Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Election Eve

Caught on camera: Noor Alhuda Hajali and Keir Starmer

For anyone who happens to have missed it, tomorrow is Election Day in the UK. It's the culmination of what has been a very predictable and frankly dull campaign, sparked by the Prime Minister's "surprise" announcement six weeks ago: an announcement that seems to have been motivated as much as anything by fatigue. Sunak and the Tories knew that the game was up, and didn't have the energy to carry on. On the radio this morning a Cabinet Minister acknowledged that Labour was about to win a landslide, and in the Telegraph a former Home Secretary fired a starting pistol for the Conservative leadership race that will inevitably follow their defeat. 

"Change" has been Starmer's buzz word throughout the campaign, but it isn't very easy to ascertain precisely what this much-heralded change will actually be. He says he has changed his party, and that much is certainly true. Labour is now a small-c conservative party. Its main priority, he tells us, is the creation of wealth. He has dropped the Green Investment Plan that had seemed to offer some ecological slant to policy. He has back-pedalled on the abolition of University tuition fees. He has also abandoned the entire (Corbynist) manifesto on which he stood to be Labour leader. He has purged the party of dissenting voices, following the example of Boris Johnson's withdrawal of the whip from all Remainer Conservative MPs before the 2019 election. He has supported Israel's genocidal attacks on the Palestinian Territories. He makes "tough" noises about immigration. When asked if he was a socialist, he replied that he was one because he "always puts the country first and party second." I had always thought socialism had something to do with the common ownership of the means of production. So in truth there is remarkably little policy difference between the two main parties in tomorrow's election. Both say they want to "grow the economy" with no acknowledgement of the environmental devastation and global injustice that involves. Both say they will not increase taxes, although at the same time they want to cut NHS waiting lists, recruit more police and more teachers etc.. Both want to "stop the boats". Labour's opposition has not been based on differences in policy but criticism of execution and management. Our "democratic choice" is reduced to whether we prefer corrupt people who line their mates' pockets and turn Downing Street into an illegal driving den, or a dull and conventional team of management consultants. What they are actually attempting to achieve, however, is identical. And it shows no vision whatsoever.

Of course, in some ways this is reassuring at a moment when politicians who undoubtedly have a vision of sorts, the populist parties of the radical right, are making such headway elsewhere. The European elections were shocking, and the consequences of Emmanuel Macron's petulant response are likely to be even worse. Ireland may also see a snap election, called opportunistically because Sinn Féin has lost popularity over (you've guessed it) immigration. Indian friends have been relieved that Modi and the BJP no longer have an overall majority, but the murderous and deluded messiah of Hindutva remains in power. Never mind what looks almost certain to happen in America in November. 2024 is the year when nearly half the world goes to the polls, but that does not make it a year in which we can celebrate democracy.  It makes it the moment when we have to question if we even have democracy at all.

Anyone visiting us from 5th century Athens would have no doubt on that score. We do not have democracy, we have elections; and elections, the Athenians believed, are the antithesis of democracy. They are oligarchic, or aristocratic. A wealthy "political class" parades itself before the public to be elected, but that public has no real power or participation. In Aeschylus's Suppliants, which offers the frame for our current project SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, the Chorus of refugees makes the first recorded reference to democracy. As the citizens decide whether to admit them, they ask "What is this thing they call democracy?" Within the play, and within Athenian society, it is a process of debate between the citizenry that leads to a jointly agreed policy decision. An humane decision, as it happens. This approach to democracy was genuinely participatory, as well as being intimately linked to theatre, the space where the different arguments could be rehearsed prior to decision-making processes.

It isn't possible simply to reproduce Athenian democracy today, but it is certainly possible to learn from it, and to modify our own tired and broken system accordingly. The Athenian citizenry numbered about 30 to 40,000 - a body that excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners, so they weren't actually "the people" in any egalitarian way. We can be more inclusive, and still work with similar, manageable numbers, which means that on a local level it is possible to reach sound and informed decisions on the basis of full participation. That in turn can allow for more nuanced forms of representation, whereby power is delegated to representatives at national and international assemblies. 

In the coming years, we want to explore this model of civic engagement in our theatrical spaces, recognising the urgent need for democratic regeneration. SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA represents the beginning of this investigation, and will involve a process of exchange between very different people present at the performance, in the context of listening to the voices of others. Given the context of the current elections, it is only right that our first experiment with this approach to theatre engages with the question of migration. Allowing the voices of the refugees themselves into the theatrical space at once overturns the inanities about "smashing the smugglers' business model". If the politicians really wanted to "stop the boats", then they could just allow the refugees to get on planes. We need to change the culture so that it stops being about short-term personal gain and becomes about what is actually just and equitable. This the antithesis of the soundbite, the refutation of easy sloganeering and reductive advertisement. Who knows - it may even help us start to develop a vision for the world we might want to leave to our children.


I had better include a disclaimer on this post, though the fact that I have to do this is in itself is evidence of the very problem we are trying to address. When the election was called, for the first time ever, the Charity Commission emailed registered charities (including Border Crossings) to remind them of their "responsibilities when campaigning or engaging in political activity."  They were clear that "Charities have the legal right to campaign so long as doing so furthers the charity’s purposes and is in the best interests of the charity. Charities must also remain independent and must not give their support to a political party." I believe this blog post fits these legal criteria. 

1 comment: said...

Always interesting to read your thoughts on the contemporary world.