We are now living with the Electorate’s choice: a hung parliament. This could well be the most accurate expression of the level of enthusiasm most people have had towards the main political parties in recent weeks. Rock. Hard place. To my jaded Generation X senses, both Labour and the Conservatives seemed obsessed with ‘fixing’ the economy, blissfully oblivious of the root causes of the recession. Even the Liberal Democrats adhered stubbornly to the idea that we can resolve all our woes by championing greater economic growth. Meanwhile, genuinely life-changing concerns such as social exclusion, the colossal gulf between rich and poor and the parlous state of the natural world have barely got a look-in.
In a political climate where our leaders are so hopelessly out of touch, what hope is there for genuine democracy? I’m lucky. I’m one of the minute proportion of people in the country who tipped up at the polling booth on 6 May feeling that I could vote with my heart and simultaneously have a real chance of making a difference. I live in Brighton, where Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, has become the country’s first Green MP. In many constituencies, the result was a foregone conclusion. Even in the marginals, the choice for many was hardly an inspiring one.
For many of us, the real action is happening elsewhere. The movements that are beginning to stir real engagement ask more of us than simply to make a cross in a box. They ask that we add our voices to those of many thousands of others who are disillusioned with the state of politics in this country – and on the planet! – and start making those voices heard. Some of the best-known include Avaaz (avaaz.org), 38 Degrees (38degrees.org.uk) and Compass (compassonline.org.uk). These groups campaign on issues as varied as stopping the rape trade, preventing the spread of GM crops and protecting the BBC. Importantly, what they’re doing is beginning to shape a political conscience that has been dormant ever since Margaret Thatcher declared that ‘there is no alternative’. They’re bringing together people who stubbornly refuse to believe that a fundamentalist market approach will ever deliver the values they believe in, and presenting the evidence of that intransigence to those who are responsible for making policy.
In essence, these movements are about rediscovering our sense of citizenship. We realise now that greed isn’t good, that pursuing our selfish interests at the expense of others will not bring us the peace and security we need in order to live happily. Avaaz, 38 Degrees et al give us a chance to say as much, in numbers that may be large enough to influence significantly the course we take as a society. This is more than hype. In the run-up to the election, 38 Degrees secured an interview with the manifesto-writers of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in which members of the public were given an opportunity to put forward their questions. Avaaz has worked with Al Gore and presented at least one petition directly to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. If the petition against GM crops receives a million signatures, it can be tabled as an official request to the EU. Compass has organised a conference which will feature luminaries such as Polly Toynbee and Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC. They say: ’It’s not Star Wars or even a class war we need, but a purposeful struggle for a world in which freedom comes from greater democracy, equality and sustainability, and from new ways of living and working.’
Citizen movements have gone beyond being a sideshow and become a serious consideration. At COP15 in December, activists from the 350 movement (350.org) played a major part in demonstrating a desire for a climate treaty that was fair, ambitious and binding. Admittedly, the talks ultimately resulted in a lame ‘accord’. This failure, however, can hardly be laid at the feet of the thousands of people who made it clear that they want and expect much more.
Excitingly, movements like the ones described above have the potential to go beyond traditional divisions. By uniting us through what we share, rather than through opposition to something ‘other’, they can place people shoulder to shoulder who might superficially appear divided. This in itself is a positive step. Rooted as it is in a universal need for safe, healthy food and water, equitable society and meaningful work, this unifying influence may yet prove to be a catalyst for personal transformation. If that’s to be the case, it remains only for me to echo the call made by others in the pages of this very magazine and encourage you to start participating. Find a cause you feel strongly about, and join in. We’ll all feel better for it.
Simon Brett is a freelance writer based in Brighton.