Manifesto for Change: Empower the People

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Chair of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition Salma Yaqoob proposes her ideas for a progressive alternative to New Labour.

I believe that at this juncture we face some hard choices. In the aftermath of the largest demonstration in British history, when the concerns of the people were put aside by a contemptuous leadership, can any one of us afford to be complacent about the state of democracy in this country? Disillusionment is running deep, and even the trade unions that started the Labour Party are questioning their continued links and financial support to it.

From a personal view, I am clear in my mind that the anti-war movement has laid the foundations for shifting the mainstream agenda back to where most people want it to be. It has drawn together a huge number of people representing all sections of society. Many have been campaigning within their own groups for years around issues ranging from Palestine, the environment, Third World debt, social justice, ethnic minority issues, faith-based issues, each perhaps thinking they were the only ones - and for the first time all these people have been brought together. The common thread of fighting injustice is running through these very different groups. What might have been easily dismissed as 'fringe elements' on their own, together represent not just a significant proportion of the British people, but its majority.

Powerful

More and more people are drawing the conclusion that simply protesting against what we don't want in the hope that those in power will be persuaded is not enough. Instead it is time for a genuine alternative that aims to integrate just economic, social and environmental policies at local, national and global levels, and which stresses cooperation not confrontation, and people not profit as its priorities. Unless such an alternative is proposed, our politicians can afford to be complacent in the knowledge that there is no other real choice, and very little will change. However, if we choose to build on the powerful working alliances formed within the anti-war movement, a new political force can emerge in this country.

Most people want international law to be applied fairly and consistently, and understand that at the root of much of the conflict in the world lies unredressed injustice. They recognise that selective military intervention carried out with no regard to historical context cannot bring about peace, only a situation of endless war.

Most people agree that the politicians have lost touch and there is very little to distinguish between the main three parties. Most people want a caring society, in which high quality healthcare and education are accessible to all, one in which public money is used to pay for public services benefiting all the people of this country, not to subsidise private companies.

The need for such an alternative was also highlighted by the local election results. There was very poor voter turnout, and this has a lot to do with the fact that people have lost faith in politics as it stands. While many people may have become despondent and 'opted out' of engaging with the political process via the ballot box, there are many others who have become hardened in their opposition by the contemptuous attitudes of our leaders. This was reflected in the large number of protest votes.

Many people, while being clear about who they did not want to vote for, were not so confident in choosing candidates they did want to vote for. Some of the smaller parties such as the Green Party and the Socialist Alliance in places gained from the protest against the Labour Party. However, these were generally perceived to reflect narrow interests as compared to the broader remit of the mainstream parties, and hence large gains were not made.

Interestingly, in Preston, a non-Muslim Socialist Alliance Against the War candidate won a seat, with the support of the local imam of the mosque, showing how within a fairly short time respect and trust built up through mutual committed activity have translated into a positive ballot result. The Labour Party had stood a Muslim candidate (who had not taken any principled stance) in a cynical attempt to split the vote, but the community (largely Muslim in that area) chose to vote for the candidate based on his principled track record. There is no reason why similar successes cannot be repeated in the future elsewhere in the country.

A worrying element of the local elections has been the rise of the BNP. Their success has not come about in a vacuum. It has a lot to with the whipping up of racism, especially Islamophobia, by this government in its drive to gain support for the war. The hyping of the terrorist threat from Muslims (even though, thankfully, there has not been a single incident in this country as yet) and the way the issue of asylum seekers has been handled have led to an increasing dissemination and acceptability of racist views, fostering a 'siege mentality' expressed in hostility to non-white people in general, and Muslims in particular.

There is no incentive for the government, which has repeatedly shown its lack of moral principles, to make a stand against the pressure from the right. The anti-war movement, on the other hand, already represents huge numbers of people, most of whom share the notion of equality of all human beings. If the energies of these people continue to be harnessed and built on, they can act as a powerful buttress to this dangerous shift to the right.

The significance of the huge mobilisations of the anti-war movement should not be underestimated. They showed that, contrary to common perception, the people of this country are not apathetic to political issues, and indeed care very much about what is going on around them. Low voter turnout means that the present government is actually 'the least popular government since universal suffrage was introduced in 1928' (Robert Harris, Sunday Times). No government initiative has succeeded in engaging people from every section of society as did the anti-war movement. It brought together all the different racial groups, different religions, men and women, young and old, people newly engaged in protesting, veteran activists who together could not be ignored. The disenfranchised majority has engaged politically, and this is very frightening for most of our present politicians, who have complacently relied on people not caring enough to act.

Beliefs

While many people's confidence in given authority structures has been shaken recently, at the same time more and more people have begun to put more trust in their own beliefs and opinions. This has led to a greater degree of empowerment, where people are prepared to question the government. If the government can be so wrong on such a major issue as war, and was willing to deceive its own people in trying to get its own way, people are asking, why should we trust it about other important matters? That is why the public is not convinced about the need for foundation hospitals or education 'reforms'. That is why the public supported the firefighters - if £3 billion could be spent on a war without any hesitation, why were ministers saying there was no money for public service workers?

There is no short cut to building this alternative. Even though so many people are disillusioned, there is no inevitability that they will necessarily act. Our efforts have to go into doing the real work at the local community level. We have to earn trust, and cannot impose our views. We need to genuinely listen to the concerns of local people, whose priorities will necessarily differ across different constituencies. We need to be part of an empowering process.

The power of this approach is that any change is real and enduring, as it is people themselves who will have changed and will create the impetus for further change. All the things we want - solidarity, equality, justice and peace - can only come about through active, committed and genuine engagement with people who are not the same as ourselves in every way but who share with us a desire for a better world.

We have been betrayed by our politicians who answer to the unelected minority who wield disproportionate power in our world today. This minority includes multinational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the Brussels Commission and the Central Bank. In the name of 'modernisation' the hard-won rights and gains made by ordinary people over the last century - including workplace rights, welfare rights and civil liberties - are being rolled back so that our children face a more uncertain future.

One of the main tasks of the alternative is to stand up to these institutions, exposing them, and demonstrate how a different way of working is possible. And this is the crux of the issue. It is far more challenging to articulate what we do want, and to do so in a framework that brings together the greatest number of people, while remaining true to key principles. Often we cannot imagine ourselves being responsible for making such decisions, and so haven't really worked out an integrated and comprehensive alternative. But we need to expend some energy into this vital task. By mobilising 2 million people onto the streets we have proved that people are not happy with the present situation. Now the onus is on us to do something with those numbers. To make a real difference, we need to challenge the present system and policies even more directly, and have a belief in ourselves that we could do it better than them. A comprehensive and detailed workable manifesto is therefore now an urgent priority.

For too long we have not allowed ourselves to believe a real alternative is possible. Of all the things that have been robbed from people in the last few decades, the most important one is their imagination. We are so smothered in our thoughts that even as we begin to hope for a better world the thought is killed. We are told there is no alternative to 'modernisation' and privatisation of our public services, there is no alternative to endless wars, but of course there is. These are all man-made systems, and there is nothing 'natural' about them. I believe a real alternative is not just an aspiration of many people, but is attainable - if we want it.