Monday, 22 January 2018

The era of zombie politics

Britain is in a right old state. It faces innumerable challenges but it does not have the political machinery to adequately address them. Society has evolved but our politics has not. Our political parties are a throwback to a long dead era.

When I left school in the mid nineties my first proper job was at the local chemicals factory. It was the largest employer in the district and the last big industrial employer in the city. A city built on the textile industry during the industrial revolution. I was probably of the last generation to have that convenience.

By this time most of the mines in the county had closed, the textile industry had moved overseas and the steel mills were all but gone. The post-war era of mass employment was coming to a close. The unions had been defeated and call centres replaced factories. We had stepped into a new era as a services economy. The job-for-life era was over.

This process started with Margaret Thatcher’s industrial reforms, effectively gutting Labour’s powerbase and source of revenue. The traditional working class gradually atomised and vanished. With the right to buy state owned housing, the working classes became a property owning middle class. By 1995 the struggle for working class emancipation was over.

By this time we had acceded to the Maastricht Treaty, transcribing a number of EU rights into law, rendering the unions largely redundant. Labour had served its purpose. There were no major battles left to fight. What was clear, however, was that the Conservative Party had outstayed its welcome. Mired in sleaze, short on ideas and tired, it was swept aside by a new party. New Labour.

Tony Blair knew one thing. An old model socialist party could not win. Any Labour movement would have to reform as a party of social progress but carrying forward the economic liberalism promoted by Thatcher. It became a centrist social democrat party. Many view it as a mere extension of the Thatcher era in different clothes.

Then came the global financial crisis and the era of austerity. New Labour, tainted by the Iraq invasion, had also run out of steam. With public finances exposed to the ravages of the markets the axe began to fall on public sector jobs created to mask the effects of deindustrialisation.

Looking back one might even suggest that 2008 was probably the peak of Western civilisation and the crisis is what defines everything that has followed. We are now in the era of decline. Not industrial decline per se, rather we are in a state of political decline. The political power of the West is waning.

Now when we survey the political landscape we find hollowed out shells with no direction, no sense of purpose and no moral mission. We are in the era of zombie politics. The Conservative reformers had only one tool in the box. Market liberalisation. By the time David Cameron came to power there was little left to do. His administration was noted for being a spin heavy managerialist party really only there to keep the status quo ticking along while managing the fallout of the financial crisis.

In effect, the one-trick-pony Conservatives had completed their mission in transforming the economy from an industrial socialist country to a booming capitalist one. Like Labour, its mission was complete.

What both parties failed to note was the growing disquiet in the regions. A combination of mass immigration and hyper-globalisation had upturned communities and though we were a wealthier nation, we were not happier for it. The new order suited the urban middle classes adequately served by the traditional parties, but swathes of the hinterlands were left behind to rot. Fertile ground for a populist party like Ukip.

To cut a long story short, Ukip was able to leverage an EU referendum by eating into the working-class base of both parties, but especially the Conservatives whose rebrand as a centrist party in the shadow of Blair had failed to inspire. Promising a referendum was the only way to bring working class Tories back into the fold. It worked – but at the price of EU membership.

The problem for Britain is that, of itself, Brexit does not actually solve anything. It may certainly act as a catalyst and create the opportunities for change but there is no obvious political architect on the horizon to rebuild and reunite the country.

The Conservatives have no tools left in the box while Labour wants to turn back the clock and put the globalisation genie back in the bottle. Labour’s leadership is made up of old men from the socialist era, backed by a youth wing too young to know any better.

As CiarĂ¡n McGonagle puts it "Labour now resides in non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to global context, where increasing tax on upwardly mobile corporates and high earners inevitably leads to increased revenues without risk of relocation. Where the City's hegemony is inevitable and can be squeezed for new revenues as though other nations are incapable of competing for business. Where Government can pick and choose which international laws and regulations it deigns to adhere to without losing global influence in making those laws. Where the government can nationalise and subsidise industry at a whim without fear of reprisal or economic consequence".

As incomes are squeezed and as living standards decline the promise of a brighter yesterday resonates with those nostalgic for days gone by. Myself included. The problem is that after forty years of globalised governance no government has the freedom to do as it pleases. Nation states and blocs are no longer the most powerful actors. Every move is a negotiated compromise. Nothing happens in isolation of the global context.

Meanwhile, embedded in this zombie socialist party is a movement of postmodernist identarians seeking to impose their equality agenda on an unsuspecting public. One that seeks quality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. The new thought police. Consequently Britain is in the grip of its own internet culture war.

Ordinarily a party in such a state of disrepair would be thrashed into oblivion at the ballot box, but these are not ordinary times. The Conservative Party is similarly dysfunctional. The centrists of the old order have nothing to say for themselves while the momentum within the party comes from a rump of ultra-right capitalists who in their own way are stuck in a timewarp, seeking to recreate Thatcher’s victories. Their vision is equally unappealing.

In effect our entire political apparatus has been so self-involved it has failed to notice how governance has become more complex and interconnected and how technology has emancipated people. The old models simply don’t work. Both parties are seeking to graft obsolete ideologies on to a world that they don’t understand and seemingly do not want to. Their solutions are based on old scriptures but are in fact solutions in search of a problem.

As it happens, even taking Brexit into account, Britain is and will remain a fairly wealthy country. There will be challenges and setbacks but increasingly industry is moving toward a model of self-regulation effectively cutting governments out of the loop, where the economy pretty much runs on autopilot. The job of government is to figure out how and where to tax in and by how much without doing too much damage. If government exists for any reason in the modern era then it is to curb the excesses and mitigate the externalities of industry.

What ultimately plagues government is how to resolve the social malaise, the discontent and the increasing polarisation. We are in the midst of a national identity crisis, struggling to find a role in the world. We must come to terms with the end of the post-war settlement and reckon with the looming demographic crisis that brings into question the sustainability of our entitlements.

We have an infantilised population which is largely reflected in our politics. We demand change and sacrifices just so long as that change does not happen to us and that the sacrifice is made by somebody else. This creates a political deadlock where decisions are persistently deferred. We therefore become passengers as events happen to us without the necessary policy preparations. It will hit hard.

I rather suspect it unwise to hold our breath in hope of a white knight movement galloping to our rescue. The old parties run their little workshops to talk about renewal and reinvigoration but this is just political marketing; designing new campaigns to secure their incumbency. If there is to be a new politics it will have to happen from outside London.

Britain is in a limbo. No-one is quite sure how long it can limp on. The establishment will probably limp on through Brexit and for a time after, and it will probably take another turn of the wheel for the new generation to realise that the old parties have no answers. Beyond that it is impossible to say what the new order looks like. All we know is that politics as we know it cannot survive - and does not deserve to.

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