Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

mg

[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

I kissed a Tory, and I liked it

Since 2008, LGBT Labour have proudly sported their Never Kissed a Tory (Never Will) t-shirts, especially at Pride events throughout the country. I’m sure LGBT Labour meant no considerable harm when they thought that segregation between who you can or should and can’t or shouldn’t kiss was written across their t-shirts. Oh, the irony. Perhaps the intention was only to poke fun at the Tories – but is such an act of immaturity really necessary? Pride marches throughout the UK have sprung up to celebrate diversity, sexual freedom and solidarity to all those who identify as LGBT. Being a member of the Labour party and gay, I can only say I’m hugely disappointed by LGBT Labour. They are, unfortunately, only one of many examples of organisations and individuals that seek to perpetuate tribalism and adversarial politics. I understand entirely that political parties need to carve out their unique identity, and that they seek to differentiate themselves by drawing out their differences. However, the tribalism that is so pervasive in British politics is hugely damaging and does a significant disservice to politics. Tribalism is damaging to politics in three main ways, which I want to briefly spell out.

First, tribalism prevents the inclusion of a variety of groups. One tribe, by definition, will exclude another. There is a danger that this is going too far. The red camp will choose policy (a), so by definition the blue camp must choose policy (z). The public must decide which policy to take and a compromise between different sets of policies is unthinkable. It explains why coalition government has had such a hard time in the UK; why a compromise has become a synonym for weakness; and a U-turn a deadly sin. This is why the Liberal Democrats have been ravaged by public opinion and David Cameron is seen as spineless. Look towards the continent, and such compromise is not only accepted, but commended because it means that policies are more thought through. I am not saying that every party must always compromise with other parties; nor that we should seek to compromise. But there is a strong danger that total, uncompromising political parties are committing suicide. Their inflexibility explains why they are in such strong decline. A more open political party is able to attract a more diverse set of opinions, possibly a greater range of members and allows the party to carefully craft more policies that will stand the test of time. This is because more people are able to debate the issues and can form their opinions through inter-subjective reasoning. This is a strong principle that goes back to John Stuart Mill – we can move beyond pushing ‘dead dogma’ towards proposing ‘living truths’. [2] This will also enhance the legitimacy of political parties. [3]

Second, tribalism turns politics into a Punch and Judy show. Politics is nothing more than a spectacle for the public, which is a major discredit to politics in general. The polarisation of adversarial politics can lead to the alienation of political parties, political issues, and politicians more generally. For example, why is it not possible to be Conservative and a feminist, as Louise Mensch believes? I agree in the sense that feminism can transcend political party boundaries. I watched with interest a Newsnight debate between Mensch and Laurie Penny to discuss feminism, and disappointed that Penny couldn’t accept that there are different perspectives within feminism. Indeed, when Mensch wanted to attack the BBC on its male:female ratio, Penny barely agreed with her – she just couldn’t face it. [4] The point is that tribalism prevents reform in a range of areas because political parties are not willing to cross their camps.

Third, and finally, tribalism – at its most ferocious – is full of hatred. At our Students’ Union alone, debate between different politicos is so intense at times that you’d think a fight would break out at any moment. Insults are hurled across the different political groups, which have left a range of people hurt – physically and emotionally. One horrific example is the website Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet? I find something like that quite sad, because I don’t think politicians – of almost whatever ideology – are evil. [5] I would never celebrate the death of a politician, nor would I want to see a politician dead (having said that, I do agree with the makers of the website that Thatcher’s funeral should not be a state funeral). Unfortunately, in so many areas of politics, hatred is pervasive. Is there really a need for David Cameron to call Ed Balls ‘a muttering idiot’? No – that kind of language is entirely uncalled for. Even more despicable is George Osborne’s homophobic slur against Chris Bryant. Why do it? It does a disservice to politics, although sadly a culture that shows no sign of letting go.

The ultimate consequence of all this is that it alienates the public from getting involved with politics. Without doubt, politics should be about passionate debate. It should instil the hearts and minds of people, to fight for what they believe in. Politics is about contestation, persuasion, rhetoric, truth-telling. Of course there is a danger that calling for an end to tribalism could, in that sense, depoliticise Westminster (more on that next week). That, by far, is not the aim. The aim, rather, is to restore the credibility of politics by making it a more nobler practice. That calls for fewer jibes, more inclusion and greater awareness of different points of view. It calls for debate and contestation; it does not call for brawls and a winner-takes-all-mentality.

So, to go full circle – I hope that LGBT Labour stop wearing the Never Kissed a Tory t-shirts. Because I kissed a Tory, and I liked it. And I will continue to like it for a range of soppy reasons I don’t think I need to go into.

mg

[1] For example, see R. Behr’s account of coalition politics in his article in the New Statesman (04 June 2012), entitled ‘While Ed Miliband learns tennis, Cameron has been double-faulting’, p.13.

[2] J. S. Mill (2006 [1859]) On Liberty, London: Penguin Classics, p.42 – although the whole of Chapter II is excellent, let alone the book.

[3] On inter-subjective reasoning, see J. Habermas (1992) Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[4] Just as a disclaimer, I have respect for Mensch in that interview only. On countless other occasions she toes the party line to such an excruciating extent that it makes my blood boil – from defending Jeremy Hunt to her appearances on Have I Got News For You.

[5] Exceptions, of course, exist. *cough* BNP *cough* Nick Griffin.