Our Kingdom: Towards a new on-line politics


9:07 pm - March 7th 2010

by Anthony Barnett    


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This is a contribution to the Liberal Conspiracy Mission Series

Sunny wants to build Liberal Conspiracy with more political strategy, activism and news. But it is not just content that he is after. What Sunny is attempting is ambitious, important for British blogland and on-line publishing and for OurKingdom, as we prepare a relaunch. He’s written three posts. I commented briefly on the first.

Liberal Conspiracy is immensely creative and refreshing. As well as tackling issues and being smart and forthright, it goes about things in a different way from your average lefty or liberal blog. It looks outwards to what is happening not inwards to what ‘line’ it should be taking. With this new development Sunny is trying to get us all to think with a similarly fresh spirit about our methods and how we resource them in the coming era of citizen journalism.

Sunny says there is too much opinion around. Conservative Home and TPM are his models, aggregating voices as LibCon does but more important, setting the agenda through persistent reporting, exposés, campaigning for their perspective and throwing digital stones at the opposition. They create a field of force by the organisation of strategic stories, discovering facts, revealing hypocrisy and mendacity in their opponents, to build the foundations of wider opinion. Sunny calls this “infrastructure”. It’s larger than just a platform.

Sunny also thinks that we have to see ourselves as a movement of the majority that nonetheless has to form an “insurgency” against the establishment. Because, while we may have the numbers, they have the power. Think of the popular dislike of the database state and yet its relentless ongoing construction. So we have to force them to listen otherwise we won’t get what the progressive majority wants and the country needs. Call it democracy or fairness – the point is that it doesn’t belong to ‘Labour’ or ‘the Unions’, or ‘the Lib Dems’ or ‘Green’. It isn’t owned.

In short Sunny is seeking to lead the liberal left in a new direction. And he is sure right about this: for opinion to count it has to be organized, especially if it is against the current. It’s influence we want not flatulence.

At OurKingdom I hope we’ll absorb what Sunny is arguing and more important doing – and that we’ll be part of the new network. He says he’s going to add blogs about activism, the media, trade unions and Westminster, without restraining ourselves from these topics we’ll focus on the UK constitution (the nature of our government, the state, the nations, the law, the media, liberty, rights, freedom and power and the stories, histories and culture that form them).

In doing this there are three aspects that I’d add. First, because OK’s focus is the whole area of the nature of the state in the UK and the future of our democracy, liberty and human rights, this means we are open to, can learn from and engage with sections on the right, in a way Liberal Conspiracy does not, and have even bigger problems with the authoritarian left.

Second, Sunny is spot on about the need for an infrastructure that supports spirited and informed combat; web-journalism that generates new stories that others have to respond to. For OK the big story is the broken and dangerous state of the British constitution. We will try and report this in a way people can grasp, makes sense of their experience and accumulates into a critique that reshapes politics and prevents each scandal from being lost in the torrent. But also, as we try and fill our sails with influence, we have to work on the sails themselves. These are woven from argument, analysis and opinion. These too have to be strong and tested. We have got to have theory, analysis, ideas and debates that stand up to the storms – or the stories will just become part of an updated political routine absorbed by the status quo. This goes further than Sunny’s description of ‘analysis’.

Third, there is how we reach agreement. I was invited to a conference in India in January and it changed the way I think about democracy, what I think democracy is about and how it should be analysed. It was a very enjoyable experience, Reimagining Democracy which I wrote about in openDemocracy. In the comments Rosemary Bechler, who is part of the OK team, wrote:

” In the discussion one of the speakers said of Rajeev that he demonstrated a belief in the power of reason to achieve ‘moderation’. Rather than, as I was taught to believe, the whole point of reason being to win arguments.”

This is such a disarming little en passant sentence, but I don’t think it should be allowed to pass by unnoticed. What it points towards, as a movement towards pluralist thinking, is momentous. Moderation, if it is not compromise of the self-defeating, unsatisfactory kind, is surely a win-win situation but winning of a different kind – precisely winning because someone else isn’t losing!… What we need is not reason as restraint, or as a boring middle ground, but reason as creativity – a going beyond winners and losers, enemy images, false binary oppositions, dogmatic notions of the truth and the notion that one can possess it and not let anyone else have a look in…. Perhaps science and philosophy have more to learn from classical rhetoric and persuasion than they have sometimes assumed….??

This points to a tension in what we aim to do. On the one hand OurKingdom will relentlessly seek to demonstrate in newsworthy terms and prove by its analysis that the supporters of the status quo are plain wrong. Sunny’s argument is definitive here.

But at the same time, we want to build a different kind of political discourse to the adolescent crap that starts at Prime Minister’s Question Time and inhabits British blogland. This needs to include holding out a hand not just throwing stones.

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About the author
Anthony Barnett is a regular contributor, and editor of the blog Our Kingdom. Also a founder member of OpenDemocracy and Charter 88. He co-organised the Convention on Modern Liberty.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Liberal Conspiracy ,Our democracy ,The Left

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Reader comments


1. Shatterface

‘In short Sunny is seeking to lead the liberal left in a new direction.’

