Strenuous liberty

Party leaders come face to face with participatory democracy.

Many years ago, the American political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote a lovely little essay entitled "A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen". In it, he imagines a man who "hunts in the morning, fishes in the afternoon, rears cattle in the evening, and plays the critic after dinner" -- a beguiling portrait" he borrows from Marx's German Ideology.

Crucially, however, it's a picture that requires some elaboration (bear in mind that Walzer was writing in 1968, at the height of New Left enthusiasm for "participatory democracy"). For before he goes hunting in the morning, Walzer writes, this "unalienated man of the future is likely to attend a meeting of the Council on Animal Life, where he will be required to vote on important matters relating to the stocking of the forests".

And so on, through a special session of the Fishermen's Council and sundry other debates and disputations, with the result that "citizens will have to rush through dinner in order to assume their role as critics".

Behind Marx's huntin', shootin' and fishin' man, then, looms another figure: "the busy citizen attending his endless meetings". Socialism and participatory democracy, Walzer concludes, will demand "an extraordinary willingness to attend meetings, and a public spirit and sense of responsibility that will make attendance dependable and activity consistent and sustained". The problem with this, as Milton observed a few hundred years before Walzer wrote his essay, is that people often prefer "bondage with ease" to "strenuous liberty".

I was reminded of Walzer's observations today when I attended the General Election Assembly at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster held under the auspices of Citizens UK, which describes itself as "the national home of community organising, and the largest coalition of civil society organisations in the UK".

Today's assembly, at which Citizens UK presented its "general election manifesto" to the leaders of the three main parties, was itself the product of 12 months of meetings at which the body's member organisations (churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, charities, etc) had deliberated on a range of policies, preferences and aspirations that were ultimately distilled, in one huge exercise in participatory democracy, into six demands -- as follows:

* Recognise civil society and agree to an annual meeting with Citizens UK.
* Adopt the living wage in the public sector and champion it across the country.
* Create a 20 per cent interest-rate cap on all unsecured money loans and bring access to affordable credit to local communities.
* End the detention of children in immigration centres.
* Facilitate affordable owner-occupied housing through community land trusts.
* Introduce a one-off, conditional, "earned regularisation" for long-term irregular migrants (ie, a so-called amnesty).

That Methodist Central Hall (site of the first-ever General Assembly of the United Nations in 1946) was packed to the rafters with more than 2,500 delegates from member institutions (themselves representing countless thousands more) suggests that the people's taste for "strenuous liberty" -- the "extraordinary willingness to attend meetings" that Walzer said genuine participatory democracy, not to mention socialism, would depend upon -- is indeed growing.

And David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, who addressed the Assembly in turn this afternoon, each made a point of praising the sheer dedication of those present: Cameron by co-opting them into his "big society" ("I talk about the big society," he said; "you are the big society"), Brown by inviting those who "say people are apathetic and indifferent" to take a look at Citizens UK. (Clegg, for his part, flattered the audience by offering a rather refined summary of his liberal commitment to the "dispersal of power" -- a relief to those of us who find that his "plague-on-both-your-houses"/"there-you-go-again" schtick is beginning to pall somewhat.)

The leaders were right to be lavish in their praise: Citizens UK is a reminder that civic participation tends to cultivate a sense of the common good. That's why John Stuart Mill, for instance, regarded it as desirable. For all its stirring, revivalist fervour (which is partly a function of the affliations of participants in Citizens UK, the overwhelming majority of whom come from faith-based groups of some kind), the event was also a reminder (and this is implied in what Walzer says in his essay) that political organisations, of whatever kind -- even heterogeneous, extra-parliamentary agglomerations like this one -- have a tendency to make a fetish of their own procedures.

There was lots of shouting out to delegates (I'm not sure, in fact, if this is the right term) from various London boroughs and, more unsettlingly, mass recitations of the manifesto pledges, which were flashed up on a large video screen, all of which delayed the leaders' speeches.

But when the moment for the speeches did finally arrive, it was, as my colleague James Macintyre has already observed, Gordon Brown who, for once, best matched his rhetoric to the occasion (though, in fact, he appeared to endorse fewer of the policies in the Citizens UK manifesto than either Cameron or Clegg). Where he usually bulldozes or bludgeons, here Brown soared, ending with a peroration that played Demosthenes off against Cicero ("neoclassical endogenous growth theory" this wasn't):

When Cicero spoke to the crowds in ancient Rome, people turned to each other when he had finished and said: "Great speech." But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece, people turned to each other and said: "Let's march!"

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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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