- Quite simply, a UK general election
- The economy and social values
- Health, education, homelessness
- An unequal power struggle
- “This Groundhog Day election”
- In conclusion.
It would be hard to miss the acceleration of discontent with politicians and politics, locally and nationally in the UK since 2010, during a period marked by public scandal after scandal. In 2014, actor and comedian, Russell Brand, made a splash when he urged people not to bother voting. More recently, 27 bishops produced a 52 page report in which they were highly critical of the government’s welfare policies (18 02 2015, The Guardian). Noting the impact of Brand – “we bishops don’t have Russell Brand’s sex appeal – but we must counter his doctrine” – they regretted that:
The election campaign is likely to entrench the apathy and cynicism with which many people approach politics today. To accept such attitudes is a counsel of despair.
Encountering apathy and cynicism at meetings and events in Liverpool, and in conversations and emails beyond, has disturbed and worried me. Not least because others (different ages, backgrounds, situations) have said they cannot face another 5 years of Tory rule: saying they will leave the country, or intimating defeat of a more terminal nature, on the back of their dependence on welfare / unemployment and/or disability benefits.
Recently I found myself round a table with several activist members of Merseyside Women’s Movement (different ages, backgrounds and health status), all bar one of whom were variously undecided about voting at all, hostile to Labour, and/or intending to vote Green. I fell silent, felt defeated, and left early, wondering whatever happened to the feminist imperative to use your vote, given the struggles and sacrifices of early suffrage feminists in the UK to finally secure votes for women in 1928. Here I break that silence, in the belief that this general election process is not just a crisis, but an emergency. Silence is not an honourable option.
Quite simply, a UK general election.
A UK general election is a first-past-the-post system for electing a national government by secret ballot, one vote per voter, voting for one local MP from a list on offer. At the last general election in 2010, the Conservative Party did not win outright, but they were able to negotiate a coalition with the much smaller Lib Dem party, and this gave them the necessary majority in Parliament. This arrangement produced the most rightwing government in living memory, as the Coalition pursued wrecking-ball policies in their attack on the public sector and social security, for which they had no electoral mandate. See Michael Sheen’s speech at The People’s March for the NHS www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHgqAtmXuHU
Because the UK does not have a proportional or alternative vote electoral system (such as is used in EU elections), we still have basically a two-party system, and it will therefore be one of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, which will become the governing party in May 2015. It is a stark and significant choice.
The second feature of this system is the question of which party leader will govern the country as Prime Minister. In 2015, the leaders of the two main parties are very different from each other. David Cameron grew up in privileged circumstances, inheriting considerable wealth at an early age, was educated at Eton College, a public school for boys, before going to Oxford University, followed by working in public relations before entering politics. His father was an investment banker. Ed Miliband’s parents were Jewish immigrants escaping the Nazis in Europe, who arrived in the UK where they settled. His father was subsequently a revered Marxist academic in the US and the UK; his mother was also politically active. Ed Miliband and his brother attended a state primary school and a mixed (boys and girls) London state comprehensive school. Ed attended Oxford University, followed by two semesters at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University in the US. He became MP for Doncaster North in 2005.
When deciding which party to vote for, we are therefore indirectly choosing the leader of one of the main parties as Prime Minister, so it makes sense to compare and evaluate their respective political track records, the values they espouse, their suitability as Prime Minister, including their decency (as far as we can judge) as a human being, and evidence of integrity. The ‘used-car test” is useful: “Would I buy a used car from that man?”
Personally, it also matters to me what kind of a man he is and to what extent he has been positively influenced by the feminist campaigns and knowledge production of the last 40+ years in the UK and beyond. Memorably, in 2014 Cameron chastised senior Labour MP, Angela Eagle, in Parliament, telling her to “Calm down dear”. . . . neatly combining sexism and ageism. I’d say such behaviour makes you unfit for office as PM or MP.
The economy and social values.
What was the great objective behind C19 liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter, while leaving the economic sphere to capital. (Yaris Varoufakis [18 02 2015] ‘How I became an erratic Marxist.’ The Guardian.) Emphasis added.
We are living with the consequences of this, and the urgent challenge facing us is how to rejoin economics and politics, in the service of sustainability, before we reach meltdown. The outcome of this general election will be pivotal to this process.
On Tuesday 10 February 2015, Dale Vince, founder of renewable energy provider Ecotricity, announced he would donate £250 000 to Labour to fight “the existential threat” of a second-term Tory government. (Heather Stewart & Jennifer Ranking [14 02 2015] ‘The capitalists putting money on Labour’. The Guardian). Simon Franks, co-founder of LoveFilm, followed with declaration of his public backing for Miliband and his team.
