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A new politics? How the old political consensus is melting away

Over the coming months and years, this new politics will shake the British establishment to its foundations. It has many faces but a common origin: the growing consensus that the status quo is broken.

By Paul Hilder

The British political landscape was hit by an earthquake this autumn, and its name is new politics. I have charted its rise for years and suddenly it’s centre stage. Change is coming from all directions. It seems cacophonous. The social-democratic “Yes” movement in Scotland and the UK Independence Party’s populist “No to immigration and Brussels” are poles apart. But they share an adversary in the form of Westminster, and they are carving deep into the base of Labour and the Conservatives – neither of which now looks able to form a majority government next May.

Over the coming months and years, this new politics will shake the British establishment to its foundations. It has many faces but a common origin: the growing consensus that the status quo is broken and old politics is actively disempowering. The question is no longer whether change is coming but where it takes us. We stand at the crossroads between hope and fear, fragmentation and renewal. I have spent the past weeks talking with people on the front lines to map this crisis, and the new paths now emerging.

Douglas Carswell is wired with political energy. The Honourable Member for Clacton bounds from door to door, saluting the voters to show he’s at their service. He draws sweeping parallels between the Arab Spring and resistance against Brussels, then listens carefully to local difficulties, asking constituents to “ping me an email or a text” so he can follow up.

The people of this little East Anglian lane, with its rough tarmac and hotchpotch bungalows, look on him with wonder and delight: that mythical creature, the Honest Politician. “He won’t do no U-turns!” “He’s the only one I’ve ever known to talk straight, whether you agree with him or not – he didn’t have to stand down, he wants the people behind him…”

Carswell romped home to an increased majority last month after defecting to the “People’s Army” of Ukip, and then Mark Reckless rode his coat tails to triumph in Rochester. I was out on the doorstep in both by-elections.

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It’s clear that Carswell in particular wants to break the mould of old politics. His victory speech opened with humility and championed English democracy with a thoughtful populist passion. “Whether you sit astride a mass of power in Westminster or in banking, in Whitehall or in Brussels – the governing can no longer presume to know what is right for the governed. Crony corporatism is not the free market. Cosy cartel politics is not meaningful democracy. Change is coming, with the promise that things can be better,” he said.

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The polls show Ukip’s reach surging strongly, six months before what looks to be the first real “none-of-the-above” election since 1974. Ukip’s northern wing also ran Labour close in Heywood and Middleton, and Labour’s policy coordinator Jon Cruddas is one who takes the challenge seriously.

“The old political settlement where parties did top down, state-driven politics to and for people is exhausted, and two sources of energy are currently firing up our broken political system,” Cruddas told me. “The first is popular anger toward the political class, as immigration and rapid economic change threatens people’s sense of belonging and security. The second is the powerful desire for greater self-determination, individually and nationally. The insurgent forces which embody these two sources of energy are the independence politics in Scotland and Ukip in England.”

Two months ago, the people of Scotland almost voted to end the United Kingdom. “People will write about this referendum for decades to come, and it will be like the French Revolution,” Marco Biagi says. An elected representative of the Scottish National Party in the Scottish Parliament, Marco doesn’t sound like a defeated man. The question of whether Scotland should be an independent nation transformed during the campaign into “What kind of country do you want to live in?”, and that conversation is only accelerating.

Robin McAlpine of CommonWeal told me how a decentralised Yes campaign tapped new energies in town halls and squares across Scotland. “What has happened since the vote is weirder still,” he added. He worried defeat would be crushing for a multitude who had never before engaged in politics. “But the opposite happened!”

The Yes camp might have lost the war. But they could yet win the peace. All that energy is earthing itself in a democratic renaissance. The Scottish National Party has almost quadrupled its membership in the weeks since the No vote, from 25,000 members to over 90,000. A party achieving similar penetration across the UK would be more than a million strong.

Scottish Labour meanwhile is in freefall. Unless it reinvents itself completely, polls suggest it could be wiped out in May. New leadership is essential but utterly insufficient. One Labour figure involved in the No campaign told me their party has become toxic and they fear it may not survive.

