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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'