Malawi: a quiet revolution?

There is a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

The world's eyes are set on the revolutions of the Arab world and yet Malawi, the small landlocked African nation is trying to achieve its own, more quiet political transition.

Malawian civil society and church leaders this week postponed planned marches for the second time in two months, in favour of a stay-at-home vigil, which halted businesses on Wednesday. The decision came as a response to the high court decision to ban the protests and the fear that the marches could end in bloodshed, as proclaimed by one of the civil society leaders, Billy Mayaya when speaking at a press conference.

The demands by Malawi's civil society groups include attending to the country's economic woes such as the acute fuel and foreign exchange shortage, dealing with issues of corruption within the government and guaranteeing political freedoms, by for instance revising the newly enforced media censorship bill.

The call for people to stay away from work and pray or reflect in the safety of their homes, comes two months after demonstrations on 20 July which left 19 people dead - a shockingly high number for an otherwise peaceful and close-knit society. As Rafiq Hajat, a civil society activist and director of the Institute for Policy Interaction explained to me, the decision to call off Wednesday's marches was taken due to the fear of inadequate preparations which 'could lead to a chaotic situation that could easily get out of hand.'

Unfortunately the quiet protest and the suspension of the civil society dialogue with the government, also come at the cost of intimidation: the court ruling against the protests, police and military patrolling of the roads, scenes of machete wielding youth touring the streets of Blantyre the commercial capital, in the run up to last month's protests and the fires in the office of Rafiq Hajat and the home of Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, which are still unaccounted for. According to Hajat, non-governmental organisations were warned by the government that they would lose their licences if they participated in the protests. The online news site Malawi Voice reported Deputy Minister Nicholas Dausi to have said:

'They have no mandate whatsoever to declare a public holiday and telling people not to work is tantamount to sabotage.'

Meanwhile the Malawian government's response to civil society's demands has been mixed. In the last month, President Bingu wa Mutharika dismissed and reshuffled the Cabinet, encouraged vendors who's shops where disrupted and destroyed by July's protests to side with him and warned Malawians not to insult him on internet forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from the decision to give their government a quieter nudge towards political change, the Malawian protests cannot be seen as a simple tag-along in the shadow of the 'Arab Spring'. Political dissatisfaction and poverty have been seeing a long gradual build-up over the last years, from the tax increases, to fuel shortages, to the expulsion of the British High Commissioner in April due to a leaked comment on the President Mutharika's increasingly authoritative tendencies and the subsequent withdrawal of British aid to the country.

Protest organisers told members of the press (AFP), that they believed they had sent the government a powerful message about their grievances.

What this soft form of protest can achieve is yet to be seen. However the fact that more and more Malawians are voicing their views on social and political issues both on the web and through political action, certainly points towards a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.