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Parties, movements and radical change

Davy Jones, a leading advocate of participatory budgeting, says the left needs to recognise and seize opportunities when and where they arise

February 20, 2008
4 min read

I am constantly struck by the failure of the radical left to explicitly seize the moral high ground. The right (especially the evangelical right) are not averse to doing so when it suits them, yet socialism, internationalism, ecological sustainability, feminism, anti-imperialism all have very strong ethical foundations. Appealing broadly on key issues to a very basic humanity and compassion potentially connects us to audiences that for some years have been removed from radical left politics- the many people in various religious and moral camps.

This may cause some on the left to question long-held beliefs, such as on the use of violence, but that’s no bad thing. The enormous success of the London Citizens movement in bringing together trade unions and religious groups should be a lesson to us all. We tend to focus too much on detail and not enough on the big ethical issues underlying our politics. For example, half the world’s GDP is routed through tax havens which means half the potential tax revenues are lost. This is so grotesquely unfair to people who pay their taxes that it allows us to explain to them that there is enough money in the world- it’s just who’s got it and the tax systems set up to protect them that’s the problem.

Identify the issues

We need to identify the issues where there is real possibility of a broad anti-capitalist, anti-establishment consensus emerging in the UK (and internationally) and focus on these.

It is possible to change mass consciousness on certain issues in a relatively short space of time. They key then is to turn this into a permanent (or near to permanent as possible) step forward, ideally framed in law as well as in the popular consciousness. It’s been noted in other contexts how social attitudes to drinking and driving changed dramatically in a generation to one of outright hostility to such selfish and dangerous behaviour. The same is now happening on global warming and living within environmentally sustainable limits. Radical left activists must build the broadest possible unity around such issues and be at the heart of arguing for such transformations, using them to explain the links to other social, economic and political issues.

Respond rapidly and create permanent resources

Insufficient time and effort goes into translating successes into permanent acquisitions, not just ideologically but also physically and virtually. To be able to respond rapidly and effectively, the radical left needs embedded resources and infrastructure. This will take many forms such as resource centres, websites, socio-political networks and funding sources. Rather than forming another party or newspaper a shrewder investment may be to create and sustain permanent resources for the range of needs the radical left needs for its activities.

Remove the barriers

There are some structural issues that are critical barriers to progress for radical left politics. The most obvious is the electoral system. Proportional representation is no panacea but crucial if radical left politics is to enter the mainstream electoral and political arena. Another barrier is the party system and elections. The party system, especially in local elections, is a major barrier to making radical breakthroughs at a local level. The radical left needs to develop proposals and campaign to make it much easier for independent candidates and small parties to stand in local, national and European elections.

Recognise opportunities

As Hilary Wainwright hints in her article it is also crucial to seize any opportunities to create and sustain forms of local democratic debate and accountability as ongoing spaces. For example, for its own reasons this government has decided to promote participatory budgeting but is it just a panacea? No, current developments in Porto Alegre show this.

To incorporate local processes of structured debate and discussion about what needs to be done and how money should be spent locally would represent a huge step forward for the UK. Potentially it could raise debate about the need for structured discussion of the national budget and priorities, weaken the power of the traditional local parties to have exclusive access to this discussion and help reawaken interest in politics.

The crucial thing is for the radical left to recognise such opportunities when they arise and to seize them rather than sneer from the sidelines at the government’s motives.

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