Robin McAlpine: Common Weal is embracing politics from the bottom-up – people power is our only hope

Ben Wray

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine explains why the organisation has moved to the Kinning Park Complex community centre – making the case for politics done from the bottom-up 

WE NEED to bring people back into politics or we’re all in big trouble. That has been my conclusion from the rise of Trump and the far right, Brexit and all the rest. But this is a negative view, a defensive view. It reflects a history of failure.

If we push people out we get Blair and Cameron. If we rile people up we get Trump and Farage. If we control people we get autocracy. It’s time to stop treating people as the problem, the enemy. It’s time to remind ourselves that people are the whole bloody point.

The much more important and positive point is that we should bring people back into politics because it matters, they care, it changes us all for the better when we do, and because we all deserve that kind of equal, shared, mutual and inclusive politics.

This has all been in my mind because of CommonSpace’s forum on the centenary anniversary of Red Clydeside, a momentous moment in Scotland’s history which very clearly hasn’t had the establishment-endorsed propaganda blitz that the First World War received.

I felt this despite the fact that I couldn’t actually make the event. Simply picking up on the buzz and feeling from the team has me feeling excited about politics again. And it’s been a while…

But let me rewind a bit. When we set up Common Weal we thought it would be good to be accessible, and so we rented office space above Central Station. It was soulless and we ended up doing most of our meetings in coffee shops anyway.

So when the Kinning Park Complex said to come out for a visit and it turned out there might be a place for us there, we jumped at it. We’re still in the last stages of moving so we’ll fill you in on it when we’re done, but we’ve moved into an old nursery school next to the complex.

Having no money and the building being in a bit of a state of disrepair, we could only do it with the help of volunteers. We were blown away – dozens of people gave up a day or more, turning up with tools or half-finished pots of paint and paint brushes. One of our local group activists project managed the whole thing.

We’re moving in with a local African community group and they joined in with all the work. It has been a great experience.

Common Weal’s new office (on the left)

And it feels like a much more appropriate home for Common Weal. We’re not in some shopping district where people come and go; we’re based out where people live and work. Looking back, its where we should always have been.

The Kinning Park Complex is brilliant. They do so much good work. Among it is an open dinner night once a week for anyone who wants to come. It has been building up a real community feel.

So when the CommonSpace team wanted to do an event on Red Clydeside they decided that they’d do it after the January dinner. This was inspired – we got lots of people who were interested in the politics who came from all sorts of different places.

And then there were lots of Kinning Park locals who came for the dinner and decided to stay on out of curiosity. It was packed. There were people from all ages, genders, races and – most unusually these days – a real range of social classes.

READ MORE: Sturgeon backs Kinning Park Complex as community centre starts crowdfunder to secure future

The event was great, really buzzed with energy. One local woman came up to the team afterwards and asked if we’d do this again. Well, we’d already planned to do this every month and told her so. “Brilliant – this is my new social life,” she said.

The only down side is that so many people are popping in to see us in the office the team are struggling to get all the work done. But it’s a nice problem to have.

One of the panellists at the event was Tam Brotherston. Tam has done a power of work for the independence cause, has been a great supporter of Common Weal and was one of the key activists in the UCS work-in in the 1960s.

One of the things he commented on was how much the event reminded him of a politics we don’t see much now. He talked about how so much of the political change that came throughout his life was driven by communities of ordinary people fighting injustice.

The panel had just heard from Common Weal Board member Lesley Orr about the women who had led the rent strikes during and after the First World War. People stood up against their neighbours being evicted and fought it. Tam worried that now we see people being evicted on TV and think to ourselves ‘that’s a shame’.

Of course, it’s not that people don’t campaign hard against injustice, nor that (thank god) they don’t win. It’s that it isn’t really linked to a political movement. It is treated by the political classes as just one lobbying case to assess with those coming from Abelio or Glasgow Airport.

That gap between fighting for your community and the way the country is run has become enormous. By far the closest we’ve had to a big, self-generated social movement was the independence movement – but an awful lot of that has now been subsumed into career politics.

For a long time I have believed that the expulsion of ordinary people from the political process has been the real genius move of neoliberal capitalism. The word ‘meritocracy’ was originally conceived as a sarcastic joke, a sociologist making fun of the idea that society was ordered on the basis of people’s real skills and not on the basis of power, wealth and privilege.

But the neoliberals loved the idea. They were the people to run the economy because they ‘won’, thus proving they deserved it. The political class runs the country for us because it’s really, really complicated and only those from their own elite ranks can understand this stuff. Yes, the entire UK media is run by the privately educated; but it’s not that they’re the ones whose daddies can pay for them to do unpaid internships, it’s the quality of the education. Honest.

READ MORE: Scotland’s council representation most undemocratic in the EU, campaign group says

The more they took a grip on the levers of power, the more the democratising project of the post-war years was rolled back. Social mobility went into reverse and inequality soared. But the more of a grip they took, the more they imposed their ideology of ‘merit’ and the more they pulled the ladders away from the rest of us.

For 40 years now we’ve been told over and over that the likes of ‘us’ (non-insiders) aren’t equipped to do the things ‘they’ do. They run banks, we can hardly run our household finances, they say. Well, if my household was as corrupt as your bank and protected by government like your bank was…

Thatcher then Blair then Cameron – all we needed was the right leader to follow and that would save us the bother of having views or opinions or thoughts.

Well, I’ll tell you what – us civilians may be amateurs in comparison to the genius of our leaders but then we didn’t preside over the current clusterfuck of a global political and economic system. If they’re so meretricious, how did they manage to miss a mass extinction event they themselves caused?

READ MORE: Watch: Activists’ GCC protest wins them place on council climate emergency group

There is only one antidote to this. We need to open politics out again, take it back from its professional class. But first we need to get people really engaged again. We need to open doors so people can come in, and once they’re in we need to resist the urge to control and manage them.

Over and over again, in this country and in others, my experience is that when people are allowed into politics in a respectful way they rise to the challenge and do a great job. It’s got to the point where if I could swap the Davos ruling elite for a random selection of people from round the world, I wouldn’t hesitate. I mean, really, how much worse could it be?

A second chamber of the Scottish Parliament made up from randomly-selected citizens, a legal requirement to use participatory methods in policy-making, the devolution of power to local communities through a new tier of Development Councils – this is what Common Weal is all about.

But I am reminded that, before even that, we’re about creating a politics that is for everyone, not just an elite chattering class. We can’t get on the TV or into (most) of the newspapers for love nor money. We’re not the kind of insider class that can phone some producer and just turn up on the TV sofas.

READ MORE: Publicly-owned and ethical: ‘Transformative’ Scottish national investment bank moves ahead

That’s been really frustrating me. (To hear a supposedly well-informed commentator on the radio opining that there are no real think tanks in Scotland is a hard thing to hear – we’ve published 60 policy papers and succeeded in making both a National Investment Bank and a National Infrastructure Company close to realities for god sake.)

But I suddenly care less. I’d rather keep building a politics that includes real people than pursue a politics of nods and winks between an insider class. It will take us longer, sure – but the value will be greater. I’m more than patient enough to wait.

And in our new ‘put together with love and cellotape’ home, it feels like Common Weal is in the right place to do what we always wanted to do – make politics a cause anyone can care about and engage with. That’s fine for me.