Across the west politics is transforming. Swathes of ordinary people have lost respect for serious politicians over the years. Today, the idea that a rabble-rouser like Russell Brand might stand as mayor of London, or that UKIP might hold office, seems plausible.
The forces gathering behind this change can be traced back to the late 1970s when Margaret Thatcher launched the most severe assault on the British welfare state to date.
Thatcher spectacularly unshackled capitalism from its constraints, crushed the trade unions; stripping the left of its political power – she unleashed the forces of globalisation. Many of Britain’s industries and public-owned services have since become the property of wealthy investors and multinational corporations.
However, after thirty years, a salient issue for the nation is just becoming visible and is inflaming the rise of protest politics: the housing crisis.
The problem of unaffordable rents has largely been neglected by politicians and is intensifying by the day. Today’s generation of 18-35 year olds are being hit the hardest by soaring rents and a lack of social housing; many of whom are non-voters.
Remarkably, the government is finding itself nose-to-nose with iconoclasts and firebrands leading the public in an offensive to prise back power from financial elites and lackey politicians.
Owen Jones is calling on the working classes to rise up and fight the establishment, while Russell Brand has emphatically declared he’s ‘ready to die for the revolution’.
Civil disobedience and protest are sold by the left as the only way to reclaim this power. But is old fashioned class conflict the right way to go about it? It’s tempting to play down the surge in populism as annoying media hyperbole coming from savvy individuals who know how to sell books and influence people.
The eviction of the working class single mothers from a housing estate in east London in October has become the emblem of the housing crisis. The ‘Focus E15′ mums illegally occupied four empty council houses in Newham after being told they faced rehousing from their shared foyer to anywhere between Manchester and Birmingham.
Speaking to the press, Jasmine, a Focus E15 mother, explained: “I wasn’t interested in anything like this before, but we faced a choice – either give up or ‘fight’. Now we have met hundreds and hundreds of people really hurting, dealing with the same housing crisis we are.”
Their public appearances and canny use of social media to publicise their message reached thousands across Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and gained them the attention of the media and public figures. But for the Focus E15 mums, this was all the democracy they were afforded and they lost their campaign. Their houses were reclaimed, they were evicted, and life goes on.
This resurgence of people’s politics and the failure of the left to enact change reveals the extent to which democracy has been hollowed out.
Protest is anticlimactic and more often than not it proves a futile gesture when permanent change is needed. The erosion of the Occupy movement, the impotence of the People’s Assembly, and most recently the defeat of Focus E15: how many more aborted campaigns and broken livelihoods is it going to take until our generation realises it will take much more than protests, hashtag activism and Russell Brand to make the system work?
How many more aborted campaigns and broken livelihoods is it going to take until our generation realises it will take much more than protests, hashtag activism and Russell Brand to make the system work?
The Focus E15 story has ended on a cliffhanger: why is it that democracy works like a dream for a few but is a Pandora’s box for the rest? The widening gap of inequality highlights this dilemma. On the one hand the political left blames the failure of democracy on a corrupt system of hierarchy, firmly entrenched in elitism and privilege. On the other hand, the political right blame benefits scroungers for consuming far too much public money.
Whichever of these views resonates with the majority of the public on voting day, if we continue to neglect important channels of democracy then any efforts to close the gap of inequality will quickly lead to impasse.
Britain is a giant on the global economic field and has a great political tradition but, as voters, we fail to realise the full potential of the democratic system. This is partly due to the nature of representative democracy. We elect politicians to manage the administration so we can get on with work and play, and also because understanding how the system works is massively boring and jargon-laden.
This dilemma is at the root of the political apathy typical of the Western consumer public. One could argue that a rise in public activism is a sign of a healthy political culture, but protest is just a symptom of a wider problem.
Administration politics is the neglected partner of protest politics; a form which is becoming increasingly important if ordinary people are to take control of the political functioning of society.
If protest groups such as Focus E15 are to make a lasting impact and change policy, they must learn how to tame this beast of a system. This takes some knowledge and effort – it wasn’t designed to be easy.
The enemy is a machine
There’s a thing called the machinery of government: it uses records such as birth certificates, NHS numbers and public exams to identify the basic needs of individuals. These records are linked to outcomes such as data about childbirths, deaths and marriages, which are used to identify problems for individuals. This infrastructure is now a network of database systems and was developed at the end of World War Two, establishing the welfare state. It has since become a monster and is out of control.
The Focus E15 mothers being ‘unfairly’ told they’ll be rehoused anywhere from Manchester to Birmingham is an example of how the system has stopped working for the interests of the communities it should serve.
The government use an important database called the Indices of Multiple Deprivation which informs authorities on which regional areas are densely impoverished and need breaking down. Its data shows that out of England’s top ten most deprived areas, Manchester is currently the least over-populated with the highest capacity to house benefits claimants. According to the logic of the system, by rehousing the Focus E15 mothers to Manchester, social justice is being achieved.
Not many people recognise the ‘system’ is a machine that identifies and organises ‘needs’ and ‘problems’ into compartments; it doesn’t understand ‘hurt’, ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’. It uses different logic compared to the people it organises.
It’s becoming ever more unresponsive to issues of gender, ethnicity and class. Yet the left are slow to re-evaluate their arguments and connect the public to the effective channels of democracy. Like a computer programmer, this means accessing the system through its ‘back door’.
If communities are to take control of their futures they must form into legitimate organisations which gain them direct access to the policy makers in Westminster.
If communities are to take control of their futures they must form into legitimate organisations which gain them direct access to the policymakers in Westminster. Politicians are no more evil and self-interested than those in the communities they purport to represent. Neither is the system broken: it’s just a stupid, boring machine that constantly needs upgrading. If you want to get a machine to work better, smashing it isn’t going to make it happen.
Like a computer, it understands input and output, and communities read like datasets. If communities want to change the system then there are sets of procedures, not inchoate ideas, they should follow if they are to take back enough control and escape subjugation.
The housing crisis is affecting hundreds of thousands of people and it’s important we understand how democracy can be made to work for us, because it’s the only solution. Unregistered protest groups aren’t recognised by the system and its members remain as private individuals; non-voting fodder, subject to the shoddy decisions of politicians.
It’s easy to create a document of association bearing the name and initiative of a committee, and a legal identity – by the opening of a bank account. This is free, and is the foundation of any organisation that accesses public funds. Housing Associations, land cooperatives, charities and non-governmental organisations are examples of such public initiatives that comprise a legal force which leave politicians with no choice but to engage with their issues.
The idea is to form movements that are eligible to access public funds, and become independent stakeholders in the welfare state. This means forming cooperatives, setting up and registering community interest companies and social enterprise groups; connecting with tech-savvy individuals who know how to use data and want to produce real solutions to real problems.
If the left is going to plug this democratic deficit it’s going to take nothing less than a commitment to understanding the administrative process of democratic institutions. If the system isn’t being used to its full potential, greedy politicians will continue to palm off public services to their own private investment companies, and cities will become exclusive clubs for big money players.
Photo by Liam Barrington-Bus via Flickr