In a large European city last night, a small, but remarkable meeting took place. It was the initiative of one man, young, unsectarian, committed to the public good. It is an example of how, perhaps falteringly, politics is being renewed from the ground up. A group of people, from several parties and from none, unsure of how to proceed, coming together for a reason.
The city is Birmingham. The people, without the backing of billionaires of dubious conscience, met to ask what they could do to keep Britain a member of the European Union. A real grassroots initiative.
Those who attended had their own reasons to support our continuing membership of the EU. There was some internationalism and idealism, but also a weary recognition that whilst far from perfect, the EU was a place in which Britain could be far more significant than we could ever be alone in a globalised world in which to be small is to be vulnerable. In our various ways, Europe was fundamental to our individual and collective identities. The thought of being wrenched out of the EU was something we shuddered to consider.
Ideas were shared about how to take things forward, but that’s not what I’m interested in for the purposes of this post. What gives me the greatest cause for optimism was simply that the meeting took place at all. One person who was concerned set up a Facebook page. He used his contacts to get people he knew to support the idea of a local campaign in the city.
There was a time when such an initiative would have to have come from an organisation, with a structure, a membership, and funds. Indeed, if an effective campaign is to be organised, it will need some of those things very soon. But it didn’t start with a political party or a pressure group – it was a true, spontaneous citizens initiative.
People crave a different type of politics. The recent general election result was a shock to many of us not so much because the vagaries of the system gifted the Tories a victory, but because we did not ‘sense’ a mood that there was widespread support for David Cameron’s party. It felt like an election victory that was ‘bought’ with the cynical deployment of cash and the grooming techniques of the Tory-supporting media. It is almost as if ‘politics’ as practiced by most parties, especially the governing party, is something completely hollowed out, disconnected from the people with the votes.
So when a few people choose to turn up to a meeting, hesitant, unsure, wondering how to engage others in a campaign, it feels like a sign that just maybe we can change the course of our politics by a return to idealism.
Is that a vain hope? It needn’t be. The one thing we know about referendum campaigns is that they are rarely about the question on the ballot paper. It scarcely matters what, if anything, David Cameron presents as his triumphant renegotiation deal. The referendum, for him, is about managing his unruly party, and throwing some red meat to the crazies who own the press. But there is absolutely no guarantee that he will be able to confine it to that.
Whilst knowing that the primary issue is to enthuse people in sufficient numbers to turnout and vote to stay in the EU, the referendum campaign can also be a way of starting a conversation about what sort of society we want to be. Unsullied by party political labels, we can perhaps break through the sullen resentment people now display routinely towards politicians. We can use the campaign as part of a broader strategy of political renewal.
That’s why the meeting last night was important. All movements start somewhere. Perhaps Britain’s 21st Century politics started at the Priory Rooms last night?