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Mass democracy has failed – it's time to seek a humane alternative

Trump's theatrical politics are a betrayal of the disenfranchised. To move forward, we need better analysis of and investment in local civic activism.

No one knows yet what Donald Trump will do as president. Optimists predict that, once in the Oval Office, he will be reined in by advisers and bureaucrats or frustrated by Congress; or that he will not have the political energy to carry through the projects that he announced during his campaign – projects that will be open to all sorts of legal challenges and practical obstacles. We can hope. Yet the reality is that a US president’s freedom to appoint advisers, and Supreme Court judges, is pretty generous, by European standards. And Trump has a House and a Senate that not only share his (very) nominal party allegiance but are fully aware of his electoral significance. His patronage will be crucial for the future of many of these politicians.

We have seen elsewhere how extremists have been elected with the optimistic collusion or tolerance of those who believe that such people can be “managed” in office; and we have seen them discover, bitterly and too late, their error. Nor is there any indication that Trump’s energy is in short supply. However limited his grasp of the complex issues that he has opened up, the force of his personality will generate a hectic climate of plans and half-plans, expenditure and public rhetoric, that will be almost as damaging as the projects themselves.

We don’t know. However, we do know what this election has shown about politics in the US – confirming what was already apparent on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, it is to do with the discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure. Yes, conventional politicians of the right and the left have failed to understand this. But that might tempt us to think that there was still a solution available within the politics of a market society, in which ideas are shaped by public demand.

The problem is deeper. Trump’s campaign succeeded in spite of the cast-iron demonstrations of his total indifference to truth (not to mention decency). It has offered not a connected strategy for national reconstruction, but an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures; as if Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.

As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch. They have become detached from the work of politics by the erosion of liberties and economic opportunities – one reason why there is such pressure to displace this on to a feverish defence of archaic “freedoms” such as gun ownership, and on to whatever scapegoated minority can be held responsible for unemployment or general insecurity.

The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns (ironically, one of the things that Trump has undertaken to change). The 2008 financial crisis sent a tremor through that world but failed to change its workings. The effect has been a growing assumption that what goes on in public political debate does not represent any voices other than the privileged and self-interested. And so, for significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers.

There is an issue here about education. Yet this can become another hostage to fortune if all it is saying is that a benighted populace should be educated out of false consciousness by those who know better (the “experts” we are now encouraged to hate and mistrust). The learning that matters is the experience of genuine political debate and decision-making at local levels, the experience of identifying challenges, negotiating sustainable solutions, and learning to manage conflict without violent rupture or the demonising of minorities. This is the work that goes on in co-operative practice at every level – in education and industry, and through citizens’ organisations (President Obama’s political nursery), food co-ops, microcredit institutions and voluntary street pastors.

Instead of the chilling, neo-Soviet talk (here as much as in the United States) about something called “The People” and its supposed will, we need better analysis of and investment in local civic activism. And this implies a rethink of party politics as we have received it. The conventional accounts of what is “right” and “left” are fast becoming tribal signals, rather than useful moral categories. The leviathans of the party system will sooner or later have to look at their structures and accountability – not as a step to plebiscite populism, but in terms of what they can do to nurture discussion and decision in the actual communities to which people (not The People) belong.

Naught for our comfort; but at least an opportunity to ask how politics can be set free from the deadly polarity between empty theatrics and corrupt, complacent pluto­cracy. What will it take to reacquaint people with control over their communities, shared and realistic values, patience with difference and confidence in their capacity for intelligent negotiation? It’s the opposite of what Trump has appealed to. The question is whether the appalling clarity of this opposition can wake us up to work harder for the authentic and humane politics that seems in such short supply. 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”