Politics is too important to be left to politicians: local activists discuss social change as a daily activity.
Tony Benn, Bristol South East MP for over 30 years, wittily declared in 2001 that he was:
“leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics.”
Why does mainstream politics leave many people cold? And what can be done instead?
In our version of democracy, UK citizens, apart from the 85,000 currently imprisoned, have the opportunity to vote for their representative Member of Parliament only once every five years. MPs don’t (and can’t) represent the views of their, on average in England, 72,400 constituents, rather they tow the party line.
A trail of broken election promises, expenses scandals and the corruption of power has led to wide disillusionment with politics. An Ipsos Mori poll earlier this year found that just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth. Many people are dismissive or outright hostile to this whole political system, with almost 16 million people choosing not to vote at the last general election. But, there are also those for whom working for social change is a daily activity outside of the political party system.
The politics of daily life
Steve Crozier, a community organiser at Barton Hill Settlement, says he is involved with people at “a very early stage of politics”. His work involves: “listening to residents individually then bringing people together in small groups and then democratically arguing and debating on what actions they want to take”. Steve’s role is to: “encourage people from outside of the process […] to help them formulate what actions they want to take.” The practical results of engaging with issues at this local level is interesting.
“it was the process of collective discussion that made people realise that it’s not just them facing these issues, that they have something in common”
Steve gives the example of conflict over a simple activity like doing your laundry. In the Harwood House tower block, Barton Hill, residents only have two shared washing machines between 80 families. But he says: “by getting people together they can see that it wasn’t necessarily other tenants fault, but that there wasn’t enough resources in the first place […] it was the process of collective discussion that made people realise that it’s not just them facing these issues, that they have something in common”. By identifying the council’s lack of resources as the root cause of their problem, rather than each other, the residents were able to collaboratively make demands to the council to rectify the situation for the benefit of all.
Apathy is often quoted as the reason a third of the population choose not to vote in general elections. But the 84% turnout for the Scottish independence referendum, and examples like the one above, demonstrate that people will engage with political decisions when given a direct and meaningful choice. But are we being presented with such a choice at the general election?
Liz Snook, a local environmental justice campaigner who has taken action against the proposed Biofuel plants and Metrobus scheme in Bristol, points out: “All the major parties believe in a model of continuous economic growth on a finite planet […] I don’t believe that a democracy functioning within a capitalist system is ever going to be fair.”
The lesser evil?
Despite the major political parties’ support for capitalism, they do have slightly different policies on how to manage it. Should we vote for the lesser of two evils, because as Steve puts it: “maybe under Labour it was potentially less shit”? That marginal difference could mean life or death to those struggling to survive. Although Labour have said they will match the Tory’s budget, will not reverse the last five years of cuts and say they will introduce more cuts. Or does voting just lend credibility to a system that is fundamentally designed to recreate the power of the 1%?
Steve says: “I don’t think people voting is the thing that gives credibility to the system […] people understand the problems with it”. Liz adds: “if what we want is more people to engage in the issues around their daily lives, then telling them not to try and exercise the last, ridiculously small, amount of power that is on the table, when it has been fought for by the chartists and suffragettes, feels a bit churlish […] I think we would be daft not to use every tool that we have.”
Voting for the party with ideas closest to yours adds to the perceived popularity of those ideas. For example, the growth in support for UKIP at the polls has contributed to a right-wing shift in the political landscape that affects other parties’ policies, media rhetoric and people’s daily lives. Perhaps voting is just one tool, among many, to try and prevent things from getting any worse, while we participate in the wider task of creating the real change needed for a more free, equal and just society.
Politics is too important to be left to politicians
We need to campaign and organise around the issues that affect us, but we also need to understand how power, oppression and discrimination work in our society and the part we potentially play in replicating those. By informing ourselves about what is really going on behind the headlines, by questioning and challenging those in authority, by taking small acts of solidarity with those around us, we reclaim power for ourselves. Today’s election is just one day in that struggle.