UK politics is broken beyond repair-no coalition can fix that

12 02 2010

A recent opinion poll attracted a lot of attention because 70% of those polled agreed that Britain had a ‘broken society’. The striking figure which received less coverage was that even more, 73%, agreed that ‘politics is broken’. If you add that to the recent survey which showed only 56% of people in the UK thought it worth voting we can see what sorry depths politics has sunk to.

This nadir is also demonstrated by the fact that far from politics being at the centre of a discussion of the upcoming general election, the issue which now appears to be the main one facing the country is whether a coalition government would be a good or a bad thing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the weakness of the Conservative Party that it does not appear to be able to take advantage of the deep unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government and win a clear majority.

Martin Wolf, writing today, makes the point that a coalition government would be a good thing because;

 ..the UK’s government has been the author of a flood of ill-considered, media-driven initiatives. Almost nothing is properly thought out. This is the result of the domination of a handful of people over the machinery of power, unchecked by party, parliament, bureaucracy or any other tier of government. Coalition government would make this change in desirable ways.

This is a case of right diagnosis, wrong medicine. Anatole Kaletsky made similiar points recently by implying that what we need is more concensus politics, like the Chinese, if we are to recover our social and economic dynamism. The cheap and shallow politics that Wolf refers to is a product of the end of big aspirational politics, which used to be ideologically framed, and its replacement by a short-term managerial approach. This short-termist approach dominates every party. Putting the parties together in to a coalition would not change this.  Politics is not petty because of the existence of different parties. It is petty because the parties have nothing else to offer except these ‘media driven’ idiocies. It is petty because of the absence in any of their programmes of any vision for a better society.

It seems we have reached the bottom or close to the bottom of a cycle of general cynicism towards politics and the political process. The question is are we condemned to bump along the bottom for a long time or will there be any reaction? There is certainly no sign of any recovery at the moment. There are some attempts to inject some politics into the general election campaign and these should be supported. It is difficult to encourage participation in a general election which is so devoid of policies which can make a difference, but the effort still has to be made. Without a democratic revival we are condemned to drift, frustration and cynicism.

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2010-the year of living uncertainly

12 01 2010

Welcome to 2010, a year which is pregnant with doubt and uncertainty. The western world has moved from the certainty of recession to a fear and acceptance of stagnation, the ‘flat is the new up’ mentality derided by Martin Sorrell. In the UK we have a general election contested by three parties which is shaping up like a contest between weak boxers. Every time they land a punch on each other they weaken their opponent without strengthening themselves.

There is a general mood of cynicism and disgust towards the political process which means that whichever party or parties win the election then nothing can really change. Mick Hume has accurately summed up the state of modern politics as dominated by;

..the politics of fear, with many apocalyptic warnings, but little analysis of the underlying causes; the politics of behaviour, with attempts to blame the crisis of the system on the greed of individuals; and the politics of low expectations, with efforts to persuade us that the most we can hope for in the future is no/low growth in a stable/stagnant capitalism on a life-support machine of state intervention.

We  have reached the end of a political cycle which began with the collapse of communism in 1989. Just to remind ourselves, the collapse of the Soviet Union created an initial surge of optimism that history had ended with the triumph of western liberal democracy.  In the East new democracies arose. In the west the third way concensus politics of Bill Clinton, adopted by Blair and others, replaced class based politics. It is very hard now to remember the enthusiasm which accompanied the election of Blair’ s New Labour in 1997. Many people welcomed what they saw as a decisive break with the past and the opening of a new chapter in history. We can now see that the idea of a new era of peaceful and stable capitalism which dominated the twenty years since the end of communism has come to a political dead end.

The upcoming defeat of Gordon Brown in the general election here will mark the final eclipse of New Labourism in the UK. What we are left with is a severely confused and disoriented western elite which is struggling to tackle the major changes taking place in the world. During the credit fuelled  boom years of the noughties the absence of any clear economic and political blueprint for the future did not matter so much as it does now. The best that any politician can do now is to try to navigate the future without a map. On the economic front there is just as much confusion. While there are some commentators who wish to paint a rosy picture the general view is one of foreboding. The underlying problems facing western capitalism, which have been extensively debated in this blog over the past year, have not even begun to be addressed. The lack of a plan means they will fall back on restraint and cutbacks in public spending rather than bold policies for economic growth.

Elsewhere the triumph of liberal democracy is looking very hollow. The most dynamic economies in the world now pay lip service to democracy in general if at all. The recession has played its part in deepening the crisis of western politics by accelerating  both a shift in global power eastwards and by undermining the western model of (supposedly) free markets plus democracy.

All of this means that the stakes are even higher for anybody who can come up with a better idea of how to run things. The depths of cynicism amongst the elite and the general populace will prove a huge barrier to any ideas of change, but there are always some people who will not want to give in to these  widespread negative sentiments. Uncertainty can be a good thing if it leads to broader questioning and wider debate. There are those, such as Martin Wolf, who accept that we have reached a ‘hinge in history’. Whether this leads to a turn for the better or the worse is up to us.





If G Brown saved the world why can’t he save himself

29 09 2009

images[8]What an ungrateful nation we are. New Labour has poured billions into public services over the past ten years. More recently, Gordon Brown claims to have saved the world during the financial crisis by bailing out banks and cutting VAT. Yet Labour is trailing in the polls and its Conference is a dire affair, devoid of politics, deserted by the lobbyists, destitute of any idea of how to stop the tailspin the party is in. It would be a hard hearted person who could not take pleasure in that.

