As 2015 looms, an increasing number of people feel that the democratic process in the UK is unrelated to their everyday lives. A recent poll, for instance, found that 40 per cent of Britons feel entirely disconnected from party politics. Organisations like the Fabians, which are meant to connect politics to people, need to take this seriously.
But before we start dissecting the reasons for this disconnect and how to address them, I have to make a confession. Although I’m a card-carrying member of a political party, signed up to both the Fabians and Unite, and someone who regularly attends political events and protests, I’m part of this statistic. I feel I don’t have a voice in the politics – at least not a voice anyone is listening to.
This is because British politics has become a one-way street. While politicians and their policies have a direct impact on our lives, many of us struggle to turn the tables and meaningfully impact the political process. There’s little wonder when we look at the people who populate the Westminster bubble: 43 per cent of MPs were privately educated (compared with the national average of seven per cent), nearly a quarter went to Oxbridge, only 4.1 per cent are from non-white backgrounds, a mere 22 per cent are female, and there are possibly as few as four disabled MPs. Politics is a place of wealth and privilege far removed from most people’s lives; increasingly it seems you only matter as a cross on the ballot paper.
If the Fabians and organisations like it are going to achieve positive political change, they must challenge the status quo both within party politics and their own organisational walls. Business as usual is not an option.
To begin, get rid of alienating language. Although the Fabians regularly puts out well-informed and well-written pamphlets, this kind of literature should reach and appeal to a wider range of people. Stop using political jargon like ‘co-production’ or talking about ‘devolution of powers’. These vague political terms mean little and most people don’t have the time or inclination to Google their way through articles. What’s more, these words obscure what they’re supposed to stand for. If we’re talking about making power truly democratic then let’s say so.
However, changing the way we do politics isn’t just about language; it’s also about taking action to challenge inequality. The mainstream left needs to openly recognise that we still live in an institutionally racist society and do something about it. At the moment, it isn’t. For, while I commend the fact that each panel at the Fabians 2014 New Year conference had a woman speaker, the same couldn’t be said for minority ethnic representation. The political left should, at the very least, begin addressing institutional discrimination and inequality of opportunity by including minority ethnic people in every conversation (and no, not just those about race).
What’s more, move away from a hierarchical way of doing politics. For everyone to feel they can effectively participate in the political process, we should stop privileging the views of political commentators, academics and MPs over all others. Although these individuals undoubtedly have valid and valuable contributions that should continue to be heard, it shouldn’t be at the expense of hearing about lived experience. People like Jack Monroe (who was, incidentally, one of the most powerful speakers I heard at the Fabian New Year conference) should be welcomed and valued.
To encourage the input of this variety of voices, far more political events like the Fabians’ New Year conference should take place in cities other than the metropolis, like the Fabians’ Birmingham conference last month. And they should be held in spaces that aren’t part of the British establishment. By getting rid of information hierarchies and moving events outside of alienating spaces, we’ll foster new political debates with other people not for them.
Finally, start focusing on ways to incorporate new voices and ideas at a grassroots level. Take a local Fabians branch I’m familiar with outside of London. Although the monthly debates are thought-provoking and filled with innovative ideas, there’s often a significant lack of young people present and very little engagement with those at the sharp end of government policies, like the cuts. Once the conversation comes to a close nothing seems to happen. Grassroots groups must open up their doors and start acting as well as talking.
Politics isn’t simply about ensuring that one party wins an election at all costs. It’s about collaborating with each other to achieve the best possible society, for the largest number of people, and applying pressure on the Labour party to do the same. It’s time to replace minority consensus with vigorous discussion and action from a range of people. Only through this kind of collaboration can politics become an agent of change, in which everyone plays a key role. Political organisations can’t afford to be inward looking because now, more than ever, we need new thinking and radical action.
Maya Goodfellow is a researcher and writer, interested in identity politics, race and imperialism.