1 Jun 2009
The Potential Role of Transition Explored in the Observer’s ‘New Politics’ series
Beyond Westminster’s bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging: Progressive politics will take root from the rubble of a Labour defeat. The Transition movement is giving us a glimpse now. Madeleine Bunting. The Observer. Sunday 31 May 2009
Here is a fascinating piece from yesterday’s Observer, about Transition in the context of what is happening to politics in the UK. Very interesting, and it is refreshing to read something by someone who has really done their homework about Transition.
“Something remarkable has happened. Politics has become entirely unpredictable. Suddenly all manner of political reform is back on the table, a new urgency has been infused into tired debates about political disengagement and apathy, and radical reforms are being proposed to reinvigorate the hollowing out of political institutions. While the detail is vague, the scale is sweeping: Cameron talks about a massive redistribution of power; a cabinet minister urges a referendum on electoral reform; even an architect of Blair’s third way, Anthony Giddens, calls for a political revolution, and talked last week of needing new utopias to inspire a new politics of climate change. In a recent article, Martin Jacques comments on how New Labour, which built its fortunes on “there being no alternative”, is now being forced into the humiliating circumstances of having to find one.
This last task is a tall order, but given the febrile nature of the times, let’s sketch out how that might develop, and offer Giddens a first draft of what a 21st-century utopian politics might look like.
The first step will be defeat. The only uncertainty about the European elections this week is whether people are so angry that they don’t bother to vote or so angry that they cast a protest vote. The most useful vote this week would be for the Greens – a protest vote that will help push the environment up the agenda. But this week is a mere sideshow compared with what Labour will receive at the general election next year – and for its brand of politics to be thoroughly discredited, it needs a drubbing.
Apart from a few diehards, it will be hard to mourn the defeat in 2010 of a political party that lost its moral bearings in its bid to woo middle England, slavishly reflecting back what it believed this narrow constituency wanted to hear. It won ballots by flattering and indulging a mythology of the good life as individualistic aspiration and material enrichment, and never challenged the multiple erroneous assumptions on which this was based. On the two vital progressive issues of its age – inequality and the environment – it wasted a crucial decade and squandered parliamentary majorities on contradictory and inadequate gestures.
What it palpably failed to grasp was how crucial political reform was to regenerate progressive politics. A party that had been professionalised and managerialised in the 80s, not surprisingly, did not understand how to respond to people’s appetite to participate, and author their own lives. It only knew how to manipulate and manage public engagement, and earned deep resentment for doing both. Only out of the rubble of defeat in 2010 will a new progressive politics begin painfully to emerge well beyond the bankrupted conventions of Westminster politics.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, was one of the first to spot its potential when he described this young and fast-growing movement as “absolutely essential”. Other politicians have been similarly intrigued, and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs’ list of summer reading. It isn’t hard to see why politicians are so interested. The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do. It generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment.
Within three years it has gone from an idea to having 170 towns, villages and cities signed up as transition communities, working in 30 countries, and thousands more all over the world using the transition model. It is viral, catching on faster than its founder, Rob Hopkins, can track. Its message is that peak oil and climate change demand dramatic changes in the way people live, and, given that no one has the answer, communities themselves must start working out how that change might come about. It offers no answers, no solutions, only some tips in a handbook for how to get started. Transition lays the challenge squarely at the door of everyone. This is too big and difficult for government alone to tackle, too overwhelming and depressing for individuals to face alone.
Transition is rooted in a new politics of place: geography matters again as people look to the community immediately around them to devise the solutions for sustainability and resilience. At one level it works as a way of regenerating social capital, building up relationships with neighbours, working out how to collaborate again on common interests – community gardens, recycling, waste and strengthening the local economy. At another level it is about educating people about the challenges of peak oil and climate change, but the mobilisation and consciousness-raising is directed towards optimism and hope, not despair: how can this community use its skills and imagination to build its future?
The result is a proliferation of experiments, all of which are charted on their wiki websites: the collaboration is both local and global. Communities in Somerset can swap ideas and get inspiration from Brazil, Australia or the US. It’s a world away from the smooth presentation of party politics, and transitioners are quick to point to the disclaimer on their site – they have no idea if the movement will work. They’re organising local food festivals now, but tomorrow it could be community renewable energy. The emphasis is always on conviviality and enjoyment; on learning skills that have been lost over the last few decades – how to cook, grow food, repair and make things. Scotland has funded several transition organisers to work across the country. This is an unusual thing: local grassroots environmentalism that is full of hope for the future.
Their meetings don’t have agendas or presentations – Miliband came to their annual conference recently as a keynote listener. They use what’s called open space technology, in which everyone brings their ideas and everyone participates. Humble, self-organising, the movement owes much to the idealistic thinking of the early 70s. This is a time for revisiting those alternatives, which have been so contemptuously dismissed for a quarter of a century.
Part of its growing success is how it meets several needs simultaneously. It tackles social recession – the sense of disconnection and fragmentation of community – at the same time as it collaborates on the huge behavioural change that will be required for a low-carbon society. The latter is far more likely to come about in the context of personal relationships than as a result of discredited politicians dictating change. It is fulfilling an unexpected appetite for political engagement at a time of widespread disillusionment with the conventional political processes.
Hopkins is emphatic that transition groups refuse all political affiliation; they must build alliances to work across all parts of their community. But it is intriguing to see how the movement is experimenting with the sorts of ideas those in conventional politics are talking about – localism, decentralisation of power to communities, an environmental politics that is utopian and hopeful rather than gloomy. Of course detractors can point out its wholemeal worthiness, but it is stubbornly swimming against the tide of pervasive political pessimism, and given the unpredictability of the times, who knows where it will end up?