Vince cites Cameron’s opposition to onshore wind and even solar power, his indifference to climate change and complying with agreed carbon targets. (Whereas the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, was formerly Secretary of State for energy and climate change.) Vince rages against “the proliferation of food banks”, the “spiteful bedroom tax” and “the hypocrisy of tax breaks and avoidance at the top and the merciless clampdown on benefits at the bottom”. He says he thinks “Cameron has turned out to be Thatcher with knobs on”.
That sense of fairness and social justice motivates Franks too. He thinks “there will always be a divide between those who want to represent the nation as a whole, and those who want to represent a certain group” (cited Stewart & Ranking, 14 02 2015).
Franks says Miliband was right to open the debate about business and its role in society – and understands why many voters are deeply sceptical:
There are absolutely some business people out there who seem not to give a damn about the environment, about fairness, about workers’ rights.
What these two entrepreneurs share is their criticism of the direction our society has taken under Cameron’s leadership, for example, towards increasing inequality and division. Joanna Mack & Stewart Lansley, authors of Breadline Britain: The Return of Mass Poverty (2015), are amongst those who have documented this deterioration and fragmentation.[i] Mack (18 02 2015) reports:
Poverty in the UK is at a 30 year high. The rise is not explained by a sudden explosion of a culture of poverty, nor by out-of-control benefits. Rather, it is because of a surge in the numbers of working poor. It’s about the way that the politically driven shift in power from the workforce to corporations has shrunk the share of the cake going to the bottom half of the labour force, leaving growing numbers at the mercy of low-pay, zero-hours and insecure contracts. (‘How to eradicate poverty: spend more on wages and strengthen unions”. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.
So it’s either premeditated and deliberate, or careless. Mack points out that “no advanced economy achieves a low poverty level with low rates of social spending”. And social spending is funded by taxes. That was the UK’s postwar achievement. Politicians need to accept that “poverty is driven by an accumulated reduction in opportunities, in pay and in life chances”. It follows that poverty is neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable, and the current humanitarian crisis in the UK is no natural disaster, but man-made. Mack argues that the new economic model required means:
confronting corporate interests and reversing the sustained decline in workforce bargaining power in the UK. International evidence shows that the higher the level of trade union membership, the lower the degree of inequality. (Emphasis added.)
And that includes, she reminds us, targeting the persistent gender pay gap by raising women’s wages. According to the UN, the gender pay gap will not close for another 70 years (06 03 2015, The Guardian). Mack identifies the national turning point:
The 1980s decision to embrace the market, union-busting and deregulation, with the accompanying disinvestment in public housing and rolling privatization (was) one of history’s great political blunders.
This is a history that people have lived through or been born into, without necessarily realising that it was such a significant turning point in our society: not a tweak, but an overturning of values and practices that had underpinned it since the advent of Labour politics and government in the postwar period. (See Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry’s Last Stand).
Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and chair of the Big Innovation Centre, is also in no doubt about the extent of the transformation required (11 02 2015):
The country needs more innovation, enlarged opportunity, a step change in the quality and quantity of its public infrastructure, higher-quality education, a housing revolution and a new social settlement. These are indispensible preconditions for any mass flourishing and countering inequality. . . (‘British capitalism is broken. Here’s how to fix it’. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.
Like Mack, Hutton stresses the importance of the role of trade unions in this recovery process:
The trade union, the cornerstone of worker voice, participation and representation, has to be reinvented and relegitimised to rebalance the new brutalities of our labour market – to become a countervailing force to those generating ever-higher levels of inequality. (Emphasis added.)
This, he argues, means becoming more like guilds – “guarantors of skills and fair wages – rather than confrontational representatives of a shrinking working class”. Zero-hours contracts have increased by more than 100,000 in a year (see Phillip Inman [26 02 2015] ‘Zero-hours Britain: number who rely on jobs with no guaranteed shifts leaps to 700,000.’ The Guardian). Who can doubt the urgency of a revised and renewed role for the unions?
And the Labour Party is the only political party that has the established (if at times fraught) political links to the trade unions, which can provide a basis for productive dialogue and co-ordinated action: for example in the move towards a living wage, set pay rates that mean immigrant labour cannot be exploited and used to undercut other workers’ pay, and due attention to women’s rights / workers’ rights and protections in the workplace. This is a conversation about a renewed political economy that awaits our urgent attention, and we can expect TUC leader, Frances O’Grady, to play her part in this process of change and renewal.
Health, education, homelessness.
The history and fate of the most iconic and fundamental innovation instigated by the first Labour government, the NHS has borne the impact of 30+ years of neoliberalism: outsourcing and fragmentation in the workplace; individualism and competitiveness raised to ‘virtues’ and necessities; and subsequent inefficiencies, catastrophes, profiteering and corruption (of both society and politics).[ii]
Given the number of private health companies that have donated money to the Tory party or with Tory links that have won NHS contracts, the corporate feasting overseen by Cameron’s coalition can hardly be a surprise. (Seamus Milne [08 01 2015] ‘Corporate feasting will devour the NHS’. The Guardian).