The waves from Scotland and Ukip are just omens of a wider insurgency, one that has been brewing for years. This summer I found myself sitting in the upstairs room of a pub in Cornwall, listening to a group of people talk openly about politics. Peter, a delivery driver from Probus, captured the mood in his description of the Westminster parties. “Two cheeks on the same ass, aren’t they?” The others laughed with painful recognition.

The conversation was wide-ranging and passionate. They talked about cuts, biting hard in Cornwall, and defending the NHS against austerity and creeping privatisation. Everyone backed the campaign started by Leon, a ten-year-old from Falmouth, to save the county library service. They were remarkably well-informed on the intricacies of how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would expand corporate power.

These are what the media and political class sometimes call “real people”. They are of all ages and all classes, and in the past they have voted for every political party, Ukip included. Their sentiments are widely held. As the Conservative MP Rory Stewart reminded me, 83 per cent of people today think politics is broken. What sets this group apart is simply that they, like more than three million of their fellow citizens, are members of a democratic campaigning movement called 38 Degrees. 

38 Degrees got its name from a tipping point, the angle at which an avalanche starts. In the last five years the movement has grown fast. 38 Degrees has won dozens of victories – saving the forests from privatisation, helping protect Lewisham Hospital and other NHS services, and challenging corporations on tax avoidance and workers’ rights.

I was in Cornwall as a board member of 38 Degrees. The big strategic decisions a board would normally take are instead made by the membership. I had no more say in what it campaigns on than any of the other 3 million members. People write in with ideas, start their own petitions, and agree the movement’s priorities through regular weekly polls. They self-organise brilliantly, not just online but face-to-face and locally. 

Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Borders and now chair of the defence select committee, sees 38 Degrees as “a really fascinating, energetic thing. The impact of it is enormous – we’ve all had to figure out what it means.” He finds the experience of receiving hundreds of similar emails bewildering, but adds, “It works best when it drives 30 to 40 people into my surgeries, when I can actually debate with them.”

I have spoken with many MPs who share Stewart’s enthusiasm but party headquarters are less keen. All have felt the fire of 38 Degrees at one time or another, and their top-down control is threatened by pressure on MPs to listen to their constituents instead of the whips. Last year’s ‘Gagging Law’ may have been designed partly to block 38 Degrees members and other movements from getting involved in the next general election. But signs are it will backfire. The new politics is coming, and no amount of red tape will stop it.

The “Westminster bubble” has its epicentre in Portcullis House, home to our Members of Parliament and their offices. Inside it opens up into a delightful glass plaza, outside it’s a fortress. As I walk through security, the uniformed guards smell something wrong. I smell it too. One says, “There’s a dead rat down there, under the heating. It’s rotting, and they won’t let us get it out.”

History is unfolding outside, but inside the scent is stale, and people talk of policies and speeches to which almost no one is listening anymore. I put these challenges to Ed Miliband’s strategists Tom Baldwin and Stewart Wood. They stress that he was onto the problem of political alienation early. Then, like Miliband, they pivot to economic causes.

The British economy is brutal and soul-destroying, failing everyone but a privileged few. Combined with the fiscal squeeze and wider disillusionment, this is what’s fuelling the “politics of protest”.

“There’s no contradiction between radicalism and credibility now,” says Baldwin. Miliband’s team think economic reform, the NHS and cost of living adds up to a lot more than a core vote strategy. Their polling indicates the Tories are vulnerable on the question of which party will stand up for you. Labour stands with the many, the Tories with the privileged few. Miliband’s conference speech was designed to position Labour as the party of the future and the common good.

All this was drowned out the moment he forgot the deficit and immigration. The Conservatives now have their attack line. But Team Miliband stand by their strategy. Their failure to cut through is down to a hostile media, the turbulence kicked up by events like Scotland and ISIS, and a bit of bad luck.

