THE BLOG

It's Time For An Intervention On Progressive Politics

14/01/2017 19:20
Yui Mok/PA Wire

This blog is an unedited version of the speech delivered by Stella Creasy at the Fabian Society New Year Conference in London on Saturday 14 January

I've been coming to Fabian Conferences, indeed working at them, for almost twenty two years now.

Back then we were facing a very different time. We had an indecisive Tory Government strangling the NHS and split over Europe. Everybody was obsessed with what was going on in the White House and and costume dramas dominated TV.

So maybe some things sound familiar, but certainly one of the things that we didn't have back then was Wikipedia. Something I tried to explain to my staff the other day when they couldn't believe I'd actually managed to get a degree without it existing.

Wikipedia defines death as "the cessation of all biological functions that sustain an organism". So I guess the question for us today that the Fabians have set is what are the things that would sustain progressive politics.

Now I would argue it's not issues, but it's ideas, individuals and institutions. And if we are honest all three are in trouble.

That our debates about politics are stuck in a death rattle that is defined by a leader who left office eleven years ago tells us something has to change.

That individuals are tearing each other apart inside and out - Jonathan [Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, also on panel] I'm sure you're a lovely guy. I'm sure we could do a pub quiz together - as long as I hold the pen - but if we are honest, talk of a progressive alliance is about a marriage of convenience because of our electoral system rather than a meeting of minds.

And we know our institutions cannot cope with the modern world. Yes, our healthcare and education services are in crisis because of a lack of money, but we know they wouldn't be able to adapt as they are now to the challenges we are facing in any case.

Politics is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the public - and they are scared. Half of all young people in this country say that the political events of the last year have made them fear for their future. The World Values Survey shows us that around the world people are increasingly disaffected with their governments - and therefore willing to vote for authoritarians as a result.

Because if you don't feel in control of what's happening to your family, to your future, well why wouldn't you vote for Trump. What's going to get any worse?

So I say this to you all, as somebody who is passionate and loves my Labour family, but it's time for an intervention.

I've never done this but people tell me that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out immediately. If you put a frog in warm water, and slowly turn up the temperature it will let you boil it to death. Progressive politics is at risk of being that frog, sitting in water as the world slowly turns up the heat.

As a political movement founded on idea that collective action on collective ideals can change things we're terrible at being collective. We have been elitist - a group who think we are superior.

If we are honest, we haven't made an argument in years. We just presumed that we would win the battle of ideas eventually. That we can see the con, see the conspiracy, critically read the Daily Mail when others can't, and that eventually others would realise we were right.

Martin Luther King was mistaken when he said: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

If I've learned anything in my lifetime's experience of being involved in the Labour movement, it's that winning elections, putting child poverty on the national agenda and cutting it, putting tax rises for public services into a national election campaign and winning it, counts for little if you've lost the argument in the country as well as office. How easily these gains can be destroyed.

Progress doesn't endure unless we are rooted in our values and our communities, fighting not just at elections but every single day for the ideas and actions that are the hard yards of progressive change, not sat on the sidelines believing that only perfect will do and that everyone else will eventually see the error of their ways. That those at sharp end of globalisation will doff their cap to our wisdom.

This fatal flaw in our collective identity has also made us presume we know what other people want and need - and that it's all about money. That has meant we've focused on economic difference, without recognising the cultural division that cripples any shared progress too. And that is not about Brexit, but a nation that is becoming ships that pass in the night.

Who here watches Mrs Brown's Boys? It's the number one-viewed television programme in this country. It beat the Queen's Speech at Christmas. It won the best comedy of the 21st Century. And, yes, the intelligentsia were horrified. We don't get the joke. If you want to understand why Donald Trump won, look at who watches Duck Dynasty in America.

It's not just our cultural analysis that has become lazy, it's our economic one too.

We spend our time fighting income inequality, when the real issue is wealth and asset inequality. Being able to pass on money to your kids, help them set up businesses, get on the housing ladder. More so than in previous generations. And that isn't just about individuals - that's about our regions too.

Truly, we are living through a post-truth politics that enables such division. It's not just fake news we have to worry about, but an almost nihilistic attachment to not being the mainstream. You don't have to be sat in a political conference on a Saturday morning to know that echo chambers are not just the preserve of the right, or new.

Or to know that its even easier to slip into them - six out of every ten millennials get their news from Facebook. We're not in the spaces online or offline to even fight for the values that made us turn up in the first place, in a world that is changing at a rapid pace.

So if we want to live, we need to build something new to meet the world which we now face - and we need to be ourselves, not a pale imitation of the right or the populists.

Because this is not about watching television programmes you don't like. It's not about being silent and accepting about views you don't agree with in the name of unity. I'm not asking you to agree with Nigel Farage, I'm asking you to argue with him.

And to do that we have to be a living, breathing movement. Because trying to revive corpses makes us all zombies. We need to take a lesson from the oldest democrat of all. Socrates said" "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

So to start living again we need to shed the battles of the old skin. To go back to our ideals, individuals, institutions. Because nobody has the preserve on bright ideas, but what we need to have is the right ideas. Ideology isn't just about standing against something. It's about how those ideas define what we do, our purpose, our passion, our mission.

An intervention is about specific examples, so let me give you some:

- By 2030, nearly half of today's jobs will either be automated or outsourced. Why are you obsessing about higher education and immigration when it's travel agents and robots we need to think about?

- By 2030, half of the world won't be using banks. Why are you obsessing about bankers when the real bankers you should care about are the bank of mum and dad. The people able to give our young people those opportunities.

- Half of all the people who have ever turned 80 are still alive. So why are we obsessing about hospital beds and not preventative care? When a woman has died this week in America from a superbug resistant to all antibiotics, why are you not investing in research?

And to do that we need to be more than just chains of individuals, offering an old machine-type politics. Changing a world this complex and imbalanced cannot be a spectator sport. Devolution, federalism and electoral reform must be rooted in participation and engagement - not just about voting systems, but culture of responsibility for what is achieved.

You think that's impossible? Who here took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge? Well, you helped fund a medical breakthrough in ALS because everybody did their bit. They were organised. It shows it is possible, it's just not happening through progressive politics.

And that's my final point. Because to do this we need a grown-up form of socialism. We need to recognise that it's not institutions but networks that are the future of our movement. There are negative consequences of changes to freedom of movement, to our membership of the single market - and to not acting at all. But no democratic legitimacy can excuse a lack of honesty on that.

The future of Europe, the future of our politics, is about the relationships we build with each other from the grassroots to the international level, and that cannot be done in smoke-filled rooms in Brussels or even on the backbenches of Hogwarts gone wrong.

None of this is easy. This is why this is an intervention. Don't be the frog slowly boiling to death in your own stew of bones. Sitting in your echo chamber, rehearsing the same old ideas, arguing with the same old individuals, defending the same tired institutions.

We have faced challenges before as progressives. We have faced change before. And we have chosen before to live. And live again we can. That is our call and our cause.

Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow

Comments

CONVERSATIONS