They've sold us down the river. Photo: Getty
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"Left" is a tainted word in our broken establishment: do we need a new way to define ourselves?

Post-politics: what has killed our democracy, and can we bring it back to life?

What do Nick Clegg, Douglas Carswell and Kanye West have in common? They have all declared that democracy as we know it is dead.

"The way in which politics works is bust," says Clegg.

Despite his invigorating defection to Ukip, Carswell writes in the Telegraph: "This anti-politics is not just a phase . . . Deferential democracy is dead".

"Politics is dead. It’s over with," opined West in a recent interview.

The sight of politicians staggering, zombie-like, towards the hollow pageant of a general election is, therefore, surreal. It was in order to explore this incongruity that I organised a major, two-day conference on "post-politics" in the run-up to the election: to ask what exactly has killed our politics, whether there is any prospect of reviving or reinventing it, and why we have arrived at this turning point now. 

The participants – who were drawn from academia, think tanks and journalism, and included Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, the writer Owen Hatherley, and Zoe Williams and John Crace from the Guardian – demonstrated just how profound a transformation this is.

It’s not just that panellists on Question Time earn their applause by referring to cretins in Westminster squandering taxpayers’ cash. Our entire political lexicon has become corrupted and obsolete. Left and right are, we are told, over. Politicians use the word "ideology" only as an insult: it’s either cunning (right-wing) or naïvely utopian (left-wing) motivation. The old battle of ideas has been replaced by technocracy, managerialism, the behaviourist tinkerings of "nudge" policy, and seemingly consensual but actually rather totalitarian bipartisanship.

The public’s visceral hatred of politicians has become so familiar that it’s easy to gloss over the reasons for it. In part it’s the product of legitimate criticisms: that whoever you vote for, big business gets in, and that all parties are comprised of the same cohort of upper middle class career politicians who did PPE at Oxford.

But populist antibodies have also been activated by thornier issues of authority and condescension. The opposition between left and right has given way to the opposition between people and the political "elite". People do not want to be told what to do any more by politicians who "know best". And this plays out badly for the left, who traditionally are all about do-gooding idealism and the provision of public services. The right, meanwhile, can champion individual autonomy.

Several participants wondered if the dissolution of traditional politics is inevitable: part of a broader epochal shift in which digital culture is breaking down all boundaries and categories; or whether it’s the result of a specific neoliberal strategy designed to foreclose the possibility of a left alternative.

If it’s the latter, then the left should not give up on parliamentary democracy and confine their efforts to devising novel forms of grassroots, participatory localism. Syriza’s victory serves as a timely reminder that mainstream politics is still winnable, and still capable of producing meaningful change. If we had Syriza in the UK, many participants wondered, would we need to throw out the baby of representative democracy with the bathwater of neoliberalism?

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who along with her late husband Ernesto Laclau developed many of the ideas that have inspired both Syriza and Podemos, set out a convincing pathway for the left. It is time, she said, to stop romanticising consensus and grassroots horizontalism. Democracy is about the battle of ideas played out at the level of the state. At the same time, vertical or top-down politics needs to engage with horizontal social movements if either is to have real and enduring influence.

So are we stuck with post-politics, or are new forms of politics emerging? As the geographer Erik Swyngedouw pointed out, it’s still too early to tell. The Arab Spring and Occupy turned out to be ephemeral. But as the philosopher Nina Power suggested in a talk entitled "The Post-Political = the Most Political", the anti-Westminster sentiment that is springing up everywhere is in its own way highly political – this is true of phenomena as diverse as Ukip, the Scottish Yes campaign and Russell Brand’s no-vote revolution.

The right is relatively comfortable in a post-ideological era: they can promote market capitalism as naturalised common sense. The more difficult challenge for the left is to articulate a common vision to rally around that doesn’t involve the tainted word "left". As the conference illustrated, the political crossroads at which we find ourselves at least provides a moment in which to try and think one up.

Eliane Glaser is senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

The conference "Postpolitics and Neoliberalism" took place on 20 and 21 March 2015 and is available to listen to via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company: the first day, hosted by CCCU, is here; the second day, hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is here.

Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.