Ten tumultuous years

"Red Pepper, breaking a decade; New Labour, broken and decayed,' suggested a wit in the office. But now is not the moment for narrow triumphalism (beyond celebrating the larger font size and the monthly miracle performed in getting the magazine out at all).

May 1, 2004
4 min read


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

Our history has paralleled that of Tony Blair’s. His New Labour has failed as a project for the centre left. In the process it has destroyed, or almost destroyed, the Labour Party, and undermined all popular trust and belief in politics. We have a prime minister who is a law unto himself – and his fellow traveller George W Bush.

Blair and his British neo-cons have used the past 10 years to cut the strings of democracy tying down the hot air balloon of the political elite. Their first step was to pitch “ordinary people’ against “activists’ to establish a centralised grip over the Labour Party. Step two was to use the beleaguered party traditionalists to kill proposals for reform of the electoral system; thus, the political monopoly of the prime minister was preserved, and a more pluralist politics was deferred. Their third move was to play efficiency against democracy in the drive to privatise public services.

Then came 11 September as the revolt against privatisation was at its peak. Quick to pick up the cue from across the Atlantic, and ever eager for a global crusade, Blair attempted to use the war against terror to make himself invulnerable. But the ritual with the UN was too transparent, the lies too flimsy, the deal with Bush too blatant. Popular wariness built up into popular rebellion. Now, the balloon having lifted off almost entirely (swept off in a transatlantic wind), the prime minister suddenly discovers that he needs “the people’ and makes an appeal: the belated referendum on the European constitution.

Britain – with its all-powerful executive, the takeover of common goods and spaces by the market, and the yawning gulf between national political institutions and people’s daily concerns – provides the model of the worldwide degeneration of politics in liberal democracies. Even South Africa, where 10 years ago people queued for miles to cast their votes and the ANC just completed a record landslide, the signs of disillusionment are apparent (see South Africa\’s faded rainbow).

But over the past 10 years Red Pepper has found itself documenting something more hopeful: the invention of new kinds of power (local, regional, global) as people defend their rights against the invasive, competitive pressures of global capital and the national governments that act as its agents.

The direction of this movement was set in 1994 by the Zapatistas in Mexico, who have used political poetry, the net, grass-roots action and guerrilla organisation to inspire an international revolt against US-imposed “free trade’. That revolt has illustrated the possibilities of bringing about change while remaining autonomous from conventional politics.

We have seen the growth of myriad experiments in which relationships between electoral, social, cultural, economic and sometimes military power have been completely transformed and rethought. From Reclaim the Streets using carnivals to take back public space to Brazilian participatory budgets using direct democracy to distribute public money more equally and openly, people are inventing new principles of politics.

These activities are simultaneously locally rooted yet globally mobile in a way that left political parties are institutionally incapable of being. When it comes to effective strategies for transmitting this counter-power through to electoral politics, these movements, new and old, are just beginning to find their feet (see Scotland\’s brave new world).

In the next 10 years Red Pepper will focus especially on encouraging, reporting and debating the development of these new principles at every level. Europe presents us with a special challenge. On the one hand, we need to break out of the confines of national politics; on the other, the promised European constitution simply strengthens the centre and keeps in place undemocratic national structures. Against this we should be guided by an appeal from the Italian left: “The global campaign for peace has expressed a widespread ethos not easily corrupted by the rhetoric of Western patriotism. We must use this new “mindset” as a call to arms for social, political and institutional change across Europe.’

We should make London’s European Social Forum in October the public launch of an alternative politics for strengthening the horizontal connections between struggles and movements across the globe – connections that are bringing about change independently of existing political institutions. One question could then be asked from a fresh standpoint: what’s left for political parties?


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


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