I disagree. “Your real problem is that only months before the election, almost no one is listening to you,” I tell them. “Whatever you think of New Labour, they had a strategy to win a hearing from the country.” Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Gould worked hard to understand where the public were at, campaigning relentlessly to win their trust.

“Nobody in Clacton is talking about Ed Miliband’s plan to reform British capitalism, even though it’s designed to help them,” one former senior Labour strategist told me. “Jon Cruddas’s policy review was very good, and there’s a thematic coherence to his speeches – devolution, decentralisation, a different account of power and the economy. But it doesn’t yet seem to have breathed life into the doorstep offer for Labour candidates.”

When Ed Miliband ran for Labour’s leadership, people said he “talks human”. Today he’s stuck in the mud of the Westminster bubble and that mud is sticking to him. Most observers I talked to agreed that Labour’s body language is broken. They have a terrible habit of jumping straight from political and social alienation to economic reductionism. “Only Labour” has the answer: they think they know better. Talk about identity or Europe or immigration, and they squirm and change the subject.

Labour is not only failing to connect with swing voters; it is losing its base. Once tribal loyalty frays it is tough to rebuild, as I saw on the doorstep in Clacton and Rochester. As Labour peer Maurice Glasman told me, “We’re losing England. The working class always stayed loyal to Labour. If we lose that, it’s something very precious, and it’s happening in real time.”

Emily Thornberry’s Twitter gaffe over England flags and Miliband’s ham-fisted response betray a deeper crisis of identity. Holding the patriotic working class at arms-length with “respect” is little better than sneering at them. Labour seems incapable of getting on the front foot with a progressive story of patriotism and community.

Douglas Carswell won Clacton from Labour only narrowly nine years ago. Now he dominates and they are nowhere. He talks about the death of the high-street music retailer HMV: “Their business model collapsed within a few months because people started to buy music online through live-streaming. It didn’t matter who the CEO of HMV was. It doesn’t matter whether you change David Cameron with George Osborne or Theresa May, the way the Conservative Party retails politics is fundamentally redundant.” The same can be said of Labour.

“I argued for all sorts of political reforms, and all the localism we were promised, the recall bill – nothing happened!” Carswell is clear that this, not Europe, is the fundamental reason for his defection. “The closest thing to Spotify in British politics is Ukip. Beppe Grillo in Italy has the Five Star Movement, which is way ahead of my new party in terms of using the internet, and way ahead in one or two other things – but we won’t go there…”

I ask Carswell whether he will now implement his vision of ‘iDemocracy’ at Ukip. He treads carefully, but his ambition is clear. “Ukip is not an upstart, it’s a start-up. It’s a great market opportunity for disaffected people on the centre left and people on the centre right. Voter turnout has fallen from 80 per cent to 60 per cent in a generation, so there’s 20 per cent potential market growth from disaffected voters alone. But look, like all great start-ups, let’s work on the detail!”

Sunder Katwala of British Future thinks the future lies in a mash-up of old and new: “The new politics might have to take one of the tribes with it. Old parties adopting direct mechanisms like primaries and recall seem more likely to succeed than a citizens’ party with no anchor at all.”

Lisa Nandy, the 35-year-old Wigan MP and shadow civil society minister, understands the gap. “Politics can inspire people, but only when it reaches them emotionally,” she says. “It’s not enough to manage the country like a corporation. Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher were both hugely divisive figures, but when they died people took to the streets to mourn them. Neither was ever afraid of having the debate. There’s a reason people think immigration is three times higher than it is – there aren’t people in our communities putting the alternative.

“The most inspiring thing about the Scottish referendum was millions of people engaged in a debate about the sort of country they wanted to live in,” Nandy continues. “Labour’s positive, ambitious agenda is something we can and should talk about in every community.” She describes the decision to bring in veteran Chicago community organiser Arne Graf as “one of the most important Ed Miliband made. Arne embodies a different way of doing politics – a conversation, not a broadcast.”