And while Blair’s New Labour government bears responsibility for accelerating this shift on its watch, Milne concludes:
What can’t be seriously doubted is that if Cameron returns to Downing Street in May, the NHS will be dismembered as a national service. . . . . Far from scaremongering, that’s the choice we face. (Emphasis added.)
This stark fact must surely figure in any rational voting decision at the general election, because this will be our last chance to save the NHS from such dismembering. (See Peter Bach’s film, Sell Off. The Abolotion of your NHS. www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvUIobKvXJg)
Remember that before he became Tory Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt described the NHS as “a failed experiment”. And anyone unsure of what the NHS replaced, should read (or watch his 2014 LP conference speech on utube) 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith’s book (2014) Harry’s Last Stand. How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it. See: http://harry’s%20Last%20Stand%20Labour%20Party%20conferencewww.youtube.com/watch?v=ultKvnw2h3Q
David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu (public health specialists) have studied the impact of austerity programmes administered by western governments in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis (see The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, 2013). Stuckler (16 05 2013) states:
If austerity had been run like a clinical trial, it would have been discontinued. The evidence of its deadly side-effects – of the profound effects of economic choices on health – is overwhelming (cited Jon Henley, ‘Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills’. The Guardian.)
By contrast, Laurence Rossignol, French minister for the family, elderly people and adult care, states in interview (04 03 2015):
France hasn’t entered the age of austerity. We have made the choice to reduce our public expenditure and to encourage growth while at the same time maintaining solidarity and the welfare state . . . . We are reducing other spending but we are not reducing spending on sickness, ageing or education. It is a choice. (Kate Murray, ‘Vive la différence on the welfare state. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.
It is clear that the implementation of rapid-fire Austerity by the Tory-led coalition (their political choice) has reached into the very heart of society, with consequences that go beyond the economic and the production of poverty, including the working poor, as Mack & Lansley (2015) highlight. Like our health service, the education system has been purposefully stripped back and reformed by the Tories. The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, produced by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick, and a year in the writing, found that:
Creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically removed from the education system. (Mark Brown [18 02 2015] ‘Creativity draining away from schools and access to arts too restricted, report reveals’. The Guardian).
One of the commissioners, David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, said that pupils’ involvement in dance, theatre, music and film would enhance their success in other non-arts subjects and “encourage young people to be hungry for equality and democracy” (cited Brown, 18 02 2015). A Tory government has never understood the role of creativity across the board, in life not just entertainment or industry; or creativity as a human right central to health and wellbeing (rather than an elite entitlement). Nor has it ever genuinely enthused about equality and democracy and their interconnectedness. It is not part of their DNA.
Defending the status quo of inherited power and entitlement is the Right’s enduring reflex agenda, and expanding profit-making opportunities for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the population. These historical facts should not be forgotten as we decide which party to elect to government in May 2015. It’s not just about choosing between a clutch of policies, but about what a party stands for; whose interests it represents; who it cares about (based on available evidence); and what kind of society we want to be. Asked to compare France and the UK, Rossignol responds (04 03 2105): “Perhaps we could say France is still a welfare state; we are more at ease with public spending in these areas”.
Will Hutton understands the connection between the arts and sciences and technology, and has long focused his attention on the importance of creating “the smartest economy for Britain”, which “cannot be constructed without enfranchised citizens” (11 02 2015, The Guardian):
The smart economy and the smart society are two sides of the same coin – and smart societies are impossible to create without fairness, justice and enfranchisement.
Fairness, justice and enfranchisement have never been preoccupations of the UK Right. Historically, these are Labour movement values, human rights and social justice discourses, which have sprung from the liberation campaigns of C19 and C20, including anti-racist politics, feminism, gay liberation / LGBTU actvism. But historical forgetfulness, youth and/or ignorance of the facts obscure this reality for many voters in 2015.
The neoliberal years have cultivated cut-throat competitiveness, dominance and submission, where personal greed functions as both means and ends. This is the world of the “apex predator” (so powerfully captured by sociologist, Richard Sennett (2012) in his wonderful book, Together.The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Co-operation), where there is no reciprocity and winner takes all. This produces an unsustainable economy and society, manifesting the “irrationality” Yanis Varoufakis ascribes to (turbo) capitalism (see final section below).
Like Dale Vince and Simon Franks, Hutton supports Miliband’s critical agenda re. business and the economy:
To argue for the reform of capitalist enterprise should not be interpreted as ‘anti-business’; rather it is to be anti-dysfunctional business.
Put another way: “We should not confuse a pro-business stance with a pro-rich stance”. (Ha-Joon Chang [04 03 2015] ‘Leave aside the tired old mantra – here’s what ‘pro-business’ really means’. The Guardian).
