There's future for gradual politics

By Oduor Ong’wen

Leadership comes from below. That’s what defines successful progressive parties. All parties to the left of the centre have triumphed only where powerful social movements have reshaped politics, and failed miserably where they compete for corporate acceptance with the right wing parties. The late 20th-century model of electrifying speeches, sound bites, spin and central diktats, is a dud. Rhetoric can only take you so far.
Orange Democratic Movement, the party I support and work for, was born of popular struggles for a new liberating constitution against the drive by reactionary forces to maintain constitutional status quo. It is, therefore, not accidental that ODM proclaims social democracy as its ideology. Social democracy is a left wing ideology.
It is driven by interest of communities and organised working class. Social democracy promotes and practises politics of basic needs and social inclusion. On the economic front, while it does not undermine private ownership of the means of production and distribution, it encourages a regime of strong regulatory environment to ensure equal opportunities for all. The regulatory framework also ensures that the pursuit of private profit is not at the expense of life, dignity and happiness.
The social democratic character of ODM earned the party mass following almost instantly. From Kericho to Sericho; from Tamu to Lamu; and from Mvita to Mbita, the ordinary folks saw their future in ODM. But this was also the party’s Achilles’ heel. This popularity attracted to the party characters associated with corruption, elite exclusionism, greed and dictatorship. Some of the Kanu era clones trooped to ODM.
Before long, these elements had lit fires of ethnic polarisation, incessant gossip, unprincipled intrigues and witch-hunt in the party. Marionettes taking flight with party registration certificates, “luminaries” decamping, and fuzzy math by some ODM leaders to show how their own outfit had no chance against the then party-less incumbent Mwai Kibaki played out as wananchi wondered whether they had bet on the wrong horse.
The shenanigans notwithstanding, the party romped home to victory in the 2007 general elections even though the loser took the podium and walked away with the trophy. The valley between the elite leadership of the party and communities widened with the party’s participation in the Grand Coalition government. It is encouraging that ODM has taken cognizance of this state of affairs and is now single-mindedly moving back to cement its bond with its grassroots base.
Last month, the party held a two-day retreat at Manzooni Lodge in Machakos county, where considerable time was dedicated to discussions around social democratic ideology and its application in Kenya’s socio-political and economic milieu. At the end of the reflective sojourn, the party leadership resolved to go back to communities; intensify politico-ideological education; profess and enforce faith in the ecology and inter-generational equity; and be at the forefront of promoting integrity in governance.
No genuinely progressive party can survive the corporate press, corrupt party funding system, and conservative fear machines by fighting these forces on their own terms. The left can build only from the ground up; reshaping itself through the revitalisation of communities, working with local people to help fill the gaps in social provision left by an uncaring elite. Successful progressive movements must now be citizen’s study cycles, savings and credit cooperatives, trade unions, student unions, merry-go-round chamas, primary careworkers, football clubs and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups, image experts and spin-doctors no longer deliver.
This is the lesson from Latin America, where many of the progressive victories of the past 20 years have been won. They arose not from short-term electoral strategies, let alone from friendly overtures to media barons and captains of industry, but from citizens’ movements that began, in some cases, 50 years ago. These movements have had plenty of setbacks and disappointments. But they have locked in change of the kind that once seemed impossible.
In Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile, similar movements have transformed political life. They have evicted governments opposed to their interests and held to account those who claim to represent them. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have been inspired, directly or indirectly, by the Latin American experience.
In the UK, Ed Miliband has left little behind, except his attempts to mobilise communities. Though his efforts were small, tentative and mostly frustrated, he appeared to have understood what it took to produce lasting change. He altered Clause 1 of Labour’s constitution to include a pledge to “make communities stronger through collective action and support”.
Revitalising communities is not just an election strategy. It is a programme for change in its own right; even without a sympathetic government. If it takes root, it will outlast the vicissitudes of politics. But it will also make success more likely. If ODM wants to reconnect, it must be the change it wants to see.