Why it is a Real Time for Change!
The Scotsman, October 10th 2009
The three UK party conferences have now passed and the parties laid out their stalls. The countdown to the election has begun with only seven months to the start of the formal campaign next spring.
Cameron, Brown and Clegg all stressed their character, vision and engaged in the sort of political cross-dressing that has become the fashion following on from Tony Blair.
What was more revealing than what they said was what they didn’t say. We know Gordon Brown can’t say ‘sorry’, but Tony Blair never apologised for Iraq and sort of got away with it. David Cameron could not find it in himself to mention once ‘bankers’, ‘markets’ or the phrase ‘market failure’.
All three party leaders said little of substance on the domestic crisis which erupted a few months ago, namely the crisis of our political system begun by the expenses scandal. This should be natural territory for the reforming Lib Dems, but Clegg isn’t bursting with rage. Brown commented in passing, while Cameron devoted the most words, but neither dwelt on it, or saw the all-encompassing nature of it.
Brown declared that ‘politics need morals’ and made a series of proposals such as allowing voters to recall MPs and a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which may have begun a serious debate if he had made them when he first became Prime Minister, but look opportunist ‘window dressing’ now.
Cameron talked in a more rhetorical style of the age of ‘political disillusionment’ and his remedies, cutting MPs pay, pensions and their numbers, a clarion call even more threadbare than Brown’s, but with populist sensibility.
None of the three main UK parties recognise the seismic shift that has happened about our politicians and political classes in voters’ minds, which the expenses crisis only reinforced. David Cameron talked about people feeling ‘powerless at the hands of big government’, but had no understanding of the powerlessness people feel at the actions of bankers and financers.
What Cameron, Brown and Clegg have consistently refused to do is recognise the intertwining of the political and economic crises, and the crises of the political and economic classes.
For the last thirty years our political classes and received wisdom in business and media through Thatcherism and then Blairism/Brownism has told us that a new age is upon us. This required us to accept ‘change’ as a new mantra and the fact that ‘the status quo wasn’t an option’. Their idea of change turned out to be a very narrow and doctrinaire one, of letting markets be freer, keeping business regulation and taxes to a minimum, and emphasising that people had to look after themselves more and more.
This promise of freedom hasn’t produced more freedom, but anxiety and insecurity mixed with even more bossy authority and restrictions and isn’t very popular, but our entire political class bought into it. They tore up the explicit social contract which people understood had been made between government and voters after the war across employment, social rights, housing and pensions. The choice between the main parties now is between accepting all this and slightly more or slightly less telling you what you can and can’t do.
Gordon Brown used to talk radical change as ‘Red Brown’ in his youth but was always short on specifics. It is a tactic that served him well in the Blair years as he scowled in the shadows. Now Nick Clegg and David Cameron are steeped in presentation and synthetic indignation. This should be a golden opportunity for the Lib Dens with their desire for radical reform of our politics, but they seem eager to appear responsible. Cameron until now has seemed to know how to make the right gestures on the political crisis, without promising very much.
David Cameron did do something interesting in his leader’s speech, blaming all of the problems of the economic crisis and society on ‘big government’, a phrase which was meant to encompass the bureaucratic state and the failings of Labour. This was a politics which unashamedly celebrated the economic and political orthodoxies of recent years which have got us into this mess. Gordon Brown while emphasising a different agenda last week has made it clear that once the crisis is past, he sees the need to engage in a restoration, putting bankers and financers back in their rightful place.
None of the party leaders or their spokespeople went near the anger people feel at what has happened across institutional life, with politicians, corporates and media elites looking after themselves with pensions and bonuses while people worry about the future. This is one of the undercurrents of disillusionment with the BBC with Mark Thompson paying himself £834,000 plus a huge pension pot and Jonathan Ross worth £6 million a year because it is ‘competitive’ when this is completely untrue.
The scandals of Thompson and the BBC elite featherbedding themselves and continuing to do it as Rome burns is a wider tale of the corporate orthodoxies which have swept into the public sector. Aided by headhunter and recruitment agencies, CEOs set remuneration rates for CEOs in most of the public sector, as happens in the private sector.
It is our political system which allowed this and is continuing to excuse it. Cameron said that ‘our Parliament used to be a beacon to the world’, but is now ‘a laughing stock’. The truth is that our self-regulating political class still see themselves as the envy of the world. There is a direct link between the way they regulate themselves, act and see the world, and the economic and social values and interests they promote.
This leaves a mainstream politics of little choice and debate at the next UK election. The sacred cows which brought us to economic near-meltdown are still revered. The economic neo-liberalism which informed so much of the recent past is still the only philosophy around, and unrepentantly extending its grip over social and cultural life. None of the main UK parties are prepared to make the link between the economic and political crisis, and see them as part of the same crisis.
This is an example of the power of collective groupthink. It is no wonder that Cameron hasn’t ‘sealed the deal’, Brown so unpopular and Clegg invisible. This could prove advantageous for the SNP in Scotland, and a host of parties, from the Greens to BNP in England and Wales. The next election will see voters show their anger, not just at bankers and politicians, but BBC chiefs, quango chiefs and business leaders, who just don’t get it.
This will make for an unpredictable election which will throw up some surprises and unpleasant truths for all the mainstream parties and be a moment when it really is a ‘time for a change’.