Hutton sees Labour as “in transition”, and urges it “to complete its transition, to pick up this programme (see Hutton, How Good We Can Be, 2015) or something like it, and implement the change we need to show how good we can be”. But there are countervailing forces: powerful vested interests, whose influence and affluence have been allowed to soar into the stratosphere on the back of neoliberal marketisation and its rampant inequality.[iii]
Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds (as recent financial scandals since 2007 in particular demonstrate), and like most predators, their lack of remorse, guilt or shame expose the ethical void at the heart of their actions. This makes them dangerous (like the psychopath), not just greedy; and enemies of democracy itself, which they see as an obstacle to their profit-making and their drive for dominance and absolute control. They must be stopped, or at the very least reigned in, and the next general election is a crucial strategic stage in that process. Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang (04 03 2015) contends:
We have allowed the idle rich parading as wealth-creating, rule-breaking business people, and powerful industry lobbies, to abuse the idea of being pro-business for their own sectional interests for far too long.
An unequal power struggle.
Perhaps more than any previous general election, the 2015 general election is a mighty power struggle for a very big prize: democracy itself. Rafael Behr (04 02 2015) notes that:
Labour has the ground troops; the Tories have the media and friendly tycoons. It’s hardly a fair fight. (‘Can Miliband’s foot soldiers withstand Tory air supremacy?’ The Guardian.)
He details the inequality:
(The Tories) have more money, more press support and a simpler message than Labour. Twice in the last week, Conservative-leaning newspapers have given front-page prominence to business barons, one of them a Tory peer, foretelling apocalypse if Miliband is elected.
If the Tories are that alarmed, doesn’t that indicate that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party are, unlike the Green Party, seen as a real threat to Tory vested interests and practices? For example, the dismantling of public sector values and workplace rights and protections; the marketization of health, social care, probation, education and housing; withdrawal of support for environmental protections and green technologies; and their calculated demonization and impoverishing of the poor, the unemployed and those with disabilities.[iv] Alan Quinn, a skilled fitter at BAE and Labour councillor for Prestwich, when asked why he thinks Miliband attracts so much hostility, instantly replies that it’s because he stands up to vested interests, and lists a few examples of Miliband’s initiatives as Labour Party leader.
If Ed Miliband is that useless, why do the press spend so much time vilifying him? I think they see him as a threat, as a man who will stand up for the ordinary people (cited Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Ready, steady Ed.’ The Guardian Weekend).
Behr (04 02 2015) notes that “the constituents from whom we have heard the least are the ones who feel neither tribal loyalty nor visceral loathing; the ones who don’t even know there’s a war on”. (Emphasis added.) This detachment has political consequences for everyone, and always benefits the Right. “Why we must stand up for the homeless”, says UK comedian Josie Long on the front cover of The Big Issue in the North: i.e. the disenfranchised, those without a vote to cast, because they have no fixed address. Long is clear that Tory policies are “there to service the rich”. “They have no interest in eradicating poverty,” says Long (talking to John Stansfield, The Big Issue in the North. 23 02 2015 – 01 03 2015) and she expands her point:
The government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable people all the time. We should judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and we’re not doing very well at that.
Seeking election in 2010, Cameron made the same pronouncement, almost word for word. His government’s record since constitutes more than a technically ‘broken promise’, and voters should take this into consideration. It’s hard evidence of venal contempt for those who require society’s support in order to lead a dignified life.
With individual voter registration replacing whole household registration, the Tories can anticipate that many non-Tory voters will have dropped off the electoral register before the 2015 general election; the poorest, the most isolated, those suffering ill health or disability, and/or the young and inexperienced, for example. Those referred to by Behr above as “the ones who don’t even know there is a war on”. So for those of us who will vote, it cannot simply be like a ‘shopping expedition’ involving a feel-good consumerist choice: picking what we want for ourselves as individuals off the political shelf.
Rob Ford, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, thinks that for a certain proportion of the electorate, voting is an “expressive act. . . . . they are thinking: I want to send a message, make an expression about what sort of person I am”. (Cited Esther Addley [28 02 2015] Guardian profile: Natalie Bennett. ‘Her selling point is strategy – there’s more to leadership than interviews’.)
That the biggest spike in Green Party membership came immediately after Natalie Bennett’s recent media performance, widely described as “the worst political interview in history” (Addley, 28 02 2015), suggests there is truth in Ford’s observation. On the face of it, this spike is evidence of political incompetence or human frailty eliciting support. As coded protest? But Ford fails to make the link between such “expressive” behaviour and the ambient neoliberal consumerism that nurtures it, turning a potential act of political engagement into individualist consumer performance.
Vijay Patel (25 02 2015) has a reason for voting at the next general election. He has a learning disability, volunteers at MENCAP, and got involved with Mencap’s general election campaign, Hear my voice:
Because I think it is important for people with a learning disability to vote. That way the government can understand the issues and challenges we face. (‘Second thoughts’, Society Guardian.
