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Hey, Dave: our society's bigger than yours

We have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined.

The words "big society" will be written on the tombstone of this Conservative government. They were written on the side of the Treasury - which is, in effect, the same thing - in angry spray-can letters during the riots in December. The people of this country will not mutely acquiesce to the mortgaging of civic society to pay off the debts of the super-rich. A new social spirit is on the move, but it is not the one that the Tories envisage.

As vital public services are being dismantled, people are occupying their local libraries instead of volunteering to staff them. Instead of wealthy parents setting up academies, there are education activists running free schools for all-comers in empty mansions in Fitzrovia. David Cameron's big society branding platform imagined us "taking responsibility for the people around us". He didn't imagine that we'd be doing it by standing together on picket lines.

The Tory rhetoric around the big society is breathtakingly patronising. It's not just the awful name, which makes it sound suspiciously as though our politics were now a slick children's television show, fronted by puppets. It's not just the glib way in which the parties in government are slashing training programmes at a time when youth unemployment is nearing a million, while holding lavish fund-raising balls where millionaire donors can bid for top City internships for their sons and daughters.

And it's not just the way they declare that we can no longer afford to care for our sick and disabled, while they somehow find spare cash for tens of billions of pounds in tax breaks for banks. It's that they have the gall to do all of this and then to suggest that it is ordinary voters who have lost their sense of social responsibility.

Guess what? Enforced hardship makes people band together and now we have an uprising that's far bigger and more social than Cameron could have imagined. Who are the authors of this revolution? Check your mirror.

The real deal

It's true that there are career activists and romantic student adventurers leading the charge. But the real revolt taking place in Britain involves every one of us, whether we like it or not. It's about whether you and I are willing to let our society be broken apart and sold to unelected global financiers or whether we have the courage to stake our claim.

The sort of dissent that petrifies the powerful has an everyday face. It's the 12-year-old who organises a picket of the Prime Minister's constituency office to save his youth centre. It's the woman with progressive multiple sclerosis who builds an online resistance network to fight the cuts to disability benefits. It's the striking call-centre worker. It's the 16-year-old with no hope of affording university who misses class to protest in front of the Houses of Parliament and the teacher who lets her go.

“David Cameron, can't you see? We're the big society!" chanted members of the protest group UK Uncut at a recent demonstration against corporate tax avoidance. Cameron is about to meet the real big society and he's about to discover that it's more than a branding exercise. It's about real people standing together to fight real injustice. It's called socialism.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change