If you ever get into a political discussion in Gibraltar, you are bound to hear a complaint on the party divide – ‘we are too small to have allegiances’, ‘we don’t work together anymore’, ‘we have too much in common to be so divided’, and so on. People think that the entrenched party allegiances limit our democracy instead of enhancing it. Voters often vote for the party that their parents voted for and when we talk about politics, we may often use the phrases ‘I am GSD’ or ‘I am GSLP’. This does not reflect the broader opinions of society on various issues.
Party allegiances are black and white identities which not only fail to fully explain our thoughts and values, but it blocks out constructive and open dialogue. This is fine in the UK, for instance, where there are millions of people who loosely tie themselves to a political narrative, and it is not assumed that if you are Labour that you agree with everything that the Labour party says. In a small community, that is a huge loss to our democratic advancement. Parties have a role in political organisation, as do unions, feminist and minority groups, and NGOs. They ought not, however, be the sole and hegemonic power. The outcome of our current status quo regarding parties (and this is in large part due to our parliamentary system) is that whichever party wins a general election becomes, broadly-speaking, the arbiter of policy.
In other words, decisions for the state are made almost exclusively with the sign-off by the party of government. Ironically, it is a democratic system without a democratic outcome, because the democratic election provides the autocratic power. Of course, any self-respecting party would probably take advantage of this if it believes in its own policies. It is not, though, the most democratic system of democracy. A more democratic system would, in tandem with parliamentary reform, begin by taking the power away from the parties and their establishment, and putting it back into the hands of the people, concerned citizens and neighbourhoods.
Checks and balances is something most people can get behind; just as with further transparency, democratic reform, and modernisation of government. But this has not gone far enough. And even if it did ‘go far enough’, it only answers half of the problem. These reforms and bit-part changes, though necessary, are merely institutional. They are not fundamental and universal. We may have the access to documents that reveal business dealings that would be of the public interest, for example, but if there is no culture of engagement it would all be for nothing. If there was no ambition in the community to challenge and discuss the issue of our time in a fashion that is above party political labels, there is only symbolic meaning to reform. If parties are coming in and out of government and basically lead the community in the same kind of way, there will be no change and the outcome will be what we have been seeing recently – governments blaming previous governments, blaming previous governments, blaming previous governments…
A true political opposition must identify this and shift political involvement back into the community, empowering people, not the establishment and its institutions. A true political opposition then must come from the community, not from established ‘parties of government’ that may criticise here and there but will probably wind up doing this same thing if they were to reach power, like the government prior, and so on. Together Gibraltar has made the right noises as a movement, and one hopes that they follow through if they become a party.
Let’s step back a bit now. What I am describing is a form of politics inspired by community organising, which is what got Obama a big reputation in Chicago before his national presidential campaign in 2007/8. It is one of the key aspects of a ‘populist’ or ‘people’s’ movement. But the word populism is used as a negative term in Europe. Social scientist Cas Mudde identified that “in the public debate populism is mostly used to denounce a form of politics that uses demagogy, charismatic leadership or a pub discourse”. The truth about populism is not as simple as the nominal usage of the word in the public sphere. To be a populist does not mean to aspire to power by any means necessary or to abandon one’s values in the name of shiny projects – that’s just irresponsible governance focusing on short-term electoral gain. Take a populist like Corbyn who, until recently, appeared to be holding on to his values tightly even if it harmed him politically. Populists by nature are supposedly anti-establishment, but there are important distinctions. There is left-wing populism that focuses on growing inequality, ‘the one percent’, social injustice, and progressivism (Bernie Sanders, Podemos, and Corbyn’s Labour, for example). There is also right-wing populism that also sees society as headed into a divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, but is also strongly focused on fighting immigration and some nebulous concept of ‘political correctness’ (think Trump, Le Pen and Wilders).
Ultimately, tired political institutions and financial interests are being challenged in a fundamental way around the world for failing to serve the community. Young people are realising that their once promising future has been replaced by crises in the labour market, the wider economy, and in housing. As the rich get richer and the powerful get more power, not only are they living in a different world to everybody else, but they can no longer pretend to represent the interests of society. As Sanders understood, the vast changes in the name of democratic socialism that he wanted to make, such as free tuition and universal health care, would require a ‘political revolution’ in America due to the ‘rigged’ nature of the political system. He did not mean an armed uprising, but a revolution of ideas, involvement and inclusivity.