This is the move away from disempowerment towards enfranchisement, from victim status towards social participation and equality. Women’s suffrage campaigns from C18 on were similarly driven by a sense of being marginalized, ignored, disadvantaged and stigmatised (see for example, Amanda Vickery’s exhilarating new TV series, ‘Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power. BBC2: from 25 02 2015). C20 and C21 campaigns against racism, homophobia, misogyny and sexism, for example, have all had an impact on national and local politics and society, partly through exercising suffrage and exerting pressure on parliamentary representatives and process.
However, Patel is still undecided about who to vote for (as are many young students when questioned on camera). Being unaware of the historical record of the main parties with regard to social justice, equality and disability issues, for example, Patel’s uncertainty bespeaks a lack of information and political awareness, as if there were a range of rational options amidst the cacophony of opportunistic spin and rhetoric. This private, ‘consumerist’ approach will dilute the political impact of a defined public constituency, made visible when people act collectively and strategically on the basis of relevant information.
Fragmentation rules in the market place; market segmentation ultimately reduces us all to ‘one’: competing against other ‘ones’ for attention, status, legitimation. In addition, those unaccustomed to thinking politically about their lives and society, may recoil from taking that next step, and continue to define the issues that concern them more simply (e.g. as “wanting better services”). This inhibition can manifest itself in (mental) health groups and among working-class pensioners, for example. The hold of years of internalised deference, subordination and sense of inferiority can be hard to break.
Digital strategists complain that it has proved almost impossible for those who come to politics through a single facet of their identity to subsume themselves in a wider movement: good luck persuading that pro-choice activist to become a Labour party member (Helen Lewis [28 02 2015] ‘Young people don’t vote’. The Guardian).
Single issues do not necessarily provide sufficient contextual understanding and analysis of power and power relations. Referring to campaigning and action on climate change, Bill McKibben realised:
This fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice and reason. We won the argument, but that didn’t matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power (cited Alan Rusbridger [07 03 2015] ‘Why we put climate change on the cover’. The Guardian).
Behr (04 02 2015) found that in every marginal seat he visited, “there is disdain for politics in general rather than focused rage against the Tories” (Behr, The Guardian.) Disdain is not a political response, but a kind of inertia. It makes no demands of us to think, to struggle with the issues that confront society, whereas political awareness entails some form of engagement that disturbs our status quo; as well as engendering uncertainty, that most difficult and pregnant of existential states. By contrast, it is certainty that marks out the authoritarian, the fascist, the fundamentalist and the powerful.
MENCAP may have set up a campaign, Hear my voice, to encourage those with disabilities to get registered and vote, but perhaps it has sought to maintain a certain neutrality, and not facilitated access to good quality historical and policy information, because this is indubitably political and seen as out of order for a charity. Cameron has accused charities (and recently the bishops) of overstepping the mark in this regard. Keep out of politics is the message. And charities are more vulnerable to intimidation than bishops.
The political scandals continue to roll out – latterly, a tale of two former foreign secretaries, Malcolm Rifkin (Tory) and Jack Straw (Labour), displaying greed, arrogance and vanity in equal measure in secretly filmed footage from an undercover investigation into cash for access (22 02 2015, ‘Politicians for Hire’, Channel 4 Dispatches). Unfortunately, public disdain may turn to contempt and anger, but not necessarily dissent and votes, and thereby effects a compounding of the neoliberal-induced democratic deficit, as people turn away from the ballot box, letting the powerful through unimpeded. As 91 year old, lifelong Labour voter, Harry Leslie Smith cautions (2014):
Each time we are silent, we encourage those who are more powerful than us or who have a vested interest in the policy of austerity to profit from our silence. If we are tempted to say to ourselves, “I won’t vote, it’s not worth it”, we have to remember who among our numbers will vote, and whose voices will be heard above ours.
His strategic counsel contrasts sharply with that of George Monbiot (28 01 2015) who is sanguine about the fate of Labour in 2015:
Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. . . . If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe (George Monbiot, ‘Follow your convictions – this could be the end of the politics of fear’. The Guardian).
Certainly, if it’s a “dismal choice between two versions of market fundamentalism” (Monbiot), many voters will feel frustrated (myself included). But what are the likely consequences of following Monbiot’s exhortation to vote Green in 2015?
According to Alberto Nardelli (19 02 2015), “Cameron’s best hope of a Tory-led stable government in May is that the Greens will add to their 7% support”. (‘How a Green surge could spell disaster for Miliband.’ The Guardian):
With an outright majority seemingly out of reach for both main parties at this stage in the race, the path to a Tory-led stable government would most likely need to be paved by UKIP receding and the Green surge escalating.