Good grief, who elected Sunny as our leader?

‘What we need is not reason as restraint, or as a boring middle ground, but reason as creativity – a going beyond winners and losers, enemy images, false binary oppositions, dogmatic notions of the truth and the notion that one can possess it and not let anyone else have a look in….’

Sounds like a recipe for epistemic relativism or some other postmodern codswallop

‘Perhaps science and philosophy have more to learn from classical rhetoric and persuasion than they have sometimes assumed….??’

Yep, that’s wallop fresh from the cod all right. I can’t imagine anything more harmful for science and philosophy than subordinating their arguments to rhetoric.

‘Sounds like a recipe for epistemic relativism or some other postmodern codswallop’

Not really. I find this notion perfectly coherent. In well-functioning markets, transactions are not zero-sum. Everyone gains from the voluntary exchange. The problem with the political arena is that there are almost inevitably winners and losers in any decision (that is why you need power to make them so). If we could create a political arena that was more like a marketplace, with voluntarism being the overiding, then you might see decisions that actually benefit everyone rather than the special interest groups suppoting the parties.

I can offer one example. It is clear that radical both on the left and right are really disatisfied with our current banking system, whereby the commanding heights of the economy are nominally regulated by the state, but in such a way that the average consumer is disadvantaged and the average banker is insulated from their mistakes.

Some of the ways of dealing with this problem are similar too. I have heard narrow banking get a good hearing on here, and the need to allow mutuals to re-develop. These are very much analogous to some ideas on the right. The idea, for example, that the law should be reformed so that you still own the money in your bank account (you don’t right now) is one that many market liberals are considering, and this is driving at the same aim as narrow banking, of preventing everyone’s cash from being lent out on any project deemed vaguely productive by distant forces.

If, on areas like this, we really did stop thinking in left and right terms, we could see some tremendously liberal and emancipatory policies emerge.

It sounds a bit too much like a Third Way. I am also nervous at the notion that science should bow to rhetoric of any sort. However there is a need for better science policy in any progressive government / movement as well as a coherent approach to science-based (evidence based too) policy making when appropriate.

Yurrzem: “It sounds a bit too much like a third way”. What Blair announced he had uncovered was “The Third Way”. Francis Wheen wondered it was between The Second Coming and The Fourth Dimension! I’ve argued that the critical word is neither “third” or “way” – it’s the word “The”. (Which you omit.) It was an attempt to say there is only ONE new way between raw capitalism and Stalinist state socialism. What way is that, you might ask? Answer: THE way of the leader, the way of Blair!, have you no faith? are you with us or against us? etc etc. In other words, “The Third Way” was a device to shut down pluralism and debate, the opposite of what I’m arguing.

Well yes, perhaps the whole idea is tainted by association. What was missing in the New Labour project was Labour ideology.

One of the biggest problems in selling the left-liberal idea has been the lack of a marketable alternative to stand up to the huge rightist, neo-liberal propaganda machine. The left can pick on specific issues such as work-life balance but there’s no overall idea that people in general can relate to their lives. Isn’t that the touchstone we seek?

Fine but what’s needed here is feedback on what Sunny is trying to do, the concept of infrastructure, on-line strategy – we talk about concepts and ideas the whole time. And Shatterface, anyone can try and lead an initiative without being elected. It’s called freedom. You don’t have to follow or join in 🙂

I am encouraged and very supportive of the ideas proposed by Sunny.

I think a set of forums where progressives can come together online is valuable enough. The aim of forming an online coalition that can set political agendas is a good one, its a good use of modern communications to try to create something we’ve been missing for decades.

I’d also like to think that a more open model as opposed to those influential think-tanks could be developed – far more democratic in my opinion.

The left can pick on specific issues such as work-life balance but there’s no overall idea that people in general can relate to their lives. Isn’t that the touchstone we seek?

Perhaps the left might consider that work-life balance is a matter best left to the person doing the work and the person living the life.

Could that be the magic potion?

“Everyone gains from the voluntary exchange”

Except for externalities 😉

“If we could create a political arena that was more like a marketplace,”

Well markets function best where there is (1) lots of competition on both supply and demand, and (2) lots of accurate information for all so decisions can be rational.

You can apply this to the logic of the political arena and make some basic conclusions about which political arenas are likely to produce better outcomes. i.e democracies are better than dictatorships because there are competiting parties for power and information isn’t suppressed through force. This is the lesson of the collapse of command economies in 1989 (though China may have something to say about this).

However we can go further than this and make some additional observations; (1) elections need to be frequent and need to have low barriers to entry for new groupings and ideas, and (2) information needs to be free and accurate, and available to all.

So logically it follows from this that: (1) The first past the post 2 party system in the UK is dysfunctional, (2) libel laws, official secrets, d-notices and other forms of control of information hinder the freedom of information necessary, and (3) the mainstream media and PR industry – with its consistent innacuracy and distortion of the facts – actively hinders democracy.

