Practising what we preach

Salma Yaqoob says that how we build a political alternative is as important as what we build
February 2008

It was five years ago that my frustrations with mainstream parties prompted me to get involved in party politics. At the time I felt that the political process simply did not reflect the broad values of most people I knew - and especially those engaged in the anti-war movement.

These values were reflected in an opposition to imperialism and neo-liberalism, although most people I came into contact with very rarely, if ever, used these words to express their concerns.

Instead they asked why our foreign policy could not be based more on cooperation instead of conflict. They wanted a better quality of life for them, their friends and families, and felt people in other parts of the world were entitled to the same as well. Instead what people see today is war and instability abroad, and increasing discontent at home despite an apparently wealthy society. People are worried about the future of their children. They are concerned at widening inequality, the increase of stress and depression, the record levels of binge drinking, drug abuse, violence and vandalism. How could it be that after a decade of uninterrupted economic growth our society could feel more fractured, unequal and unhappy? Why are our kids reported to be the unhappiest in Europe?

The answers to these concerns lie in a critique of the way the way free market fundamentalism has increasingly invaded and distorted our lives, and the need for society to be protected from its all consuming appetites.

The challenge for those of us who aspire to live in a more humane and just society is to be able to explain the source of people's everyday concerns in a language they immediately understand, and point to solutions that are immediately realisable.

There is a lot of talk in government circles about the need for a 'national conversation' about what 'Britishness' means in the 21st century. If we are to have such a conversation, it would be well served by looking back to the future.

The ideas of universal healthcare; a living wage; participatory democracy; public services that are accountable to the people who use them; food, medicine and shelter as a human right; these are not particularly radical ideas. They are common sense ideas enshrined in the UN Charter.

Add to that list a foreign policy that places a premium on diplomacy, and international cooperation, plus more decisive action on climate change, and there is the basis of a manifesto a sizeable slice of the British public would sign up to.

Why are these ideas so radical today? At one stage most would have been regarded as the bread and butter of social democracy. They appear radical now only because of the way neo-liberalism has shifted political discourse to the right over the last 20 years. All the while the gap between what the politicians do, and what people want, has widened.

The challenge of building political organisations that can bridge that gap is best realised and tested through day-to-day engagement in the practical struggles and frustrations of people's everyday lives. Electoral politics, despite its pitfalls, forces such an engagement. Effective campaigning does likewise. Engagement with politics of a mass character is essential. It forces you to absorb the experience of the people you aim to represent, and it puts your views to the test.

It is also essential that we practise what we preach. How we build is as important as what we build. Our political organisations must embody the values that we wish to see reasserted in broader society. Our culture should be one in which disagreement is not seen as disloyalty and where inclusivity is not confined to those who sympathise completely with your own views. Whatever our forms of political organisation they must be places where we bring the best out of people, where the instincts that brought them into politics are raised to a higher political and moral plane.






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