On the basis of a yougov overall voting intention poll, Nardelli reports that “The Greens led by Natalie Bennett, could influence the election results in at least 18 seats, helping David Cameron survive”. (Emphasis added.) This won’t bother Monbiot, who chirpily speculates that:
Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies almost no-one wants. Yes, that might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous[v] times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up. . . . Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope. (Emphasis added.)
Five more years of pain for whom, George? As I said, my friends and others cannot take five more years of this. And that is not an intellectual, ideological or lifestyle choice. How distant you are from the most damaged lives, the newly vulnerable, the working poor, the chronically desperate.
Similarly, lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas, while saying that another Tory government is the last thing she wants to see, admits that “in the long term, it could be the best thing possible for the Greens if Labour lost” (cited Simon Hattenstone [28 02 2015] ‘The only Green in the village. The Guardian Weekend.) So it’s the future prospects of the party (or the careers of individual MPs – Lucas only has a majority of 1,252 in her Brighton constituency) that matter, not the country, not the survival of the NHS, the welfare state and its public sector, and not the swaths of victims of current Tory policies.
The idea of the Green Party as somehow an ethical counter to current politics, concerned with “the bigger issues”, as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently put it: “the soil, the loss of biodiversity, climate change” (cited Addley, 28 02 2015), would seem to fly out the window at this point.
Monbiot tells us to dump “the politics of fear”. However, there are reasons to be fearful; the evidence has mounted (not least on people’s nerve-endings). But the public schoolboy is trained to see fear as weakness, a lack; whereas fear is also a function of hard experience, of brutality, cruelty and exploitation, a mark of awareness and understanding. It alerts us to danger. Monbiot’s rhetorical flourishes appear to be rooted in his own privilege and experience of entitlement that provide him with intellectual and emotional distance and cover. His customary intellectual flight this time leaves those with clipped wings behind, in the gutter. And some of his previously devoted readers, gutted at his disregard for the expanded numbers of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and damaged created by this government’s policies.
By contrast, Alexis Tspiris, the new Greek prime minister, and Yanis Varoufakis, new Greek finance minister, have been paying close attention to the “humanitarian crisis” of the Greek people. And they recognise the urgency of relief for those who have suffered most from imposed Austerity measures. Recalling his years in the UK as a young man as Thatcher came to power, Varoufakis discloses how he had thought that perhaps her election was a good thing, that it would provide the short, sharp shock to Britain’s working and middle classes that would re-invigorate progressive politics:
Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better”. As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. (Adapted reprint 18 02 2015.) Emphasis added.
Monbiot has clearly experienced no such epiphany.
‘This Groundhog Day election” (Behr, 25 02 2015. The Guardian).
The choice between Labour and Tories at the next election is stark, with great consequences for the country, yet they are drifting into a campaign that feels in some ways eerily like the last one, only more desperate. (Behr, 25 02 2015. ‘British politics isn’t so much rotten as past its use-by date’.) Emphasis added.
Behr is routinely a perceptive and probing political analyst, but this analogy is glib and potentially dangerous: likely to re-enforce the apathy, cynicism and despair already evident and being talked up by the media (here The Guardian). He deploys neoliberal, consumerist discourse: identifying something as past its use-by date means we throw it out. But this is not a political option at a first-past-the-post, UK general election, as explained earlier. So Behr’s statement has to count as another disappointing, Guardian rhetorical flourish. It would seem to fall into the trap identified by Steve Richards (26 02 2015): “The BBC reports bewildering events but it fails to help us understand them” (The Guardian). Richards expands his point about the lack of analytic depth, insight and courage:
There tends to be a bias in favour of the latest political fashions as long as they cannot be defined as ‘left’ or ‘right’.
Similarly, Martin Kettle (06 02 2015) points to the role played by “the fashionable conceit that the two main UK parties have nothing significant to say about the modern world and that there is no difference between them anyway” (‘Britain is slowly breaking up yet it seems no one cares’. The Guardian). He contends that “Both parts of this claim are false”. Similarly: “the SDP’s recurrent claim that Labour and the Conservatives are joined at the hip – a pair of indistinguishable English parties – is an astonishing audacity”: a political ploy. Yet this idea persists as a reason for either not choosing at all (not voting) or for not voting Labour.
South of the border, the media preoccupies itself with the presumed symmetry between UKIP on the one hand (seen as mainly a threat to the Tories) and the Greens on the other (seen as a threat to Labour). Certainly UKIP is a party of the (extreme) Right (mainly comprising Tories and funded by the same very rich people, bankers and hedge funds). But is it correct to see the Greens as a party of the Left? Suzanne Moore (28 01 2015) demurs:
If the Greens are the protest vote of the Left, then the Left has become a fairly meaningless term. Half of them are about as left as the Lib Dems. The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative (‘Forget the Greens – if the UK wants a truly leftwing party, it might have to grow its own’ The Guardian).
