How can we re-engage the millions on the anti-war marches? By re-examining our commitment to democracy, says Douglas Alexander

The ties that bind us

Party politics feels like it is struggling, just at the moment popular interest in politics is kicking back into life. From the countryside alliance to the Iraq marchers, people have revealed themselves as intensely exercised about political issues. Yet, as the turnout at the May elections showed, this is not the story at the ballot box. It is a plague of disengagement – not apathy – that is sweeping through the body politic. The problem is not the people but the perception of politicians and the sterility of much party political debate.

There is a real danger that in the rush by many to celebrate this non-aligned activism party politics gets diminished, or simply dismissed. It is only party politics that allow lasting and coherent coalitions to be formed and progress to be made. Otherwise politics is only rooted in temporary whims of populism. And to be more practical, eventually it is leaders of parties who decide if we go to war, how much we tax and on what we spend that revenue.

The Tories are incapable of saving themselves – let alone the political system. For the left the challenge is about both style and substance. Old structures and processes no longer work in a world increasingly stripped of deference. The left must welcome this more liberated and self-confident electorate and fashion its
response accordingly.

The answer lies in the elevation of democracy from means to ends. In the past, the tradition of Labourism has tended to view democracy as merely a hurdle to be jumped to gain control of the state – and from there make socialism ‘happen’. However, democracy must be valued for its intrinsic worth. First, because it is the ballot box that asserts the equal worth of every voter. The Labour movement was forged by the recognition that equality in society can only be driven by a process in which every person has their say, be they a millionaire, a maths teacher or a miner.

Second, because democracy is the surest means by which collective self-expression is made possible. It enshrines and enables our rights as citizens and permits us to shape
our world as we see fit. At the heart of our involvement in political institutions must therefore be our belief that they are the building block, and not the stumbling block, to equality.

Yet an egalitarian citizenship must be about more than the ability to vote. It must entail the creation and protection of spaces in the public sphere where progressive values of equality, liberty and fraternity can resonate and take root. Egalitarian citizenship means that politics is about the concerns of all members of society, not just those of the highest bidder. As a result, it demands institutions that uphold equality in a way that would be impossible for a culture based on markets alone.

Social institutions such as the NHS and state education are tangible expressions of a value system that explicitly links the fate of citizens with the fate of society. Ultimately the values such institutions embody provide a necessary bulwark against the vagaries of the market. For while the market can offer an effective mechanism of production and distribution, it cannot generate outputs, such as reciprocity, mutuality or respect, on which our vision of the good society depends.

Of course, these mutual obligations do not end in the democratic processes or even the delivery of public services. The challenge to Labour is to recognise that lasting change happens through a pluralistic approach to politics rather than through top-down control of the state. Seeking to create a more equal society involves acknowledging the influence of those structures and organisations apparently outside politics which give meaning to people’s lives. The family, the workplace, the neighbourhood and the dense network of civic and voluntary institutions that make up our society are not indifferent to equality, but integral. They are the threads of the social fabric that determine life chances.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was right in his Reith Lecture to highlight the importance of these social bonds, but wrong to see them as apolitical. It is through the family, trade union, congregation or voluntary group that we learn the rights and responsibilities of an egalitarian citizenship, which sustains social justice. To support these structures, the left needs a compelling narrative that can link individuals, communities and the state as the basis of the good society. This can only be produced through democratic and open debate; politics is the primary way in which such a discourse can be created where the outcome benefits the most vulnerable sections of society. Thus democracy as means and ends enables us to work together to shape a better society.

The urgent challenge for the left is to show how participation in the democratic process not only legitimises political action but transforms it. Participation in the political process is a guarantor of equality and opportunity – therefore re-engaging the electorate should be a concern for all the Labour movement. Tackling these issues will not only be about how to make the mechanisms of democracy such as local, regional or national government be more interactive. It is also about how we build inclusive social structures that uphold shared citizenship and political participation.

New Labour has rewritten the political pundits’ rulebook, defying psephologists’ predictions that we could never win again. But winning every election en route to a graveyard of party politics would be unacceptable to the left. Progressive governance must engage and enthuse those who march in protest and who care about their society – the concept of egalitarian citizenship allows us to do just that.

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

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