What makes good politics?
It has been a sort of obsession of mine over the years, although I have never actually written the question in that way before. On this blog I have looked at the fortunes of the Yes Campaign in Scotland, the Brexit referendum, the Catalan independence movement. I’ve kept an eye on En Marche! in France and know one of the brains behind it.
I have personally had a very tortured relationship with political parties, despite having now spent twenty years of my life as a member of the Labour Party in the UK, and then the Grüne in Germany. I’ve worked for individual politicians who have inspired me, and some who have infuriated me.
In my work doing consultancy and training about online politics I’ve seen hope and despair, I’ve seen trends come and go. I even once managed to ride the wave of hype a bit, and built a pretty major campaign about atheism on the back of it.
Which leads us to Radicals UK, this inadvertent political movement that my friend Jeremy Cliffe started yesterday with a tweet.
What is this thing that Jeremy seems to have created, and what could it become?
There is currently a chasm in the middle of British politics. The Tory Party under Theresa May, driven on by the pro-Brexit hard liners, is moving to the right and pursuing a policy of Hard Brexit (and even flirting with the idea of No Deal Brexit). The Labour Party, roared on by the masses of young people who appreciate Jeremy Corbyn, has tacked to the left. Both of the main parties back Brexit, even though Labour corralled some anti-Brexit sentiment in the 2017 election. Meanwhile the vote for the Liberal Democrats went down at the 2017 General Election (although they gained a few seats), and Vince Cable at the helm is not really very inspiring.
Into that space could come a movement or a party that advocates stopping Brexit (or at least a further referendum as soon as possible), an economic policy that is designed to reverse the damage that Brexit is causing (as outlined by the OECD), and policies that are socially liberal and environmentally sustainable.
Such an organisation, if done right, could draw on the latest thinking and technology about how to build political movements, learning the lessons of the Yes Campaign in Scotland and from En Marche! and build in net based participation from the very start.
Of course Jeremy is not the first person to think of this, or even try it. Renew Britain and James Chapman’s The Democrats are trying to command that space already. Organisations like Best for Britain, Open Britain and More United are campaigning on individual aspects of resistance to the current direction of British politics.
What then could Radicals UK become, and how?
First of all there is a tactical question: is Brexit opposition the main concern, or is offering an alternative to the current predicament desirable? Answering that question helps determine the sort of organisation to build. An organisation like Best for Britain for example prioritises the Brexit opposition, Renew Britain the longer term future. I maintain the view that Brexit will eventually come crashing down as a result of its inherent contradictions, but how much of a push is needed to make that happen?
Second, what type of organisation is to be built here? Is it to be an actual political party that would stand for office in its own right? Or some sort of movement, a kind of Momentum of the centre, that supports others? And if it is to be a political party, how is it going to overcome the massive headaches that come from the UK election system? (Having said that, the French system is not too dissimilar*, and look at En Marche! – and look at the diverse candidates they had too). Plus parties are often tedious, not diverse, not tech aware, and slow – this cannot repeat that error.
Third, how and with whom do you build such an organisation? There is great value that can be attached to the means of doing politics, as well as to an organisation’s ends. It is hard to not be somehow touched by the energy that Yes in Scotland and Catalonia’s independence movement inspired – that is what would need to happen here somehow. But as Zeynep Tufekci has shown, there is a danger that social media driven campaigns do not pay adequate attention to organisational structures. Who is going to actually run Radicals UK? Finance it? Register it? Organise it?
The initial response to Jeremy’s tweets has been pretty extraordinary (Twitter reactions from Thomas Ilves and Owen Jones helped). Three thousand followers on Twitter were passed within 12 hours, and emails keep on pouring in. But where does this need to go now? With this blog post I hope to at least lay out the main questions Radicals UK needs to answer, and fast.
(note: a further blog entry explaining my own involvement in this can be found here)
* – UPDATE: this line was critiqued by Richard Blyth in this tweet. My point is that the French Assemblée nationale is elected using essentially two rounds of first past the post, and breaking the monopoly of the big two parties in France has been a hard task. That the French directly elect their President, and that is proportional, is of course completely different.
Just read that Jeremy Cliffe has resigned just 12 hours after launching Radicals UK – conclude that this isn’t a serious proposition – this is sad as I feel a new pro EU centre left party is badly needed to provide an escape for incumbent anti-Brexit MPs
He has a job and an employer, and doesn’t want to take a risk on this. I can quite understand that.
The problem is this: those of us who could take the risk are not high profile enough to make it work, but those that could make it work won’t dare risk their careers…
Would you quit The Economist for this if you were in Jeremy’s shoes?
Am all for this new movement, Jon but the term “Radicals” might turn a few off, especially moderate Remainers.
What would you call it?
I doubt that any country in the world have PR elections for presidente (perhaps Switzerland, in a convoluted way).
The problem with the French analogy is that although it’s modified FPTP the election process for the Presidency allows a breakthrough candidate and the timing of the Assemblée Nationale election means they can coat-tail. Macron, in the old analogy, could take the lift, whereas in the UK the Radicals have to take the stairs. I think if the AN elections had been next June rather than this we would not see the crushing majority that EM! has.
At this stage a movement/pressure group looks much more feasible than an actual party. If it is a movement trying to influence existing parties you avoid the immediate tribalism and divisions potentially generating a broader buy-in. You can then see where this takes you and you could build bridges/merge with the plethora of other groups in the same space. Consolidate and work on a political platform first. Other organisational decisions could potentiallky be taken at a later stage but if you go all-in right at the beginning the chances to crash and burn are much higher in my view.
Isn’t the French presidential election a two-stage process, too?