During my years attending CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) members’ annual conferences, and national FoE (Friends of the Earth) events, I noticed this conservative culture: unlike Labour, these were overwhelmingly white, middle-class participants, many of whom seemed untouched by the liberatory campaigns of the C20 (black activism, gay liberation / LGBTU activism, feminism, etc.), never mind labour and trade union politics. Like all other public spaces during these years, they were male-dominated, with no evidence of gender analysis or understanding of sexual politics, for example. I was aware of being seen as ‘political’ in a way others were not at the time.
Although this has changed for the better, with more women and different men involved, and greater acknowledgement of the connections between environmental and social justice issues, for example, Moore’s critique stands, as the Green party rushes to identify itself as a political party rather than a protest group in time for the general election in May 2015, fielding a hugely increased number of candidates across the country, ahead of having the necessary infrastructure, coherent political reach or enough suitably experienced candidates.
And in the context of Tory-led ‘coalition’ politics, the demise of the Lib Dems, the rise of UKIP and the SNP, this expanded electoral presence constitutes an explicit challenge to one party only: Labour. Moore (28 01 2015) pinpoints the Green Party’s political deficit:
What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanism of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest. (Emphasis added.)
When you attend Labour Party annual conferences, the party’s diversity is manifest: women and men of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, social class, sexual preference, ability and health status. These gatherings really look like our society, as well as presenting a microcosm of the kind of society we want to be. No other party is as genuinely inclusive; and no other party has been changed by anti-racism, gay rights and feminism, for example, in the way that Labour, particularly since Ed Miliband became leader, has responded.[vi] And with Ed as leader and more women Labour MPs and local councillors, loads of diverse prospective parliamentary candidates in the pipeline (including just selected, Naz Shah, chair of the mental health charity, Sharing Voices Bradford, who will challenge RESPECT MP George Galloway in Bradford, Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is no longer such a lone feminist star.
I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010, in order to vote for Ed as leader: here was the chance to avoid electing an alpha male, a stereotypical, testosterone-fuelled ‘bloke’, prone to gender-blind gaffes, misogynist attitudes, wandering hands, homophobic and racist slip-ups and disablism. This guy seemed intelligent, intellectual, a decent human being; I detected integrity and compassion.
Miliband recently declared: “Don’t mistake decency for weakness” (cited Wintour & Hattenstone). And pertinently, Hattenstone offers his theory (07 03 2015, The Guardian Weekend): “We, the public, hate alpha-male politicians, but we don’t trust them when they aren’t alpha males”. Miiband responds: “I often disagree, but I don’t take delight in being disagreeable. That’s probably where I am like my mum”.
American David Axelrod (16 02 2015) worked as Barack Obama’s aide for his two successful elections, and has been working with Miliband and the Labour Party towards the UK general election in May 2015. He draws a sharp contrast between the Tories and the Labour leader:
The Tories just don’t look at the British economy through the lens of everyday people. They don’t have a kitchen table philosophy of economics and that’s why recovery hasn’t reached kitchen tables around Britain (cited Ed Pilkington interview with David Axelrod, ‘Obama was a once-in-a lifetime candidate. . . Miliband’s a smart, earnest guy’. (Cited ‘Ed Pilkington meets David Axelrod’. The Guardian).
Miliband, adds Axelrod, “understands a healthy economy is not one where a few people do fantastically well”. Miliband has openly criticised New Labour for failing to tackle inequality, for “failing to narrow the gap between rich and poor. . . It was more that as long as the people at the bottom are doing ok, does the gap matter? New Labour was too sanguine” (cited Patrick Wintour & Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Miliband: Don’t mistake decency for weakness’. The Guardian). Miliband thinks the gap does matter.
In 2013, Yanis Varoufakis, now the new Greek finance minister, who has worked as an academic economist in the US, Australia and the UK, wrote “a searing account of European capitalism and how the Left can learn from Karl Marx’s mistakes” (‘How I became an erratic Marxist’ [18 02 2015] The Guardian), which was originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb. In it he seeks to convince radicals that:
We have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate an alternative.
As Greek finance minister for a ‘far-left’ party in 2015, he is now involved in the complex, practical politics of this mission; and he cites he importance of his time in the UK, as Thatcher took over, as part of his preparation:
The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a long-lasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis.
Victims (the oppressed) without a politics do not leap to the barricades, do not participate collectively in political struggle, when day-to-day lives are struggle enough. They are more likely to withdraw, fall silent, self harm and/or lash out indiscriminately, as opposed to targeting the political ‘enemy’.
Varoufakis is all too conscious of the likely consequences of the ‘radical’ option: advocating dismantling of the eurozone and breaking up the European union, and asks:
Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive Left . . . . ? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neo-fascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the Eurozone.
