by James Brown
On the evening of January 11th, which was actually the early morning of the 12th for the Australia-based interviewee, our Staff Writer James Brown spoke with the head of the Sydney Policy Lab, Marc Stears, about his new book Out of the Ordinary, in which he argues politics needs to reconnect with ordinary life.
You can read James’ review of the book for Strife Journal here.
This is Part Two of our interview with Marc Stears. Part One can be read at this link.
JB: Moving back to the contemporary scene, how does a political party go about connecting with your Ordinary? In the last ten years, there have been four general elections in Britain and the Ordinary has still been missing. But have fringe parties perhaps done a better job of tapping into it than the major ones?
MS: I think what the fringe parties have been able to do is move into the void. It is as Peter Mair says in Ruling the Void, probably the definitive book on this in politics, which says that mainstream parties have become much more elite-centric, much more professionalised, much more divorced from organisations like local trade unions or churches, or cooperatives et cetera. And as a result, there is a space – a gap – and you have ordinary people thinking about how they can get involved in politics, if they want to, but there is no answer for them anymore. So, what you have seen is fringe parties, populist parties, and single-issue parties move into that space to mobilise people, at least briefly, and get some level of excitement and engagement.
But that is not a long-term solution because most of those parties are in the manipulation business, not in the representation business. I think the only real way to do it is to is to stitch back together the big political organisations, the Labour Party or the Conservative Party in the UK, with these intermediary institutions which once were effectively a sort of communications device between people’s everyday lives and the public policy process.
That is what we tried to do during 2010-15 in Labour and what we talked about a lot during Ed’s period as leader of Labour Party. Ed always talks extremely movingly about his efforts with Arnie Graf, the American community organiser, to try to resuscitate local Labour parties and connect them to churches, mosques, synagogues, football clubs and community groups – to try to get the party to be a lived part of everyday life.
Once again, when Ed tells those stories, he says that the cultural reaction at the top of the party to Arnie’s arrival was just shocking. They did not want to do it because they felt they knew how to do it already through old fashioned door knocking and party-political broadcasts. But they do not know how to do the slow, often more mundane process of building a party up at the community level. Our experiment did not work, but I do think it was an experiment in the right direction. One thing I would add is that, if people are looking for successful examples of what we tried to do, they should look at what Joe Biden did at the Democratic Party’s national convention this year, which was basically organised on Arnie Graf-style principles.
Biden had a whole series ordinary people telling stories about why Donald Trump was not the answer to the problems of the country. He had janitors and people who work on the trains doing what we call ‘testimony’ in community organising – just telling their story. This was a very unusual way of organising a mass convention. But it was extremely effective at showing the way that Biden wants to run his presidency: not as a distant elite, but as somebody who is in touch and connected with the lived experience of ordinary Americans. That was really interesting.
JB: Let us say that one of the major British or American party leaders reads your book and they think its ideas are good, are there any problems in using what are now quite old ideas, as powerful as they are? How would one negotiate some of their problematic attitudes?
S: That is absolutely right. I do not think that you can just take something from the 1930s, forties, or fifties, and put it in contemporary politics. For one reason, attitudes to gender, sexual identity, and race and empire have dramatically changed in the close to one hundred years since these folks were writing.
That is a fundamentally important issue. Also, the world today is just more disruptive. Back then, they were dependent upon community life, which although struggling through things like the Depression, nonetheless had a rhythm to it which was much more predictable. People were born and brought up in communities that they spent their whole life in.
That clearly is not the case anymore. I have always been struck by the work of people like Hillary Cottam today. Hillary calls herself a social entrepreneur. She tries to create profound solutions but working with local communities.
So the kind of big social injustices that we face, and the spirit of Hillary’s work in rectifying them, I think are extremely familiar to anyone reading my book. It is the 1930s and forties made new for the 21st century, if you like. It has all of that democratic spirit, that everydayness, that localism, that willingness not to rush but go slowly, to listen to people, to build solutions that cannot be scaled. Sometimes they are bespoke solutions for certain places, but they can have a profound impact upon people’s lives.
So, there are modern examples of this going on at the moment and what I would always encourage politicians to do when I speak to them is to look to experiments like the ones Hillary runs and think about how they could support endeavours and initiatives like that.
JB: We have mainly talked about domestic politics. Is there any sense in which international politics and international relations could benefit from some kind of reconnect with the Ordinary?
