No Turning Back: The Magnitude of the Global Economic Crisis Means That We Have to Change Completely the Way We Live. to Do That, We Need a New Kind of Politics-Andsomething Bigger and Broader Than the Labour Party

Article excerpt

The centre of politics has shifted. As Barack Obama's victory and frantic first weeks in office prove, to talk about equality, fairness, control of markets and environmental sustainability is to reflect not just the aspirations, but the objective interests of the political mainstream. The neoliberal thinking that dominated the industrial world for nearly 30 years has led to a financial crisis, which in turn caused the global downturn. Yet if the United States has been seized by a new sense of hope, here in Britain there is a grim sense of business as usual.

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The leaderships of the Conservative and Labour parties may advance different policies in response to the recession, but their underlying analyses are depressingly similar. The downturn is there to be ridden out, whereupon politics and society will return to where they were. A bunkered and backward-looking elite are now ignoring what is happening on the ground: in essence, we are caught in a very dangerous disjunction between the actions of career politicians and the aspirations of wider society.

The government's responses to changed times have been either too timid or, on the few occasions ministers have still affected to be radical, based on the very ideas that are now part of history. As evidenced by the reluctance to insist on the separation of retail from investment banking, running through the supposed remedies for the financial crisis is a discredited belief in light-touch regulation. Thanks to intense corporate lobbying, it now looks as if promised moves on the gender pay gap, flexible working and parental leave are on hold. The same craven approach to corporate power explained the lamentable decision on a third runway at Heathrow.

Having long heard the claim that social democracy was held in check by powerful forces pushing in the opposite direction, we now find that, even at a moment of unprecedented opportunity, Labour still genuflects to the forces and interests of big business. Look, for example, at the recent debate in cabinet about bonuses, and the contention - reportedly voiced by some ministers--that any harder line might somehow spoil 1 Labour's business credentials. To cap it all, the government is reprising the tired old trick of defining policy against its own side, and advocates part-privatisation of that totemic public institution, the Royal Mail.

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Over the past three decades, private interests have been not just allowed, but encouraged, to eat into the public realm. The dysfunctional consequences of uncontrolled markets have allowed government to grow ever more intrusive and controlling. In the face of a growing environmental emergency, well-being and sustainability have become terms that embody little more than cynical window-dressing. Now we have the worst economic crisis in at least 80 years. Clearly, there can be no turning back to the failed and discredited politics of old. Instead, we need to use this time of emergency to aim for a different future and to get there by different means.

The absence of forward thinking among the political class, however, is absurd. It is as if, when in power, Clement Attlee would have quietly wished to back-pedal to the mess of the 1920s, or Margaret Thatcher had turned out to be nostalgic for the era of the three-day week and incomes policies. Instead, both politicians realised that the people were moving to a new centre and they had the audacity to capitalise on it. Today our leaders speak the language of defensive line-holding and incremental adjustment even as politics is in flux. If the political elite do not address these new times, uglier forces may yet take their chance. Take note: with the European elections looming, the British National Party may gain its first platform within national politics; police intelligence predicts "middle-class riots".

In response to the crisis of market fundamentalism, certain people (including, ironically enough, some of those who have spent their entire careers spurning anything deemed "Old Labour") seem to have embraced a revival of a pre-Thatcher politics, whereby increasing the reach of the state becomes an end in itself and any idea of credible progressive values falls away. …