His analysis is relevant to UK politics, our general election in May 2015, and our continuing participation in the EU. The nature of our participation and which groups we align ourselves with within the EU depends on which of the two main parties is elected to government in May. There is a lot at stake. Varoufakis deploys his “erratic Marxism”:
The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment . . .
This irrationality breeds inequality, instability, unsustainability. It disenfranchises and disempowers swaths of the population as both citizens and consumers. It is therefore both an attack on democracy as well as capitalism: poor people are less likely to participate socially, culturally and politically in society and they cannot buy enough stuff to keep the economy afloat. So Varoufakis risks advocating his approach, of trying to “save European capitalism from itself”:
Not out of love for European capitalism, for the Eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis. (Emphasis added.)
How different this is from Monbiot‘s stance as bystander, contemplating with equanimity the prospect of the pain being allowed to run on for a few years more. . . .
Like Varoufakis, American playwright and gay Jewish activist Tony Kushner (most famous for his brilliant, epic film c25 years ago about the US and Aids, Angels in America) is no bystander with regard to progressive politics. He has refused to go along with the disillusionment in Barack Obama. “Instead, he accuses his Democratic detractors of political narcissism”, declaring that “the Left is shooting itself in the foot”. (Cited Charles Laurence [01 09 2010] ‘It’s a crazy time’, The Guardian):
I don’t want to sound contemptuous, but there is a tendency to see politics as an expression of your own personal purity, a character test. It’s not. It’s about learning to advance a progressive agenda by understanding the workings of democracy. (Emphasis added.)
A progressive agenda is never just individualistic, vested interest politics (that’s for the Right). Kushner feared that as a consequence of this development, his “community” would damage the Democrats’ chances of fending off a rightwing resurrection in the form of Sarah Palin, or worse. And that might send gay rights, his core issue, back to the Regan era (cited Laurence).
Varoufakis’ reflects on the debilitating legacy of the Thatcher years (18 02 2015):
Instead of radicalizing British society, the recession that Thatcher’s government so carefully engineered, as part of its class war against organised labour and against the public institutions of social security and redistribution that had been established after the war, permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics in Britain. Indeed it rendered impossible the very notion of values that transcended what the market determined as the ‘right’ price. (Emphasis added.)
Overnight, kindness, generosity, mutuality, reciprocity, cooperation, love, for example, were rendered ‘old-fashioned’: signs of weakness, lack of status, ‘beyond their use-by date’ in market language. This change was a gendered shift, as politics and society disparaged these ‘soft skills’ and adopted the ‘hard’ values and practices of the predatory alpha male – Sennett’s “apex predator” (Sennett, p85). Dominance and control have become bywords for ‘success’; exploitation and violence normalised; commodified and sold on as video games and films. Meanwhile the environment is exploited, exhausted and sold off for profit and power. Divisions and sectarianism on the Left have flourished.
Those who lived through Thatcher’s years as adults will remember “the neoliberal juggernaut that crushed all dissent in its path” (Varoufakis), even after she was removed from office. Cameron’s Tories have since taken up where she left off, and cut further and deeper into civil society. In May we can reclaim our dignity and humanity, by making sure this is a one-term Tory government. We can learn from Varoufakis’ retrospective analysis of the UK and the broader, contemporary European challenge. But we also need to prove him wrong about Thatcher’s indelible, irrevocable legacy. A Labour government led by Ed Miliband can facilitate that revival and renewal of our democracy and our society.
In addition, the next climate change negotiations take place in Paris in December 2015. For the UK to be represented by a second-term Tory government would be disastrous, making binding targets and constructive negotiations impossible. Naomi Klein hopes these negotiations can be:
a moment where there is convergence between climate justice, anti-austerity and labour movements. And unless we see that coming together of movements and the convergence – we don’t stand a chance (cited Kim Bryan [Spring 2015] ‘This changes everything: a chat with Naomi Klein. Clean Slate. The Practical journal of Sustainable Living, No.95: 14-16).
So there’s a great deal more than usual at stake when we cast our votes in the May 2015 general election: nationally, internationally, and globally.[vii]
val walsh / 07 03 2015
[i] See also Stewart Lansley (2012) The Cost of Inequality. Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery. See also Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford the Rich.
[ii] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2013) NHS SOS. How the NHS was betrayed and how we can save it). Also Kerry-Anne Mendoza (2015) Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy.
[iii] See Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford Rich People.
[iv] See Mack & Lansley , and Mendoza .
[v] Fissiparous: C19 word, from Latin fissus (split) + parere (to bring forth). The use of this adjective tells us who Monbiot assumes his readership to be, and/or his attitude to us. Orwell would have cringed.
[vi] But see Val Walsh (10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ Also, ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’ togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[vii] See Val Walsh (10 08 2014) ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region.’ (Submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Sustainability.) togetherfornow.wordpress.com