MS: One of the most exciting things I have done in the last few months is working with a man called Glen Weyl, who is at Microsoft in the US and also an international commentator on politics. Glenn has got this overview of the whole pandemic crisis, which basically cleaves the world into two sections: there are countries that have fared terribly during COVID-19 and there are countries which have done pretty well. He argues that the primary distinction between the two is that the countries which have done badly have looked for big, moonshot solutions.
From the start, their leaders thought there had to be grand answer as to how to beat COVID. They were focused on the big ideas, like herd immunity. Whereas the countries that have actually done well have thought about small, localised solutions like contact tracing run by GP surgeries or public health programs which are based upon giving people the ability to stay at home in their communities.
Glen points to Taiwan and Australia as examples of the type of route they should have taken. What is really interesting about Glen’s work is that he takes this idea, which can seem mundane and parochial, and brings it up to the global level. He says that at a global level, there are two pathways open for us at the moment: this obsession with grandeur and the better ability to look to the micro. And he is trying to get people at big corporations, in diplomacy, and international governments to look at what they are doing at the local level and at the micro level. He asks them to look at how they are empowering people there. Because the big problems that we have are going to have to be solved at that particular sort of level.
JB: Thank you for bringing us onto the virus because that was my next question. We will take Britain as one of the countries that has done awfully. Britain also had a moonshot obsession with regard to the virus. Would you envisage that the failure of these grand projects is going to lead to a reassessment in the long term in Britain about what went wrong and lead to an identification that the cause of what went wrong was a detachment from the Ordinary? Do you think that will take place over the next decade?
MS: I very much hope so. The story is just astonishing. Twenty-two billion pounds spent on a test and trace system which did not work because it was run by people who had no experience in public health and were completely detached from the communities that they were designed to serve. I mean, it is just outrageous. And you compare that to where I am currently living in New South Wales, which has a contact tracing system which is the envy of the world. It is phenomenal. And it has had almost no new investment in it because it already existed as an integrated public health system, which had its origins back in the HIV situation in the 1980s. You had contact tracers already on the public books who knew their communities, who knew where different kinds of people worked, where different kinds of people lived, and were able to work in tandem on the ground from day one. It has been an astonishing success.
That contrast really should stand in sharp relief when Britain holds any Royal Commissions after the pandemic, and people ought to be really clear about that. Britain’s failure is twofold: bigness over smallness and private over public. You have to have public solutions on the ground if you are going to be able to tackle issues like the pandemic.
In the public policy world of academics and think tanks, I think people are very well aware of that. There also are certain journalists like John Harris at the Guardian who are also very well aware of it. But I do not think it has yet penetrated into political debates, and that is quite shocking. For example, however well or badly we think Labour are doing their job of opposition, they are not really making this point that you need localised, micro solutions which share power with people on the ground if you are going to be able to tackle these problems. I know it is hard to find a political language which makes that sexy but it is what was required, so we better get on and try and come up with a way of expressing it.
JB: That is the end of all my formal questions, Marc. I suppose the last ones I would ask are: what projects have you got coming up, do they touch on the virus in any ways, and is there any chance you might be sweeping back into British politics to bring the Ordinary back?
MS: I really miss British politics because for all my critique of it, the best people in my life were engaged in that 2010 to 2015 period. It did not result in electoral victory and that obviously will haunt me for the rest of my life, but we did surface some extremely important issues and we began a conversation which I think is really important to continue to have. Allies, like John Cruddas who I have mentioned, Ed himself, Rachel Reeves, I just have a huge amount of respect and time for them.
I think that they still are a vital force and I would love to do anything I can to help. In Australia there is a very different situation, essentially that we have a successful response so far to the pandemic and politics here is very localised. It is federal system and power rests with the States and not the federal government. It is kind of the opposite of grandiose, but incredibly parochial, and that showed its strength during the pandemic process. I think our challenge here in Australia is to get the scale of the challenge accepted. Where we have to look for answers is at the local level, but sometimes people’s eyes are not on things like that. For example, the intensity of the climate emergency that we face, or the depths of social injustice which affect all liberal democracies right now. So here in Australia, I spend my time paradoxically trying to get people to think bigger while not losing that strength that they have from being connected so powerfully to everyday life.
James Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Northumbria University. His focus is on Soviet dissidents and their use in the politics and international relations of the Cold War. He previously studied at Glasgow University, doing a Master’s in East European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. During this time he studied Russian and wrote his thesis, ‘Returning to Machiavelli: Giving Belarus-Russia relations the Original Realist Treatment’, which received the prize for best dissertation from the Centre for East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Glasgow.
James is a Staff Writer at Strife.