Democracy is changing—and is the ground shifting beneath charities too? The recent success of Jeremy Corbyn could be a sign that people want something different from political parties, and from others in the establishment.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn

For some, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader suggests the party has a death wish.

To want to be led by a man who does not play by the rules, won’t wear smart clothes (even in front of the Queen), whose timeline is littered with strange sentiments towards Israel, Venezuela, NATO and so on, is utter madness. Some of his policies seem like a throwback to ancient times (or at least the 1980s).

But maybe that is wrong. Maybe doing more on ‘issues’, and less based on ‘party’, is just what the public want right now. Was all that criticism of ‘clicktivism’ right? The social media age could herald a return to ‘in your face’ public meetings and not to armchair politics after all.

Clearly something is going on.

We have seen the same sort of eruptions in political activity across Europe—from Syriza to Podemos and to the more right wing versions of populism in Hungary and France.

Shifting politics

This poses a challenge to the way we do our politics, both nationally and locally.

Politics, especially with our first past the post system, has often been seen as a choice between two broad churches, one leaning to the right, one to the left. In essence you choose your poison and then let them get on with it. So parties compromise to create enough unity, and then pitch towards the centre to pick up some of the floating voters in the middle.

Not surprisingly, this doesn’t leave much room for individual activists, for movements to erupt and get angry, for dreamers and idealists. In reality, whatever one’s politics, democracy surely needs a bit of both of these types.

Implications for charities

Our political parties—locally and nationally—may have tipped too far in one direction, and adopted electoral compromises over thinking big.

One consequence has been the growth in movements outside of conventional politics. This is the origin of much in the environmental movement and anti-war coalitions, as well as online approaches like change.org and the rise of very local community groups.

This dynamic is something that the charity sector has been getting to grips with for years now. Some charities have become part of the mainstream—even the establishment.

They deliver services, they get involved with trying to finesse and improve bits of legislation, and they sometimes try to raise neglected issues into the public view.

But they often don’t really do much activism, besides having a team to lobby parliament (nearly always focused on Westminster) and to organise petitions.

Others, in contrast, have always been much more about campaigning, pushing their issues hard, getting out in communities to push their agendas.

So as we look on, whether hoping for Corbyn to do well or to fall flat on his face, we should not necessarily just consider him an outcome of a strange electoral system devised by the Labour Party. He may not be an outrider, but the sign of new trends and forces on our societies

(A version of this blog was first published by The MJ)

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