House of Lords

Outside a bar in the gangster-run border town of Mukachevo in Western Ukraine, I asked a clutch of young men if they spoke English, and what they thought of their president.

They quite liked him, it turned out. Volodymyr Zelensky won this part of the country. But this group of twenty something truck-drivers, who told me that their main political concerns were the quality of the roads and the destruction of the forests, were qualified in their enthusiasm for the former TV star who had previously played the president in a fictional drama.

They liked Zalensky because he was on a mission to challenge corruption. But what they really thought, as one of them put it to me, was “we need to change the whole political system”.

Nine months later, in a lockdown phone call to Tennessee, I heard the same words as those put to me on that freezing night in Transcarpathia. “We need to change the whole political system”, said Bob Peoples, an old man of the Appalachian mountains, who’d taken me in sixteen years earlier as I hiked through his patch of the hills, and who I’d asked about the US election.

A hegemonic view of politics has taken hold right across the Western world. Go anywhere, ask anyone, and they will most likely agree. It isn’t working.

There’s one country where this belief is particularly strong. Every year, the research company Edelman release their ‘Trust Barometer’, surveying citizens around the world. In January 2020, a month before I was in Ukraine, the two countries with least faith in their institutions were listed as Russia, and the UK.

A month before the survey came out, Boris Johnson had already picked up on the mood. His 2019 campaign was a flash of political brilliance. If most people experience politics not as a negotiation about how we live together, but as a crappy reality TV show where they occasionally get to vote off one of the contestants, he made the programme even more torrid, then ran a campaign encouraging people to switch it off. “Get Brexit done” wasn’t a cry for liberation, but to go back to Christmas shopping. It picked up with the dominant mood in the country “we’re fed up with this”.

And the ‘this’ wasn’t just Brexit. It was all of politics.

For the right, this is a good thing. Citizens being involved in running the country makes everything harder for them. The whole point of neoliberalism was to shift decisions from democracy to the market. The whole point of our new authoritarian turn is to return what powers remain politicised to traditional elites.

For the left, it poses a dilemma. If people don’t believe politicians, then you can’t win elections by promising to deliver lots of nice things. No matter how much people want them, they don’t trust you to deliver them.

And so often, whether explicitly or implicitly, progressives get dragged into defending our current political structures. Last year, thousands marched against the shocking proroguing of parliament, tapping into a narrative that, ultimately, we’re on the side of the Westminster system.

The risk of failing to defend the remnants of democracy we have is that we lose them entirely. But the risk of defending a system which everyone can see is broken is that you look like another one of its cronies.

It’s hard to see a way out of this dilemma for Labour. Over a hundred years, it has grown into the fabric of the Westminster system. While the Tories’ centre of power is the City of London, Labour’s whole existence is about reaching for the clunky levers of the British state and seeking to change gear a little bit.

But for Greens, it’s much simpler.

The Green Party, after all, was founded as the party of radical democracy. In recognition of the brokenness of the absurd Westminster system, the Scottish Greens have long campaigned for independence from it. This year, the Wales Green Party also backed independence from the British state, while the Northern Irish Greens walk a careful tightrope.

Where does that leave England. Do England’s Greens support keeping the grossly undemocratic Westminster system? Of course not. Green Party policies and manifestos have made clear for decades a desire to utterly transform that system. The party’s policy supports a written constitution removing the ruling class’s right to make it up as they go along. It calls for abolition of the Lords, a fair voting system, a radical decentralisation of power, direct democracy.

In other words, the Green Party of England and Wales wants to replace the Westminster system. Travel around the UK and ask people what they think about politics, and you’ll soon find that this is the most popular policy that any party has. People don’t trust politicians, they are furious with the Westminster system, and they agree that it needs to be replaced with something. It’s just that no one is articulating what.

That’s a role for the Greens. With a slogan along the lines of ‘Abolish Westminster: let’s have an actual democracy’, the party could provoke enough reaction to attract attention, and tell millions of people across the country that they are right. Our politics is broken. But the solution isn’t less democracy. It’s more. It’s not to defend the old, but to invent the new.

Adam Ramsay’s long read – ‘It’s time to break up Britain’ – was published on December 11 on openDemocracy.

Image credit: vgm8383 – Creative Commons

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