Saturday, 23 May 2015

A fairer economy, a stronger society and a challenge to radicals

The mood of blank despair that followed the General Election is now showing signs of mutating into a narrative of expedient gradualism - the "one more heave" theory of political organisation familiar to those of us who remember the 1980s and 1990s.  Labour's leadership election seems to be focusing on internal tribalism, with the gorging, self-deluding Blairites feasting on the carrion of Miliband's flawed strategy of purely focusing on the dispossessed and vulnerable, while simultaneously cosying up to the establishment as a statesman-lite, a key factor in Labour's downfall and retreat to its redoubts.

At the same time, the Liberal Democrats have been forced into a situation where the only choices are to adapt or die.  I shall refrain from passing comment at this stage on the Carmichael stooshie, merely to observe that this is a symptom rather than a cause of party that was playing club cricket against the Australians.  However, in some ways the Liberal narrative is much more adaptable to the changed political climate than a monolithic assertion of hegemonic right, which both Labour and the SNP are in danger of deluding themselves with.

As a liberal, with both an upper- and a lower-case, the conduct of much of the Coalition appalled me from both a tactical and presentational perspective.  I suspect, however, that the reflexive Labour tribalists who spent five years excoriating the Liberal Democrats will be finding, if they are capable, cause for reflection as the Tories rule untrammelled by any restraint, although the fissiparous nature of the contemporary Conservatives is already becoming apparent.  Clegg had a difficult task in convincing even his own party that the moderating achievements existed, and the compromises over health and democratic reform were totally unacceptable.  Politicians make mistakes - the biggest is pretending to be some sort of perfect being for whom apology and learning are alien concept.

What is more dismaying is the continued fighting of the battle on grounds defined by the Tory party and its cheerleaders.  Although the economy is the centrepiece of the electoral debate, it is not the only one, and if it is not framed in a view of what the function of civil society and its institutions should be, then the reductionist narrative is always going to favour a party which puts bank balances at the centre of discourse.  Competence in managing the economy, or at least a plausible simulacrum, becomes the lodestone and other issues are crowded out.

Discarding the Liberal Democrats' fatuous last week, mainlining Mary Whitehouse through "decency" and the risible "head/heart" triangulation, which would have scared anyone who thought that the Coalition had been a good or bad thing back into the tribal redoubts (and therefore was a factor in losing the party even more seats, the entire messaging needs an overhaul.  To see placards bearing the slogan "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" may have been an appropriate message in 2010 from a tactical perspective, but it completely undersold the message of what radical politics should be around in an age when economists are largely discredited.

Without suggesting that the slogan should merely be re-formulated, there is a good case to argue for a focus on "Stronger Society, Fairer Economy".   A stronger economy does not in itself guarantee a better society - the grotesqueries of the massive increase in income inequality promoted since 1979 and accelerated after 1997 do not translate into overall social cohesion or diversity.  If the proceeds of growth are being increasingly captured by a small group at the top of the income distribution, adding to the concentration of property ownership, and the extraction of economic rent from those below them as a transfer payment, then this is not creating either a stronger or a fairer community.  The economy is the means to the end, not the sole objective of political activity.

Countering this with a set of values, and a programme flowing from them, that puts the individual citizen at the centre of a political programme is a challenge for the left.  The concepts of trickledown and noblesse oblige need not merely to be spelt out but challenged - the narrative of a genuinely progressive taxation system that does not allow evasion and avoidance, but which means that all who have benefited are contributing fairly to the wider good, is missing.  The idea that all people have an equal right to be heard, to be represented and to participate in decisions that affect their lives has been perverted into a consumerist parody that suggests that pure buying power is the determinant of all social and political worth.

The explanation that the Tory "triumph" was won on the back of fear is plausible, but it is not just the short-term anti-Scottish racism and phobia of Ed Miliband that is the fear we need to understand.  The consequences of encouraging citizens to take and use power are anathema to both conventional left and right, as they might not take the "right" approach.  This may be in aggregate a problem if decision-making is consistently counterintuitive, but it is no argument against radical transfer of power back to the citizen and their communities,  providing, of course, that there is a rule of law and protection of individual rights - civic, human and property.  Trusting and encouraging people to define politics as something that they have a stake in requires many preconditions, including a structure of electoral democracy and institutions that prevents both oppression and dictatorship.

It will not be easy to construct a policy programme that meets all these needs, and there will have to be expediency and compromise to win electoral battles under the current system.  Until we see leaders of radical parties articulating a new approach and a new set of values, consistently and engagingly, then the die is loaded against anything other than a maintenance of the fretful status quo.

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