The Real World fights back

Today, an extraordinary coalition will challenge the Earth's enemies: pollution, poverty and paralysis. Paul Vallely reports on a movement that aims to rewrite party politics
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The Independent Online
It is not, says Jonathon Porritt, a new political party. Definitely not.

You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Today, in that establishment hinterland between Whitehall and St James's, Mr Porritt and fellow travellers will launch Real World, a political grouping with suggestions to make on everything from tax rises, crime and unemployment to traffic pollution, stress at work and poverty in the Third World.

But if - unlike Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party - they will not be putting up candidates at the next general election, Porritt & Co make no secret of their intention to change the nature of the political debate in Britain in the run-up to the election so that a different set of issues comes to the fore.

It may not be an idle intention. Real World is a coalition of 32 campaigning charities and pressure groups which between them already claim more than 2.1 million supporters.

"People instinctively know that British politics is not at present facing up to the challenge of the real world," says Mr Porritt. "Politicians ask why the feelgood factor hasn't returned," adds another of the coalition's leading lights, the economist Michael Jacobs, research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change. "It is because people are not feeling good about the society in which they live.

"Politicians make the mistake of talking about the standard of living entirely in terms of how much money people have in their pockets after tax. But quality of life is different from standard of living. Having more disposable income does not buy you out of the problems caused by crime, air pollution, traffic congestion, stress at work and job insecurity. In the real world - in which ordinary people live - the quality of life seems to be falling in many areas, and not just for the poor but for ordinary, average-income people. We need a new kind of political debate to address that."

Those who have joined Real World are not just environmentalists. Members include Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Transport 2000, the Employment Policy Institute, Save the Children Fund, the Town and Country Planning Association, Population Concern, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Christian Aid, Charter 88, and Church Action on Poverty.

The project has been four years gestating. It began after the last election when Mr Porritt and others had "a sense of near despair" that issues of the environment and international development disappeared utterly from the political agenda once a general election was called. Determined that this should not happen next time, he and close colleagues gathered together campaigners from various backgrounds who had never before worked together. The environmentalists were gradually joined by aid agencies, then advocates of constitutional reform and then groups involved with poverty in the UK.

They compared poverty in the Third World with that in the UK, examined how constitutional issues related to social justice, asked what community meant in a modern world, contrasted the ecological and social justice agendas and formulated the "standard of living versus quality of life" debate.

"We concluded," says Mr Porritt, "that if you don't set up the circumstances in which people can achieve a decent quality of life, you can forget the natural world at home and abroad. Social justice and sustainability are inextricably wedded. Moreover, we became convinced that without democratic renewal and constitutional reform there is no way to move the agenda through our atrophied political systems."

It is ironic that a period which has seen a rapid decline in membership of political parties, in favour of single-issue pressure groups, should end with the single-issue people becoming convinced of the inter-relatedness of their agendas. In part, that is a response to the globalisation of the world economy: financial deregulation and increased cross-border activity by multinational companies has meant that the problems of one sector impact more visibly on others; much single-issue lobbying of single companies looks fragmented and desultory. But it also stems from a conviction that - on both sides - the mainstream political debate is too limited.

"Take unemployment," argues Mr Jacobs. "Labour says it's about education and training and the Tories say it's about more flexible labour markets. Neither of those convinces anybody. We're saying we're not going to get significant reductions in unemployment unless we redistribute different types of work - between men and women and over different periods of people's lives - and we have to invest in the public and voluntary sectors. No one else is saying that."

Just how will be set out at the Real World launch today as part of a 12-point action programme for government. Other proposals include job subsidies for the long-term unemployed, more social housing, more and better-targeted aid to the Third World and a fiscally neutral reform package shifting tax from jobs (they want to abolish National Insurance) to pollution, waste, energy and transport. More controversially, they talk about increases in income tax.

All of which sounds pretty much like a party political programme. Mr Porritt insists not. "We're not putting up candidates; we're not aiming to endorse candidates," he says. "And we'll use our analytical and campaigning skills to work with all parties. This agenda has to be driven in an all- party fashion. If it's the preserve of any one party, you automatically set every other party against you. What we're trying to do - at its most ambitious - is to change the framework within which parties do battle with each other."

Not everyone is convinced. Greenpeace has declined to join; publicly because its policy is not to enter coalitions, but privately because it doubts that the Real World agenda is green enough. Shelter has enough on its plate fighting the new Housing Bill. And Cafod, the Catholic development agency, has joined the coalition but declined to sign the action programme because it feels that calls for constitutional reform are outside its mandate.

Jonathon Porritt is philosophical. "We'll miss them," he says, "but with any coalition there have to be boundaries if it is to get anywhere." In any case he has done a remarkable job to get the degree of consensus he has achieved in that disputatious world. The key question now is how much effort the 32 members will put in at a cost to their individual goals.

Mr Porritt is undaunted. After today's events, his team plans to step up pressure on the parties' manifesto-writing teams. Real World will be active at this autumn's party conferences. In addition, it will hold its own party conference-style rally and a number of pre-election stunts. The politicians have been warned.