Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Building a Better Politics

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Building a Better Politics

Article excerpt

There are key turning points in our history, moments when it was not just our government that was shifting, but the foundations of our politics as well. One of those turning points was in 1945. Britain went into the Second World War governing an Empire that ruled half the world. We emerged - victorious over fascism - but heavily indebted. It is a matter of great pride for us as a country that our reaction to economic turmoil was to create the NHS and fight to eradicate what Beveridge called the five giants: want, disease, ignorance, idleness and squalor. We also balanced the budget. The post-war settlement was born of that challenge. At a moment of crisis, Britain fundamentally changed for the better.

Another turning point was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, which ended the post-war consensus. With her close ally Ronald Reagan, she ensured that market fundamentalism became our dominant ideology. The politics of the welfare state - of the compassionate state - was replaced by the triumph of free market individualism. The political consensus created then still has an impact today, thirty years later.

Politicians are fond of turning points. They are useful props. They are also much easier to spot in retrospect. But my contention is that we are now at a turning point of our own.

The global banking crisis of 2008 and the depression which followed it have combined with a crisis in our politics to create a volatile and dangerous moment. People are struggling and they do not see the government responding to their plight. We've lost confidence in an economic system that once delivered rising prosperity, but now delivers increasing inequality and insecurity.

Instead of politics responding to the crisis, this government has used it to pursue their ideological vision of a minimalist state where people in trouble sink or swim. Their 'cut and hope for the best' approach has not just undermined our prospects of economic recovery, it has also suggested to people that politics is powerless in the face of the demands of the markets. And what have we seen? A crisis of trust across all of our major institutions: parliament, police, the press - and an on-going decline in political engagement. People are hurting but no longer believe that politics is the answer to their problems. If we are not careful that will be the epitaph of our time - that people stopped believing that politics could change their lives for the better.

We've not just got a flat-lining economy, but a flat-lining democracy too. Thatcherism told a generation that they were in it for themselves; that the 'I' was more important than the 'we'. The reach of markets extended to the heart of our communities. Everything became a commodity to be bought and sold. Anything that didn't have a price was regarded as worthless. Commercial exchange was elevated over social interaction. We learned the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The UK became established as a consumer society with a culture which means that people today think that politics is a service they can chose to buy into or not. They do not regard it as a joint endeavour. It is as if they have been told that they should watch as passive spectators in the stands, and even the audience in the stands is dwindling.

In 1945, experience of war put a premium on working together in a common cause. Wartime spirit meant that everyone felt like a member of the team, they looked out for each other and believed that as a country they could do anything. In the words of the famous wartime poster, we would 'go forward together'.

Today our governing structures are clearly not delivering, but some are clinging on to the failed Thatcherite politics and economics of the 1980s. On the right they argue that we aren't being Thatcherite enough, but it was their economic model which crashed so spectacularly in 2008. We are at a point of change, and it is now up to us to meet the challenge of this new transition. …

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