IT’S not often you get the chance to be involved in the launch of a new political force. But I took it this week, as one of the co-initiators of The Alternative UK (, inspired by and connected to Denmark’s Alternativet party, which describes itself as being for “sustainability and entrepreneurship”.

Our soft launch in London was full of the diversity, energy and global embrace which that world city can provide, and which always makes this Scot welcome. (It also shows what a bum steer Mayor Khan was given by his Scottish comrades recently).

But we were at pains to tell our audiences and interviewees that we were not a political party, but a political platform. Explaining the difference will be a starting point for a much bigger discussion here. Which is whether the current design and behaviour of political parties really express our political needs and wants properly.

So why a platform, and not a party? In the case of The Alternative UK, there’s a few reasons, the bluntest of which is to do with the differing national electoral systems across these islands. In Scotland at least, proportional voting has allowed the presence of parties and independents beyond the usual historic players – take the Scottish Socialists, the late Margo McDonald and others, as examples.

And of course now the Scottish Greens effectively hold the balance of power with the SNP in Holyrood. It’s by no means a perfect picture of democracy – but it at least shows some complexity. (Alternativet’s 10 seats in the Danish parliament proportionally matches their percentage of the national vote).

However in England, under first-past-the-post, with its boundary commission about to gift more seats to Tories, who seem installed for a decade or more… Argh. What space for a new political party in that cramped universe?

And that leads to the second reason why The Alternative UK is a platform rather than a party – which is the crisis, social and cultural, of party politics itself.

“What crisis?” you might instantly hear from the SNP, Scottish Greens, or Corbyn Labour (let alone UKIP), pointing to surges in membership as a consequence of the indyref or the 2015 UK General Election. (Though a recent leak from Corbyn Central showed that 27,000 have left the party since his re-election).

Yet zoom away from these surges, and the overall picture across these islands is structurally odd. Out of those who actually participated in the 2015 UK General Election, just over 3 per cent were paid-up party members.

Historically, this is a tiny upswing from a precipitous decline. In the post-war period the Tories had 20 times more members than they have now; Labour members fell off a cliff after 1979.

Europe’s party memberships are also declining long-term. Though the UK is still near the foot of the table, the age of mass membership for at least the settled political parties would seem to be over.

Again, is Scotland that different? A bit. Party members as a percentage of those who actually voted (55.6 per cent) in the 2016 Holyrood election turn out to be over 7 per cent – and the SNP chunk of that on its own would be over 5 per cent.

But still, think of the millions, whatever nation we’re counting them in, who are not willing to give a little money, or a bit of their time and energy, to a political party.

Compare this to volunteering. The Cabinet Office’s annual Community Life survey notes that 47 per cent of UK residents are volunteering at least once a month. Seventy-three per cent had given charitably in the last month, with about 63 per cent giving £10 or more (13 per cent gave over £50!).

(Notably, these stats are lower in Scotland – according to Volunteer Scotland, only 27 per cent of Scots regularly volunteer. Is this because the Scottish state does more of the social-caring work? Or what? Worth exploring.) But even if some of these activities are about party-political membership, it’s clearly just a bucket in a much bigger reservoir of social and civic engagement, as our co-initiator Indra Adnan has written, in a paper entitled Is The Party Over? Never mind the large majorities who don’t volunteer, and the large minorities who don’t vote.

So to throw another placard-waving party into this set of conditions might not seem like the best move. But when conventional ways seem frozen, often opportunities to experiment and innovate with how things are done open up.

A political platform could be understood in the same way as we think of digital platforms like Facebook or YouTube or Twitter – as a structure that supports a diversity of self-expression and creation. More enabling, we feel, than a party with a clear manifesto and ideology.

In the context of the rest-of-the-UK, where a majority in the largest country carried the day for Brexit, it’s not difficult to see the Leave vote as one massive experiment.

We can rail at the fiendish manipulations of the Brexiteers (or the Trumpsters) – their tricksy psychological models joined up with their harvesting of our online behaviours. But their victorious slogan, “Take Back Control” – Of what? From whom? To do what? And why? – actually answered a profound and deep cry from the collective heart.

In a precarious and unpredictable world, who could be blamed for an impulse toward self-rule? We can regard the triggering of the primal emotions of Leave voters around fear, anger, insecurity, identity, by Cambridge academics and Etonian toffs, as a terrible, pitiable spectacle.

