree with its principles – irrespective of party loyalty. Some MPs do maintain principled stances, and Labour MPs like George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn and Alice Mahon should be supported, as well as principled candidates from other parties such as the Socialist Alliance and the Green Party. But in the many constituencies where there is no principled candidate available the coalition should stand its own candidates.

It is this last point that those committed to reforming Labour, and others with party allegiances, would feel most uncomfortable with. But in view of the weakness of the Labour left (painfully shown by its inability to mount an effective challenge over Iraq at the Labour conference), and the urgency of ensuring that the beneficiaries of the growing hostility to New Labour are progressive forces and not the far right, this battle cannot be confined to the Labour left.

Some people are concerned that acting mainly outside of the mainstream parties will mean continued marginalisation, but recent events suggest the opposite is true. The BNP is not a large national force, but because it’s cohesive and it takes a vociferous stance on certain issues the mainstream political agenda has been pulled in its direction. We are a much larger force in terms of the number of people who share our values.

Elections can also draw large numbers of people into political debate through street canvassing. Even if a coalition did not win a single seat, greater awareness of its activities would make elected representatives more accountable.

Historic opportunity

The real strength of the anti-war movement lay in its genuine grass-roots organising. People up and down the country organised local networks in their own cities and districts, in workplaces, in schools and colleges and in places of worship. Importantly, the local activities were generated by local people themselves, with no input from the national layer (unless it was specifically asked). The result was dynamic and diverse activities that were relevant and appropriate to different communities and individuals and engaged them on their terms.

This kind of localised networking highlights how community-based organising is a powerful mechanism for empowering the disenfranchised. A new coalition should also be a national and local campaigning body, able to take forward issues of ordinary people in a mutually empowering manner. Telco’s Living Wage Campaign in East London is a successful example of just such an organisation – as is Tyneside’s Public Service Alliance, which initiated successful industrial action against privatisation and concerted campaigning against the BNP.

A “bottom-up” approach would ensure greater participatory democracy and a strengthening of the whole movement. It would also make electoral success possible; election results are won because of the strength of forces on the ground.

Given the vast disillusionment among the population and the great radicalisation that has taken place in the last two years through the anti-war movement, there is a window of opportunity right now. This window will not last long. A strategy that clearly focuses on processes as well as desired outcomes is necessary. Shifting the political agenda in a new direction through the formation of a progressive political coalition that is both a campaigning body and an electoral alternative will require open-mindedness and audacity. But achieving it is certainly not beyond our imagination or capacity.Salma Yaqoob is chair of Birmingham Stop the War

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