Old politics has long been dying, but it clings on with all its might. Change is coming from all directions, but who will ride it? The SNP has become its vehicle in Scotland, while in England Ukip claim the insurgent mantle. In the last two local elections, they won 25 per cent of the vote nationwide. Populist localism could enable a durable alliance of northern working-class socialists and southern libertarians.

Ukip’s reactionary tendency will continue to limit them, and their policies would accelerate the deregulation, inequality and corporate power that have left so many behind. Still, they have grasped the power of new politics. The Greens too are benefiting from this wave, judging by the polls and a huge petition for them to be included in the election debates. Can others wake up before it is too late?

If the establishment parties continue to stagnate, the 2015 parliament could be hung, drawn and quartered, with no stable coalition in sight. This could be a recipe for chaos or paralysis. But a more positive new politics could rise from the ashes of the old. I see green shoots and new energy blossoming everywhere – in our cities and communities, in mass campaigning and new ways of organising our economy and services.

I’m optimistic because I know that an empowering politics is possible. I was an outsider candidate for general secretary of the Labour Party in 2011, championing movement politics and democratic renewal. I’ve spent my life building movements and institutions to reconnect people with power: 38 Degrees, Avaaz, openDemocracy, Oxfam, the Young Foundation and have touched hundreds of millions of people between them. This is the wave of the future. The only questions are how long it takes, and who gets there first.

I see sparks of life among the Labour grassroots, where despite a sluggish leadership, right and left are uniting around a vision of movement politics. Meanwhile, a groundswell of English MPs and local leaders know that English Labour must carve out new political space if it is to compete effectively in May. But their party will be tested by fire in the coming year. Either it wakes up and renews, or it cedes the future to others. It can no longer be a bottleneck.

Institutional reformer Anthony Painter of the RSA is one of many who have had enough of top-down paternalism: “It infantilises people, that’s not what the centre-left should be about.” He argues for radical decentralisation of economic, social and political power, to give people more control of their own lives. “38 Degrees points the way to a different kind of politics,” he says. I have now stood down from that movement’s board, but I’m confident its members will play a significant, independent role in the coming elections.

Nick Pearce of IPPR says, “I see opportunities for renewal in new ways of thinking about the economy and our relationship to communities, like decentralised energy generation. There’s enormous social energy in some of our big cities, too. The tipping point has been reached – there’s a thirst and energy for that kind of democracy.”

Rory Stewart adds, “Britain genuinely has a genius for the local, but we’re not good enough at tapping that energy. We’re still a very centralised state. I’ve seen communities in Penrith and the Borders building and organising their own housing, their own broadband and community energy. They produce beautiful schemes, they know more than the officials, but the system works against them. How do we tap these hundreds of thousands of people?”

With the genie of new politics out of the bottle, Sunder Katwala of British Future is one of many convinced that a vote on Europe is now essential. “If you don’t believe there is public consent for the European project, everyone can smell it. We have to have an in-out referendum to settle these questions of who we are and who we want to be. People are scared of what would happen if you put people in town halls in Manchester and Birmingham to talk about England or immigration or Europe. But as we just saw in Scotland, a referendum gets everybody involved, and they feel in control.”

Ed Miliband’s call for a People’s Convention failed to break out of the Westminster bubble, trumped by the simplicity of English votes for English laws. Since then, I’ve spoken with dozens of people and organisations keen to organise bottom-up conversations on the fundamental question the Scots asked: what kind of country do we want to live in? England and Europe are vital strands of the richer nationwide debate we need, if we’re to find a new settlement and turn our faces to the future again.

Change is coming, with the promise that things can be better, and the threat that they could get a lot worse. The pieces of our country and our future are scattered. At its worst, a new politics could breed fragmentation and conflict. But I believe that if we have the courage to channel these energies, a new politics is also our best hope for rebirth.

The people of Britain have some big questions to answer in the coming years, and they cannot be left to politicians trapped in the Westminster bubble. Renewing energy must come from us, from outside in, from the bottom up. It is time for us to put the pieces back together; to revitalise our society, our economy and our democracy. We must do it together. And we need to start now.