@8 Pagar

Ooh, I must have really pissed you off. Perhaps you are unaware that trades unions have been working hard for a better work / life balance. Its particularly relevant for women.

I’ll clarify so you can understand better: by lobbying government to introduce a legislative framework trades unions have empowered individuals to negotiate a beeter work / life balance with their employers.

10. Please notice the past tense in your last post. Can unions improve things further? By taking action against proposed cuts or in individual cases, certainly. But is there a need for further legislation to curb employer power? I do not think Pagar sought to underplay the historical importance of the labour movement, but rather suggested that it is to the individual rather than the collective to determine the correct work-life balance.

by lobbying government to introduce a legislative framework trades unions have empowered individuals to negotiate a better work / life balance with their employers.

Sorry, I do understand but you are not pissing me off any less.

I have no problem with unions negotiating the best terms and conditions they can for their members but I cannot agree this is an appropriate area for government legislation.

Anyway I thought the Working Time Directive was supposed to have sorted it all out. For there to be a balance, you have to do some work!

@11 12

You seem to have an awful lot of faith in the power of the individual compared with the employer. Many, especially low paid, are not as lucky as you seem to believe.

13. Then show us what needs to be done; don’t assert that unions are the answer without illustrating it.

I do have faith in individuals incidentally. That’s because I like people. But there are those who will exploit others – but exploitation is a crime, and my concern here is non-criminal relationships. To argue union power is correct on the basis that there exists criminals seems to me to be peverse.

15. rob tennant

Has Shatterface become the new Newmania?

@14 Watchman

I was not suggesting unions are The Answer. However I have been involved in unions since graduating and getting my first job. I prefer union work to wider political action probably because much of it involves helping individuals in need. It remains, though, that I am interested in politics and in revitalising the left.

As has been stated previously, the right have money and power. The only option for the left is to organise and co-ordinate our actions. Our power has been our numbers. Trade unions represent a significant part of the organised left, complete with infra-structure, that must be recognised by anyone hoping to advance leftwing politics nationally and internationally.

17. Planeshift

Yurrzem, I don’t disagree that unions have been historically very important and still are in a number of respects. But I also think they – in their current form -actually represent an obstacle for the left. I’ve commented before on a few reasons why, but to simplify matters here are my reasons:

1. Each individual union represents the workers in an industry/sector and too often acts in the interests of that group rather than looking at the big picture.
2. Too often Unions haven’t changed with the times; there is no such thing as job for life, and in fact many people would probably find the notion of being stuck in the same industry for 40 years to be oppressive. People want to change careers and have aspirations, and industries become obsolete and change with the times. Unions should be facillitating that process and helping members do this, not being an obstacle to this.
3. Decision making in unions is slow and bureaucratic. Its very difficult for people to change their union policies.It seems they are run by the same people stuck in the past.

It should probably be observed here that there is no a priori reason why unions will remain left wing – they should ultimately reflect the wishes of their members, not an ideology. If they do not do this, then their value is questionable.

Planeshift is probably right that the inherent conservatism of large unions (and their particular political agenda?) are a problem for a radical movement, not only of the left though. To equate the unions with the left is not the only option remember.

19. Shatterface

‘Has Shatterface become the new Newmania?’

I don’t know – does Newmania believe evidence-based policy making is more important than the flowery rhetoric of the new messiah?

@17, 18

You make some important points. There have been attempts by far-right groups to take over trade unions and Patrick Harrington, ex National Front leader, started his own nasty little union called Solidarity. As they stand they mean nowt and their efforts have some to nothing.

As an activist I have frequently despaired at the reactiveness and lack of political coherence from above. I want a strong, coherent left-based philosophy to drive my union but as with much of the left, managerialism reigns. That does not mean that unions should be dismissed, though they need revitalising.

I suppose I’m sentimental, but having given so much time to unions I wouldn’t want to write them off. There are many good people involved who, by definition, are prepared to put time and effort into activism out of principle.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. andrew

    Liberal Conspiracy » Our Kingdom: Towards a new on-line politics: Sunny wants to build Liberal Conspiracy with mor… http://bit.ly/bH44Ei

  2. Liberal Conspiracy » Our Kingdom: Towards a new on-line politics | Politics Blog

    […] Tom Diemer wrote a very interesting post today.   Here’s a quick excerpt:Sunny wants to build Liberal Conspiracy with more political strategy, activism and news. But it is not just content that he is after. What Sunny is attempting is ambitious, important for British blogland and on-line publishing and for … […]

  3. Helen L

    Some good stuff on @libcon lately about online politics & the internet's role in the next election: http://tr.im/R3XS / http://tr.im/R3YU

  4. Anthony Barnett

    RT @libcon: Our Kingdom: Towards a new on-line politics turns into argu over trade unions http://bit.ly/cI5oGn





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