Or it could be an opportunity to construct spaces – within theatres, community halls, sports centres; wherever conviviality happens – where the emotions and longings that underpin political positions can be more deeply explored.

In Denmark, Alternativet ran countless “political laboratories” – friendly meet-ups, from which their eclectic mix of policies were eventually formed.

Yet we’ll have to do these political labs differently on these islands. Our event in London mixed together futurists, ad-men, independent “localists”, teenage activists, along with drama-makers, singers, facilitators and beat-boxers.

Culture, psychology, technology and personal testimony were more to the fore than policy (although we did hear the funkiest case for universal basic income ever). This was cosmo-London, so the lab was tailored to these conditions.

However we believe that it’s possible to set up these events right across the towns and cities of England and beyond. They will honour the historic complexity of each place. But they will also – through a mix of arts, ideas, craft and participation – try to open up a vista of future alternatives.

As much as possible, they will be based on the rich lives and practices of the large majorities of people who live way beyond the party-political bubble. The media dimension of The Alternative UK’s “platform” will relay the news and discoveries of these laboratories. These will hopefully then inspire people to set them up, and feed back those results to us, generating a virtuous, movement-building loop.

Those of you who were deep in the Yes campaign of 2012-2014 will probably recognise this attempt to bring culture, as it is lived in Scotland, right alongside political expression. Indeed, those of you longer in the tooth may recognise it as what we’ve been doing for the last 30-odd years. (Phil Teer, our UBI advocate, happily threw up an Alasdair Gray slide).

Will it take that long for a process like ours to generate, say, an authentic, regionally-based desire for an English federalism? I hope not – I don’t have that much time.

But as an eternal supporter of Scottish independence, I am involved in A/UK because it’s not in my interest for our giant neighbour to slip deeper into sullen despair.

Yet their resources for hope will be quite different from Scotland’s – and it will be fascinating to see what surprises and new practices emerge from these political laboratories. As we ready for our own next leap, please regard this benignly. Good societies can happen in two places at the same time.

For more go to, or follow @alterUK21 on Twitter.


Last week Pat asked you for suggestions for the new BBC Scotland channel ... here are your responses:

I AM suggesting that the new Scottish BBC channel starts an hour earlier than proposed, ie at 6pm, and that we have a one hour high quality programme in that first slot with Scottish news, regional news and news about the rest of the UK and the world. This will then free up the 9pm slot for some really desperately needed high quality Scottish drama in the genre of the excellent Shetland series.

I really find it an insult to the people of Scotland that the BBC offers a Scottish channel with the condition that it may not start before 7pm so it cannot interfere with their Unionist propaganda programme at 6.
Maarten de Vries

More Scottish politics and more from the Scottish Parliament and Scottish music and Scottish pipe bands
Paul Cannop

What about following innovative and exciting classical music groups? Quartets or Hebrides Ensemble, Scottish Ensemble or Scottish Chamber Orchestra or the likes?

Limitless possibility here – including learning how each member came to be part of the group, or following a rehearsal or rehearsals, up to performance or something more innovative altogether.

Don’t want to forget contemporary art and literature either. I love your Iain Banks idea. We can do it! Or you can! I’m 77.
Joanne Grant

I would like to see a slot dedicated to our immigrant population. We pride ourselves in being an outward-looking internationalist country that welcomes and makes a home for migrants and refugees from all over the world. I would like to see a programme constructed not with a self-congratulatory or “wha’s like us” mindset, but with a presentation that embraces and celebrates these differences.
Jim Wylie

A series set in Renaissance Scotland exploring its cultural and political ties to Europe would provide a rich seam of material and be a relevant topic given the looming shadow of Brexit.

In addition, dramatisations of some Scottish authors of the past who rarely feature on the screen would be welcome. Susan Ferrier, Mrs Oliphant and Catherine Carswell spring to mind.
Karen Barber

Music would be great. I would rather have a bit of subject based material within a music show. A bit of chat and design and stuff. I do think we have had such a dearth of arts-based programming that in a few years time looking back into the 90s, and 2000s that it will feel that we did nothing creative here. So we desperately need a relevant and cutting edge Arts/Review/Performance show.
Donald Coutts

I’d like a wee highlights show on a Saturday and Sunday covering the 4 main Scottish ice hockey clubs playing in the EIHL.

Perhaps include an SNL game as well and we could have a nice wee 20-30 min show. Really needs to include interviews and analysis.