My article in Global Discourse is temporarily available for free.
Shortly after the UK general election of December 2019 I wrote a policy article for the spring 2020 edition of Global Discourse, setting out what my involvement in politics has taught me about the UK’s flawed democratic system. Now, until the end of November, the article is available free to read as part of Bristol University Press’ Populism and Democracy Collection.
Read my article for free before 30 November 2020 (click the ‘Download PDF’ button on the right-hand side of the article title).
In the article, I argue why in my view the UK system undermines rather than delivers democratic outcomes. The piece explores the many negative consequences of the system and focuses on that most blatant of all flaws, the first-past-the-post system used for general elections. But it isn’t all grimness: I end with some reflections on how politicians and citizens can work together to overcome the injustice that’s hard-wired into the voting system.
Many of my reflections are informed by the organising and campaigning work I have been doing as an active member and occasional candidate for the Green Party of England and Wales, and a staff member of the political platform Compass, that works across progressive parties and organisations to create the political preconditions for a Good Society.
Through both, I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the potential as well as the complexity of alliance-based politics, which I would describe as a temporary arrangement between two or more political actors to prioritise a joint ‘bigger picture’ objective over immediate narrow party-political objectives.
Looking at how the first-past-the-post system works and how it disadvantages smaller parties by design and progressive parties as a result of the national political landscape, it’s not difficult to see the potential of ‘progressive alliances’. Collectively, with their respective votes adding up instead of cancelling each other out, progressive parties have a much stronger chance of achieving a House of Commons majority.
Yet, the simplicity of the maths can easily obscure the complexity beneath, the often historical and cultural differences that affect relationships between political parties and their activists, even when their broad political aims are aligned. Mutual understanding, trust and generosity are key ingredients of a genuine alliance and these take time as well as perseverance to build.
This is where my article turns from despair to hope: by looking at the people and organisations who have shown how to overcome the political tribalism that the UK voting system prescribes, and by arguing that the successful alliance-based politics that they are putting in practice can lead the way to a revival of genuine democracy at a time the country needs it more than ever.
Let’s not be complacent, though. To achieve what is needed, to win, progressives in the UK have a serious challenge to overcome. In the article I put it this way:
“To be successful, the next chapter of progressive collaboration will have to start from an acknowledgement that we all have things to learn. Everyone will have to understand that past behaviours – our own and those of our potential allies – cannot shape how we treat each other in the present and in the future.”
Betrayed by the system: how the UK’s inadequate democratic system thwarts grown-up politics, and how we can begin to change this appears in Global Discourse, vol 10, no 2, 395-399. Global Discourse is a publication by Bristol University Press. Due to its inclusion in the ‘Populism and Democracy Collection’ the article can be read for free until 30 November 2020.
Linking directly to the article is disabled by the publisher. After following a link from this blog, you’ll need to click on the blue button that says Download PDF on the right-hand side of the title. Apologies for that.
GroenLinks: a big win against a bleak backdrop
The Dutch Greens should celebrate their win, but not the overall result
Left-leaning media in the UK and elsewhere have been teeming with jubilant headlines hailing the success of GroenLinks in the Dutch parliamentary elections on 15 March. Without doubt, their progress was remarkable and well-deserved. However, it would be wishful thinking to see in the Green gains, and in the smaller-than-projected increase of the right-wing populist vote, a definitive turn from bigotry to progressive politics in The Netherlands.
Jesse Klaver led GroenLinks to its best ever parliamentary election result.
The story of GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party, certainly is an optimism-inspiring one: under the leadership of 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, they went from four seats to 14 in the 150-seat national parliament, making them the largest party on the left, a position they share with the Socialists.
The renaissance of green politics in the Netherlands was further emboldened by gains for the Partij voor de Dieren, a party originally dedicated to animal rights but today campaigning on a broader environmental justice platform, and for other – centrist – parties embracing climate action. It also appears that GroenLinks’ pitch to younger voters was successful, which will have contributed to the unusually high turnout of 80 percent.
GroenLinks ran a near-flawless campaign, making the most of the charisma of its young leader in a style heavily inspired by the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. The campaign was bold in its mission, billing GroenLinks as a party for everyone, not just the traditional niche of well-off environmentally conscious city dwellers.
For the first time (as this is not a common campaign instrument in The Netherlands), large numbers of members and supporters went out to knock on doors, even where support was likely to be modest. Meanwhile, leader Jesse Klaver was omnipresent in the media, and held slick rallies, the final one in the country’s biggest concert hall. It was sold out.
During the final weeks of the campaign, some polls had GroenLinks on 20 seats, which would have made it the second-largest party. In the end, they had to settle for shared fifth place, but could still boast having the biggest net gain of all. The mood at GroenLinks’ election results gathering in Amsterdam was euphoric, while national media indulged in speculation about Green participation in a new coalition government.
Right rhetorics and left losses
Yet, as Jesse Klaver was making his ‘victory’ speech to Green campaigners, he must have known that GroenLinks’ result was a double-edged sword. Two miles away, the Social Democrats of the PvdA were reflecting on their biggest-ever defeat, losing three-quarters of their vote share, and 29 of their 38 seats. Yet again, the Dutch left finds itself weakened overall. Some polls suggest that of GroenLinks’ ten new seats, as many as six were gained at the PvdA’s expense.
The election result will pave the way for a centre-right coalition, which may or may not include GroenLinks. Two of the parties almost certain to govern, VVD and CDA, are portrayed in international media as part of the response to rising populism, while Dutch analysts rightly point out that these traditional right-wing parties have in effect espoused much of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the extreme right. They do not make natural coalition partners for the Dutch Greens, whose narrative was the very opposite.
What on the surface may seem a clear rejection of right-wing populism and a boost for green and progressive politics, hides the reality of a divided nation, where the agenda of the likes of Trump and Le Pen has made gradual progress for more than 15 years, leaving the left perpetually on the back foot.
Whether as junior coalition partners or as opposition leaders, GroenLinks must continue to present an appealing alternative to nationalist bigotry. They have never been in a better position to do so.
This piece was first published on Bright Green, 21 March 2017.
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Posted in Blog, Commentary, Democracy, Netherlands
Tagged campaign, coalition, elections, Green politics, GroenLinks, Jesse Klaver, nationalism, Netherlands, populism, progressive politics, PvdA