Mark Seddon: How the Dixie Chicks could save democracy

Share
Related Topics

The party conference season is almost upon us. Or rather the party convention season, as the main political parties ape the debate-free, balloon-filled rallies of the American Republicans and Democrats. Now they use their week at the seaside to parade their leaders and make money from the journalists and commercial visitors, who inevitably outnumber delegates.

The party conference season is almost upon us. Or rather the party convention season, as the main political parties ape the debate-free, balloon-filled rallies of the American Republicans and Democrats. Now they use their week at the seaside to parade their leaders and make money from the journalists and commercial visitors, who inevitably outnumber delegates.

This year will be worse than ever, as Messrs Blair, Howard and Kennedy preen themselves for a general election that might be only a year away. Politics lite is the order of the day, with debate restricted, without hint of irony or shame, to the fringe. Nothing is left to chance. Clappers are attached to the diminishing band of the party faithful, to make sure that the leader gets an appropriate ovation. In New Labour's case, the speech-writing unit will be on hand to assist anxious delegates. Policy will long ago have been decided by ministers and largely rubber-stamped by a National Policy Forum that meets off-camera. Even the Liberal Democrat conference, a last vestige of occasional activist-based free thinking, has become corralled into a narrow consensus of what the spin-doctors and strategists believe plays with Middle Britain.

Even the commentators have realised they are being sold a pup - at inflated conference prices. Usually, at this time of year, the newspapers are full of heady predictions of a "worst week yet" for Tony Blair or Michael Howard. The rebellions against the Prime Minister tend to start out as late-summer brush fires. By the time Blair prepares to read from his autocue, they have been put out. A worst week becomes a triumph.

And what of the party members, the footsoldiers? In Labour's case, the rank-and-file has largely filed away. If the Tories have aged and withered, over half of Labour's membership has simply vanished. When Blair was elected leader of the party, 400,000 members stood ready and waiting. John Prescott waxed lyrical about a future "mass membership party". For June's elections to Labour's once-powerful National Executive Committee, 190,000 ballot papers were posted out - and some of those members had probably lapsed. When Dennis Skinner and I offered to write to the 200,000 disappeared urging them to come back, our offer was met with silence. This spoke volumes: they either came back on New Labour's terms or else not at all. Without activists and members, the parties hope to rely on supporters. Without members, they have to rely on high-value donors, and so our narrowing democracy shrivels still further.

In the US, where this process of atrophy is further advanced, activists have largely given up joining political parties they have no influence over. Instead, they are developing new sophisticated and energetic ways of influencing the political process. One of the largest and fastest-growing political movements, which now claims more than 2.6 million members, is MoveOn, a network of online activists that organises, campaigns and shapes events. It offers a template to jaded British activists. MoveOn helped propel Howard Dean to the fore, and raised - through individual, small donations - a massive war chest and force for the Kerry campaign. MoveOn members choose the issues to campaign on, from finance to opposing the war in Iraq. The organisation has mobilised thousands across the US, bringing together people, online and at meetings, who despaired of the narrow national consensus and increasingly empty partisan fighting of political parties that resembled two bald men fighting over a comb.

Through the MoveOn political action committee, 10,000 ordinary Americans raised more than $3.5m to back progressive candidates in the 2003 congressional elections. At long last the right-wing shock jocks and Christian fundamentalists have their match. MoveOn is putting the politics back into politics - and may just save the Democratic Party in the process.

A British MoveOn would have the added advantage of identifying progressive, representative candidates to back in elections. Sophisticated tactical voting could emerge, with candidates of all parties looking to an organised, radicalised electorate, instead of party bosses, before issuing their manifestos. Tactical voting on the left has so far been limited to supporting candidates best placed to oust the Tories - but a British MoveOn could identify progressive, radical candidates of all parties.

It has all come a long way since two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, despairing of the Clinton impeachment farce, hatched the idea back in 1998. "MoveOn," say its progenitors, "works to bring ordinary people back into politics. Our 'representatives' don't represent the public."

Now MoveOn is behind the "Vote for change tour", featuring Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks and Jackson Browne. Its newspaper ads have included the famous New York Times banner "The Communists had Pravda - the Republicans have Fox TV". MoveOn has raised the stakes by funding a new television ad calling on Donald Rumsfeld to resign, singling him out to blame for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. So, I asked David Fenton, the chief executive of Fenton Communications, who acts for MoveOn: "What happens if Kerry disappoints over Iraq or anything else?" Fenton's reply was instructive. "Well," he said, "we start the whole process all over again and keep up the pressure. It's about accountability."

Members of political parties in Britain can no longer hit the pressure points. Endless conferences of the "Why, oh why, don't the unions/Labour MPs/Gordon Brown do something?" variety have been held to no avail. Reams of newsprint have been devoted to rebellions that never take place, to leadership challenges that will be prevented from happening. It is time the liberal Left took a cool, hard look at MoveOn and at rebuilding the social movements that New Labour ignores at its peril. Our democracy is more important than the shrinking political parties that are giving up on it.

Alan Watkins is away

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?