Mark Seddon: How the Dixie Chicks could save democracy

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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

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