Centre and Periphery
August, 11, 2018 - By Uffe Elbæk, political leader of Denmark’s The Alternative Party
It’s a pleasure to be offered to write for Samsø Energy Academy’s new blog. In fact, I feel somewhat honored. I can’t take off my hat enough for their daily efforts to create a green, sustainable transition in Denmark. They are among the pioneers in this area.
That’s why I don’t want to use my column here to tell you about the need for a serious green transition and green entrepreneurship, because many of you, each in your own way, are already experts in these areas.
Instead, I would like to share my/our thoughts about how we can create a far more green, progressive and entrepreneurial agenda in Denmark through among other things developing a new political culture.
Perhaps some of you will find my story inspiring and even want to get involved in politics in new ways. Others may just want to get to know me and The Alternative Party better.
I know exactly when the idea of starting a new political party and movement – a new political platform – emerged. It was during a conversation between two young activists, Sophie and Søren, and me on a street corner in central Frederiksberg May, 2013.
The three of us had been to a meeting at Danish Parliament in conjunction with the Under Radar project. I started the project to shine light on all the good new sustainability projects taking place under the political and media radar.
When we got to the corner of Gammel Kongevej and H.C. Ørstedsvej, we stopped, because that’s where I live. Then, either Sophie or Søren asked me, “Uffe, why don’t you start a new political party?” Even though I immediately shrugged off their idea, the question definitely got me thinking.
I looked back on my work life with the Front Runners and the Chaos Pilots, which were about not accepting the type of society we have today as being the best possible. And it occurred to me that of course, politics can have far more participation then is often the case today.
Yes, politics in a humbler, participatory way, building on the premise that more and more of the politicians’ most important duties is direct contact and dialog with regular citizens. Not least politics in a way where we have the courage to imagine a radically different sustainable society than the one we have today.
What was needed was nothing less than a political and cultural revolution, I thought. Of course in a friendly and constructive way. As the Russian Jewish-American anarchist and Women’s Rights champion Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” It was just such a life-affirming revolution I envisioned when we just about a half year later we founded The Alternative Party.
A whole lot has happened since four years ago when Sophie, Søren and I stood on the street corner of Gammel Kongevej and H.C. Ørstedsvej. I don’t hide the fact that the common journey we started out on that day in May 2013 is the most democratically hopeful one I’ve experienced in my entire life.
Even though it has been a journey against all odds. Because from the very start we were told by just about everyone that would never, never, never succeed with The Alternative Party.
There wasn’t a thing that wasn’t wrong with us: Our way of developing policies – through political laboratories – was wrong. The way we campaigned to gather the necessary signatures to be able to run for parliament was wrong. The way we ran our political campaign was wrong. And even though we actually got into parliament, the way we were organized, and not least the way we were as politicians, was wrong – according to the political commentators and many of the journalists covering Danish politics.
Yet luckily there were and are a lot of people who have had the exact opposite experience. Namely, that this was exactly the kind of politics we were waiting for. Where the ambition is to go from our current representative democracy to a far more direct participatory democracy. And where together, we build a new democratic bridge between the Danish Parliament and the surrounding society.
From being three people on a street corner, we are now over 11,000 members today. From an Executive Board, we now have ten district boards and over 80 local chapters spread across the country. There are even activities outside of Denmark. With inspiration from The Alternative Party in Denmark, there are new political initiatives in diverse countries such as Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, and Nepal.
This is a new democratic vision and ambition that my parliamentary colleagues in the party and I are focused on every day in the Danish Parliament. We try our best to develop and practice a new political culture by being curious and listening to each other and our colleagues from the other parties. And by being humble as an elected parliamentarian and always trying to become smarter through meeting civil servants, businesspeople, and regular citizens, who are all experts in their own daily lives.
Even though no one is perfect, and the effort to create a new political culture is difficult in a place like the Danish Parliament where spin and conflict unfortunately dominate, I am in fact really proud about how far we’ve come during the two years we’ve been in Parliament.
Everything from the way we organize our days along the Green Hall (the nickname for the area of Parliament where we have our offices) to the way we develop our policies through on-going political laboratories, to the way we make political decisions in our parliamentary group.
In relation to the latter, as an example we livestream all of our parliamentary group meetings so everyone can watch when we discuss how we will vote in parliament. It’s a vulnerable way to create transparency, but I believe that it’s important to show the public the nuances in politics. A “yes” vote is not always a 100% “yes.” It could be an 80% “yes,” because usually there are good arguments for and against a particular issue.
I am – admittedly – not least a fan of our very own tiny development department, which time and again comes up with totally surprising new proposals for how we can make politics participatory and meaningful for people. Our latest big initiative from the development team is the creation of a new action-oriented medium, Altivisten, which you can find at altivitsen.dk.
Altivitsen is a solutions-oriented polar opposite of all the conflict-filled journalism that dominates today’s media-scape. Here, everyone can contribute with solutions within three main categories: How can we live sustainably, how can we create a good life, and how can we develop democracy?
For me, the development department’s work is a good example of that we can be the change we want to see in the world. More citizen involvement in politics is for me absolutely necessary in order that we can make the changes that Danish politics need. There is a need for a new political culture where all kinds of citizens find it exciting, meaningful and educational to participate. Otherwise it will end up being the same middle-aged, tie-wearing white men (sorry for this generalization) who decide how our society should look and run.
That is why I ask you reading this to continue to participate in society. In the community, in the local green transition, and in new ways of being political. There is a need for much more diversity in Danish politics if the decisions being made are going to represent what people want.
Embrace your democratic authority, create communities, participate and seek to influence. As the great American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”