The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ was used to describe the British front line solders of WWI – they were the brave lions who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders.
After years of austerity, raging inequality and now, a mismanaged pandemic, could the British electorate claim that they too are led by a political class of donkeys? Former MP Chris Williamson joins host Ross Ashcroft to pick this apart.
After retiring from parliament at the age of 76, the late Tony Benn famously quipped that he wanted to spend more time on politics. What Benn understood was that parliamentary democracy was a busted flush and that the needs of the public were better served outside the Westminster bubble.
Following in Benn’s footsteps, another principled conviction politician, Chris Williamson, similarly concluded that the mother of parliaments is not all it’s cracked up to be. The former MP posits that the crisis of representative democracy is indicative of the disconnect between the Westminster bubble and what happens on the streets of Britain’s cities.
“The problem is that our elected representatives end up becoming divorced from the people who they’re supposed be representing. They seem to be more interested in representing the corporate world and the military industrial complex”, says Williamson.
In attempting to reconcile this democratic deficit, the former MP has helped build a new grass roots movement from outside the parliamentary tent. What lies at the heart of the new movement is the nurturing of new ideas intended to steer economic policies away from the vested interests of the elites who, over the last 40 years, have benefited the most from these policies, towards the masses who have benefited the least.
The alternative economic strategy Williamson proposes to redress the imbalance is similar to the kind of ‘irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power’ approach outlined in Labour’s 1974 general election manifesto – a strategy subsequently rejected by then Chancellor, Denis Healey, despite widespread grass roots opposition.
Healey decided to go to the International Monetary Fund on the false premise that Britain was running out of money. Having made that decision, it was impossible for the party to implement, or continue with, the alternative economic strategy that it had been previously committed to. Healey’s decision to go to the IMF was the precursor to Margaret Thatcher’s era of neoliberalism.
“We had a one dimensional economic proposition where we basically adopted this kind of monetarist approach. The fiscal levers available to the government were ignored. The market is considered to be king and have all the answers. Well, clearly it hasn’t. The upshot is millions of people in poverty in this country. Traditional industries have been destroyed and communities have been abandoned”, says Williamson.
Although new economic ideas that challenge the neoliberal consensus are an important part of the reconciliation process, it is the raising of political consciousness through an understanding of history from the perspective of the oppressed that anchors these ideas down. The development of radical social movements forged on the basis of historical truths that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy are rarely seeded from within the establishment tent.
Williamson has noted, for example, that a Black Lives Matter rally he attended organised in Derby, his home city, was organised by local activists who were not rooted in the traditional labour movement.
In the view of the former MP, old New Labour under Keir Starmer is not the answer to reversing the damage done to the country since Healey. The current Labour leader is widely seen as a technocratic extension of what went before – what Williamson describes as a form of managerialism that has infected Westminster’s political culture.
It’s this flawed notion of representative democracy that Williamson says needs to be challenged and replaced with a concept of participatory democracy that empowers communities.
Referencing the Gilets Jaunes in France, Williamson believes that with a similar kind of mass movement in Britain it is possible to influence policy from outside parliament. “Extra parliamentary activity is absolutely key. But I think we also need people on the inside who empathize and will pursue and follow through on the demands made outside”, says the former MP.
The conviction politician hopes that the Festival of Resistance will provide the catalyst for the kind of social change envisaged – what Williamson describes as a living embodiment of Robert Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. This includes the promotion of things like community arts, grassroots media and worker cooperatives based on Spain’s Mondragon model.
Williamson has had previous experience in being able to make a positive difference on the ground at the local level during his former role as a counselor. It was as a result of his ‘innovative pragmatist’ approach at Derby council that the politician was able to persuade other public sector organisations to come on board and shape policy platforms to reflect what local people wanted at each individual neighbourhood in the city.
“It was participatory democracy in action”, says Williamson.
The former MP intends to continue with this philosophy of action into the future: “I think that when you have a platform, you have an obligation to use it, to expose corruption and to stand up for your principles, stand for what you believe is right”, adds Williamson.
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