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Our 2016 wake-up call

Learning the political lessons of 2016

In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. In November, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And throughout, my Facebook news feed has bubbled over in fits of collective outrage, mourning, and commiseration. This, we tell each other, has been an annus horribilis, both in the UK and the wider world.

All well and good, but entirely beside the point. The problem is not, and never has been, the events in themselves, but rather the issues fuelling them. Ultimately, it is a question of quality of life, of confronting the issues that matter to people who do not share our privilege, and doing something about it. Populists see that need and turn it to their own ends. Farage, Trump, Le Pen. If all we have to offer is our outrage and our self-pity, what then are the chances of affecting any meaningful change? Simply put, the populism of 2016 has been symptomatic of critical underlying issues, and the sooner we can overcome our personal indignation and see that, the better.

As we look back on the past year, the message has been crystal clear—at least to those willing to hear it. Significant portions of the population in the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere feel disenfranchised, angry, and neglected. Their votes are emblematic of a political and economic system that has failed abjectly to cater to their needs — or, to put it in simpler terms, a giant middle finger to the status quo.

So where do we go from here? I firmly believe that we have the chance to learn from this negative experience to bring about something truly positive. If nothing else, the events of this year have served to provide a jolting public awareness of crisis, and that can now be harnessed — if we are willing to act — to implement real change. Both personally and politically, where we go next is in our own hands. Change comes out of challenge, success out of recognising and overcoming failure. This is our chance to take heed of the alarm bells ringing, re-examine our perspectives, and use the insights gained to bring about positive change.

The political solution

On a political level, it seems unlikely that this change will come from our ruling party. The Conservatives have been consistent in demonstrating where their interests lie, and that is in upholding a particular political and economic system that they believe provides people with the opportunity to prosper — a strategy that they pursue in preference to any concerted state attempts to intervene to better people’s lives. From a conservative viewpoint, there is simply no problem to grasp, no action to be taken. And certainly, there is something to be said for standing against a trend of entitlement that increasingly sees expectation win over personal responsibility.

For opposition parties, however, there is a huge political opportunity to take heed of the public mood and to reform themselves to provide the credible alternative that has been so sadly lacking. To do this, I suggest that they need to thoroughly overhaul their approach.

First and foremost, they must address the public disillusionment surrounding a lack of representation. There is a widespread perception that politics and politicians are not representing the needs and priorities of the majority; sadly, among progressive opposition parties, this is reinforced by a tendency to prioritize social agendas that find little resonance beyond affluent and educated middle-class voters — all the time ignoring the economic drivers that interest the majority of people.

The fact is that people have been hard hit in recent times by cuts to services, stagnating earnings, soaring living costs, and an overburdened infrastructure. Together, it amounts to a steady erosion of quality of life, the remedying of which the opposition must put first and foremost at the top of its agenda. Topics such as immigration must be openly dealt with, and any stigma removed from engaging honestly with the problems presented by the challenges of globalization, multiculturalism, and a rapidly changing society.

When all is said and done, people are sending out a clear message that they do not want the opposition to be a more socially liberal version of its right wing counterpart. Instead, they want an opposition that grasps the real issues at stake and engages with those issues to provide a meaningful alternative that speaks for them. While we cannot blame the ruling Conservatives for doing what Conservatives do, there is a real chance for their mainstream opposition to take on board the public warning and reposition themselves to provide a valid political alternative. If this were actually to happen, it would be a huge positive to take from this year of political uncertainty and upheaval. By engaging with the core issues, politics could do a great deal to dissipate the anger and neglect currently fuelling an alarming wave of hatred and xenophobia.

You can make a difference

For those of us who want to make a more immediate difference, however, and who are sceptical about the political establishment’s willingness and even ability to change, the events of this year are also an opportunity for individual reflection and action.

After all, the blaming of politicians and the political/economic system for the problems we are experiencing is suggestive of a certain lack of personal responsibility, a sense of entitlement that says the state should fix all our problems for us.

Not only is this not true, it is not even the most effective way to go about it. Communities and their needs are, I believe, best served by the individuals within that community. When you look at it this way, it is impossible to avoid the uncomfortable truth that, if there are large numbers of disenfranchised, angry, and neglected people in our society (as the political events of this year would seem to suggest) it wasn’t only the state that neglected them. Nor was it “the system”. It was also us, the people around them. Public disillusionment is as much an indictment of us as individuals and as communities as it is of the political system.

If it is not just the system to blame, then, but we ourselves, how are we supposed to respond on a personal level? The good news is that we as individuals are much better placed to reform the way we think and act than the unwieldy and conflicting behemoth of party politics. We are fortunate enough to live in a society in which we have the stability and freedom to make our own choices and shape our own lives, and we can make the most of that to make an impact according to our ability and resources.

A practical example of this is the New Economics Foundation, a think tank set up to help people and communities take back control. Focusing on people’s everyday lives, the New Economics Foundation exists to help people who want to be proactive and shape their experience for themselves. It does this by providing individuals who are looking to implement change and reform with a platform to share their ideas, supported by a range of events, campaigns, and research initiatives. As such, I find it an extremely empowering concept, and a perfect example of the way in which we should be heading.

For me, then, this year was not a disaster, but a wake-up call, not a collapse but the call to a new way. We have been challenged, politically and personally, and now it is up to each and every one of us to find our own response. Challenge is opportunity, and for those able to look objectively at the situation, this is the perfect chance to bring about positive change.

So don’t assume you’re right — re-examine your values. Don’t wait — take responsibility now. Don’t complain — make your contribution. Grasp, accept, and respond, and you will see your world change for the better.

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