Politics outside the box

Red Pepper's first issue came out 13 years ago this month, shortly before Tony Blair became Labour leader. As we celebrate outlasting him, and prepare for a new phase in our development (more of which later), Hilary Wainwright sets the wider scene for the independent left.

May 1, 2007
5 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

Increasingly across the world you find people on the left coming together independently of party allegiances to try to set electoral agendas that break the boundaries of mainstream politics. Sometimes they’ve had a dramatic impact – like the trade unionists in Trondheim, Norway, whose defence of public services was decisive in the election of a left coalition that has halted the privatisations of previous regimes. At other times they’ve set off a new electoral dynamic, as across America citizens alliances outside of party politics have worked to elect progressive democrats and make them accountable.

Their impact depends partly on the electoral system – Norway’s must be one of the most proportional in the world. It also has repercussions at the other end of the democratic scale, like the US, when people take responsibility for putting the democracy back into an electoral politics that (often wealthy and dynastic) politicians have effectively made their private obsession.

Talk of private obsessions leads on to Westminster, where we are currently confronted with the farce of MPs of varying brands of New Labour striding forward to declare the importance of ‘debate’, while in the background their supporters act out scenes from a parliamentary soap opera devoid of genuine politics.

On the left there are constrained and divided efforts to focus on the issues of inequality, war and peace, climate change and all the other issues about which there is genuine concern. In the Labour Party, left leadership contender John McDonnell is slogging his guts out trying to take a real debate to a steadily diminishing party membership. And Michael Meacher is contributing serious policy proposals on pensions, taxes and the environment. Let’s hope the chance of a serious left leadership challenge, leaving behind all the debilitating divisions between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ left, will induce them to do a deal.

But the future of left politics depends on efforts way beyond the Labour leadership election. Over the next months, Red Pepper wants to initiate a debate about the kind of independent, non-sectarian political initiatives that could bring down the pillars of the temple of Westminster, because – let’s face it – this is at the root of our problems, including our relations with the rest of the world.

We have a political system that is uniquely suited to a secretive military alliance with the US, and ideally favourable to the governmental arrangements that enable the EU to pursue neoliberal policies no better than those of the US. Its closed, unaccountable and elitist character gives the financial interests of the City unique access to the centres of political power and provides a nesting place from which corporate lobbies can shape policies and ensure a favourable environment for themselves.

Any independent platform must tackle this systemic problem on both a political and an economic level. We would need to start with apparently modest measures, such as opening up freedom of information, abolishing the royal prerogative, giving MPs power to recall parliament and introducing a proportional electoral system. (It is time that what’s left of the left in the Labour Party recognised that their continued adherence to ‘first past the post’ means that a huge opportunity is being missed to turn the present depth of popular disillusion into a concerted force for change.)

These constitutional reforms need to be combined with an opening up of state institutions to more direct forms of democracy. This would be far from the consultative processes favoured by New Labour, often as legitimation for various forms of privatisation. I’m thinking here of a real sharing of power between representative politics and autonomous institutions of direct participation that have real decision- making power over budgets and public administration.

This leads on to the economic strategies necessary to realise such an egalitarian vision of democracy. Participation in public life requires time and a reorganisation of work, the provision of a basic income and a reordering of economic priorities to favour the needs of a democracy. This in turn implies a direct challenge to the authoritarianism that is integral to the nature of wealth production in a capitalist economy. This tension between democracy and the realities of corporate and financial power has never been so glaring as now, with financial greed having been allowed to let rip and reveal its true grossness.

Information technology has opened up opportunities for a new leap forward in the development of a social economy – in which, at its most basic, many people already participate individually through peer to peer sharing of music, films and other ‘cultural goods’. It also offers exciting possibilities for making public services more responsive to individual needs, in a way that the market cannot. In itself, of course, a new technology doesn’t guarantee social and democratic progress. If we don’t take control of it, the same technology could just as easily provide the tools for an ever wider commercialisation of daily life and an ever deeper depoliticisation of power.

We are at a political and moral turning point in our social and economic development. But you would never know it from observing life in the political box.

Tell us what you think on our special Politics outside the box blog


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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