Compass and Equality West Midlands last night held a meeting to discuss the up-coming election. I had been dimly aware of both organisations, Compass being a kind of re-born Fabian Society, and Equality West Midlands a campaign for greater income equality, but it’s fair to say I went along because I had a vague sense that these were ‘leftish’ groups, and I’m a leftish kind of person. I had no idea of what to expect.
That it was a small group of people did not surprise me. Meeting going has become a minority activity; much easier to ‘Like’ or ‘retweet’, or add your name to an online petition. I don’t remember Clarkson’s millions getting off their sofas to attend mass demos.
The event was mild-mannered, open and tolerant. A guy from TUSC, the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition, turned up with a stack of leaflets, but the days when a luvvie from the Workers’ Revolutionary Party turned up with a megaphone to shout abuse at cowards and traitors have long gone. Political meetings have gone the way of training days at work, with little post-it notes upon which to write our key questions, which we then stick in clusters to arrive at a painless consensus about the issues we want on the agenda. It’s a long way from Walter Citrine, when the art of chairing meetings was about steering everyone towards a pre-ordained conclusion, and thank heavens for that.
Everyone had their say, and there were nuanced views in the room. Although most people, as far as I could tell, were from the Labour Party, there seemed to be a slightly weary acceptance that politics was something done by a small group of the well-intentioned which connected little with most lives, even where any objective observer might see that politics has the potential to transform those lives. The air of pointless ritual hung in the air – the knocking on doors, addressing envelopes, delivering leaflets. There was little sense of politics as action, as, dare I say it, power. The politics of incremental gain is, realistically, what real politics is, but it would be nice to feel that all this is done for a greater purpose. We may not see the Promised Land, but we’d like to think that’s where we’re heading.
I’ve made the meeting sound bloodless, but that would be unfair. People who do turn up to meetings care deeply, and give up their own time to try to ensure that a democratic political culture has no barriers, and is not controlled by party machines, press barons, or self-interested big business. There was even a very clear division in the room between those who think that politics is about reforming capitalism to curb its destructiveness, and those who oppose the system itself, whatever form it takes. That’s no small philosophical difference.
As a political flaneur, I find myself beginning to reach some conclusions arising from the meetings I’ve attended, and the political engagements I have observed. But for now I will confine myself to saying that the strangers I have met who give their time to politics are good, decent people who are little different from their workmates and neighbours. Once upon a time, most people knew this, because grassroots politics was knitted into the fabric of daily life. One task is to reconnect the two.
But the other thing we need is effective leadership at every level. Some of that is organisational, the necessary basis of any political movement. But organisational leadership is insufficient. We also need the ability to inspire others. Most of our national leaders – across the board – lack that passion. Of course, the stump speech of old cuts no ice in a TV studio. But there is still a place for rhetoric, and there’s still a need for parties and movements to train the next generation in those arts.