It’s the politics,stupid

5 06 2009

The closest I came to Gordon Brown was in a club in Soho (not that sort) about eight years ago. He came in with Ed Balls, sat in silence looking uncomfortable for about fifteen minutes, then left. All I can remember otherwise is that he looked too large for the chair. Looking back I can now see this experience as a symbolic precursor of Brown’s time as Prime Minister.  He did not last long, had nothing distinctive to offer, never looked comfortable and had insufficent support. The only reason the analogy breaks down is because he was obviously too small for the job, not too big.

The leadership ‘challenge’ to Brown, such as it is, comes as yet another distraction from the serious problems raised by the recession. We have now had a string of spurious public debates since the recession started. The first was over greedy bankers, the second MPs expenses and now the infighting within a doomed party. The media and the political establishment have whipped themselves into a lather each time and one wonders what desperate trivia they will come up with once the supposed ‘silly season’ of summer news begins in earnest this month.

Nothing positive can come out of the Brown debacle whether he survives or not. None of the supposed challengers to Brown represent anything different in terms of politics or policy. The best that anybody can say about the frontrunner to replace Brown, Alan Johnson, is that he looks better on television. Labour has lost its way and the best hope it has is to limp towards a general election defeat next year.

The Conservatives stand to win the next election by default, despite having little distinctive to offer. A new Conservative government, elected on a vacuous political programme, would have little mandate to tackle the severe fallout from the recession predicted to hit the UK over the next 18 months. In those circumstances the cycle of decaying authority which has affected Labour over the past five years is likely to happen even faster to the Conservatives.

When Esther Rantzen is seen as the answer to the political vacuum in this country then surely we are asking the wrong question. The time must surely be on us when a serious effort has to be made to create a new political movement, based on a belief in social and economic progress. We have a simultaneous economic and political crisis, to a degree unprecedented  in modern history. If this is not the time then when?

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Say no to the politics of austerity

1 05 2009

Conservative leader David Cameron at a party conference, after delivering his 'age of austerity' speech

David Cameron has now formally identified his party as the party of austerity. He went even further in his speech to the Conservative Party Spring Conference by claiming that we are now in an ‘age of austerity’. He has identified four things that an incoming Tory government would do:

First, a return to traditional public spending control. Second, a new culture of thrift in government. Third, curing our big social problems, not just treating them. And fourth, imagination and innovation as we harness the opportunities of technology to transform the way public services are delivered.

Open season has been called on public spending. Politicians and media commentators have begun a feeding frenzy about which bits of the public services need to be cut first. There are calls for public sector pay cuts, ending public sector pensions, cancelling Trident and so on. 

But there are two things to consider here. Firstly, why are we suddenly in an ‘age of austerity’? We are in a recession, no doubt. But recessions come to an end. Why are we not in ‘age of economic opportunity’ or ‘potential economic growth’. After all, technology and science are taking us into new and ever more productive ways of making things and communicating ideas. The instinct of our political leaders to don the hair shirt at the first opportunity shows their own lack of confidence in creating a positive vision for our society.

Secondly, we need to take a step back and consider what we really want the state to do and what it would best be left out of before launching into a ‘cut this, cut that ‘ debate based on the prejudices of whichever commentator we are listening to.  Politicians are left floundering at present because they have got used to delivering policies based on focus groups rather than on any politicial vision for our society.  In a crisis such as the one we face leadership is necessary to lift people out of a narrow focus on the here and now.  The instinct of Cameron and others is to race for the lowest common denominator, hence the ‘age of austerity’. 

There is no doubt that a review of public spending priorities would be a good thing, there are some state activities which we could well do without. Take the new Independent Safeguarding Authority which at the cost of £84 million will  safety check 11 million adults who have contact with children thus exacerbating mistrust between adults and children even more than is the case now.

The question of the role of the state is one of the key issues we will be debating at the May 16 Battle for the Economy Conference.