The collapse of the credit markets in much of the industrial world has done little to undermine British politicians’ child-like faith in competition. The remnants of the New Labour faction, the neoliberal wing of the Liberal party and most Conservatives remain convinced their job is to shovel public money into the voracious beaks of the private sector. Meanwhile, they see their lucrative employment in that same private sector as no more than a happy coincidence. In this, as in so much else, their distance from public opinion is truly remarkable.
But while our politicians seem to think they can carry on like this with impunity, the evidence suggests that the days of the current Parliamentary consensus are numbered. Protest movements like Occupy and UK Uncut have begun to articulate a much more widespread sense that sovereign markets cannot help but destroy the human values and natural resources on which they depend. Meanwhile, digital technology, for all its ambiguities, is weakening the grip of the political class on consequential speech.
There is plenty of disagreement about the politics that become possible in these circumstances. Many – rightly – are wary of anything that looks like compromise with a state-party system in which the principle of representation itself acts as a powerful force against significant change. Many – rightly – think that a response to austerity and economic dysfunction that does not address Parliamentary power will appear irrelevant to the many millions who look to Parliament as their best hope for improved conditions in the near term.
So the National Health Action Party (NHA) arrives at an interesting time. Founded in the aftermath of yet another market-friendly reorganisation of the National Health Service, the NHA aims “to bring well-researched, evidence-based, practical solutions to problems to help protect the NHS, stabilise the economy and provide the British people with politicians they can trust”. These are three points where the gap between the public and elected politicians is widest. People don’t trust their representatives with public services, with the economy, or with an expense account. Not only that, an evidence-based approach to policy-making dispenses with the manipulative circularity of the focus group.
The NHA is only one of a number of parties offering an electoral alternative to the existing consensus. Both the Greens and Respect are already in Parliament and will be eager for more seats at the next election. And while groups like the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and People Before Profit are all but ignored by the media they also already enjoy considerable support. But the NHA’s focus on the National Health Service lends it useful resources. It can appeal to a broad electorate in England in particular who are unnerved or outraged by the changes being made to one of the country’s key institutions.
“A deep social transformation will only be possible when the public has ceased to put its faith in politicians to manage a system it does not understand.”
People who wouldn’t think of themselves as being leftists or radicals might well support a party that wants to protect and improve the NHS. On the other hand, health is a good starting point for developing policies that are both radical and pragmatic. The evidence strongly suggests that economic inequality is extremely bad for our health. And you could certainly make a well-researched case for the claim that the people responsible for the economy have no idea what they are doing.
The opponents of the current consensus probably constitute an absolute majority of the population. At the moment the incumbent parties need to concede little to this majority because we are deeply divided and many of us have lost faith in electoral politics altogether. But scepticism about Parliament and differences between radical traditions need not lead to paralysis or irrelevance. If we concentrate on creating publics in defined political geographies we will have a chance to affect the composition and policies of the next government while increasing popular support for systemic change.
A mixture of assemblies and new technology could enable the inhabitants of particular constituencies to become aware of one another’s attitudes and intentions. That, in and of itself, would constitute a massive defeat for the old model of electoral politics, in which we vote like consumers, according to our “individual needs and aspirations”, for one of a handful of “electable” candidates. Candidates who better represent our interests will not stand a chance while we remain in almost perfect ignorance of what others in the same political space would do, if they knew what we would do. At the same time, a deep social transformation will only be possible when the public has ceased to put its faith in politicians to manage a system it does not understand.
Any turn to assembly and debate has much to learn from the successes and failures of the direct action movements of the last few years. And if we want to make machines that make publics we will need to enlist the help of technologists without succumbing to techno-utopianism. Publics constituted and coordinated online and public spaces of all kinds could decide for themselves what approach to elections they wanted to adopt. They could ask candidates to explain their beliefs and intentions.
They could lend their support to the least bad of the “electable” options or, having weighed up their own strength, back a candidate from one of the parties seeking to break decisively with the existing consensus. Whatever they did, these publics would exert influence to the extent that they were able to communicate and coordinate. More importantly, they would make the electoral process a venue in which radical democracy makes an undeniable difference to outcomes in the field of legislative power.
Though the national media present the electoral process as a national drama, the voting system means that politics is inescapably local. At the moment millions of people are disenchanted with the major political parties. It takes fewer than 40,000 to win a Parliamentary seat. But the current batch of MPs can live with widespread disquiet, as long as the inhabitants of each constituency remain estranged from each other. Politicians love talking noisily about how to restore faith in politics, as long as the most obvious solution has been averted at the polls.
Dan Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason, The Return of the Public and Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty. His most recent essay, Maximum Republic, is available as an e-book.