Many blame Brown’s personality for all this. His dour demeanour and inability to communicate effectively are turning people off. Yet if we examine Labour’s record it is easy to see why this is a political problem of Labourism rather than the fault of one individual-however unattractive he may be.

Over the past ten years Labour had a tremendous amount of luck, as Tony Blair now admits. It took advantage of the huge global growth in financial services, based in the City of London. The City was a successful financial centre because of the ‘light touch ‘ regulation begun by Margaret Thatcher and encouraged by Brown himself. This is the same ‘light touch’ , by the way, now blamed by many for the crisis itself.

The boom in the City enabled Labour to extract huge amounts of tax which it spent on public services, particularly the NHS and education. During the same period Labour ceased to be a political movement in any traditional sense . It cut itself off from its traditional working class  roots in societyand became instead a narrow managerial clique.

Labour’s continued popularity became largely based on its ability to continue to fund the expansion of public sector jobs and services. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, it assumed a continuing growth in the main source of the the UK’s wealth, the financial sector. After the financial crisis that is no longer assured.

Secondly, Labour’s relationship with the UK population was based upon the successful delivery of services. Yet there is still widespread dissatisfaction with health and education provision and a general sense that the money has not been well spent. There is a broader isue behind this which is to do with the way in which we have become a mass of service consumers rather than an active and engaged polity. This is the flipside of the way that Labour has become detached from society.

The decline of Labour as a representative political party has created a kind of politics based on consumer satisfaction surveys and market research. The Tories are ready to carry this on so we should not expect very much change even if there is a change of government. The Tories are also hamstrung by the fact that they will not have the same ready access to tax revenues that Labour had.

Labour was lucky, now its luck has run out. From an economic point of view the biggest mistake made during this period was to spend the windfall from the City on consumer services rather than investing in upgrading the UK’s infrastructure on a wider scale. Better roads, railways and more nuclear power stations amongst other things would have left a longer lasting legacy.





The uncertain state of the G8

10 07 2009

Obama G8 ItalyCompared with the drama of the G20 in April, the G8 meeting in Italy is a curiously muted affair. At the end of course there will be, as there always is, a joint statement from all involved saying something anodyne they can all agree with. But the overriding feeling coming out of the meeting is of drift.

The leaders gathered together on the site of an earthquake are themselves a curious bunch. For a start the G8 does not include China or India, the two most economically dynamic countries in the world, although the leaders of both countries were there to start with. It  includes countries whose presidents are both hugely popular at home, Obama being one and Berlusconi, for unfathomable Italian reasons, the other. Also present by contrast is Gordon Brown, currently on political death row. Whatever their individual current strengths or weaknesses  the problems they, and we , face were clearly contentious.

Firstly on the economy, there were no concrete proposals nor any clear agrement on what if any steps need to be taken to help the world out of recession. The G8 in this area resembles a group of generals who have sent their troops out to fight and are waiting for news from the front. There is an unmistakable feeling that everything that could be done has been done and now it is time to wait and hope for an upturn. Meanwhile the real underlying tensions between the debtor countries and those supplying the credit continue to simmer away.

Secondly, the debate over global warming is following a similar pattern. The main developing countries are objecting to pressure to cut emissions in a way that would hinder their economic growth. This issue is rapidly becoming a source of protectionist pressures in the US which reflects broader tensions between the US and China.

Altogether the world’s leaders look unsure and uncomfortable about how to deal with both the near term and longer term problems facing the world.





Does he take Sugar?

8 06 2009

Alan SugarNews that business owners are applying in large numbers to stand for parliament must be one aspect of the growing dissatisfaction with the existing political options. Conservative Central Office said it had received about 3,000 applications since David Cameron appealed for candidates from outside politics and about a third had come from business owners.

It is understandable that the kind of people who typically set up and run their own businesses would be feeling frustrated with politics today. Being an entrepreneur means trying to make things happen quickly. It means taking risks. It often also means working in new and untested areas of the economy. The UK, as I have argued here for some time, is not typified by any of these entrepreneurial traits.

An influx of people into government with experience of running  businesses, or for that matter schools, hospitals or any significant parts of our economy, would not be a bad thing in itself. For too long government has become the preserve of professional politicians. The front benches are full of people who went straight from student politics into mainstream politics with little experience of doing anything else, occasionally stopping off for a brief stint in PR, like Cameron himself, or in the media like James Purnell.

This deficit of real experience in running things has led to an increase in the number of unelected people being brought into government via peerages in an attempt to make up for it, hence Lord Drayson for example at the (now abolished) Department of Industry, Innovation and Skills. The terminally crippled Prime Minister has even turned to Sir Alan Sugar in a desperate attempt to marry a reputation for entrepreneurialism with celebrity and thus kill two birds with one stone.

More real life experience would no doubt be an asset in government. But, and it is a big but, this alone would not be enough to create a new start for British politics. We would still need to know what these people believed in and what policies they would wish to pursue. At the moment the Conservatives are no less empty of a real political vision than the discredited Brown government. New blood by all means, but new politics still seems a long way off.

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Politicians pay the price for the recession

11 05 2009

Since the recession began, it has felt to me as if economics was coming into line with politics. What does this mean? Since the collapse of the left in the 80s the sphere of ideological disputation in political life has diminished consistently. Politics in the UK has come to be defined as a narrow contest between parties who disagree on very little and who conduct their politics via market research led focus groups. The idea of politics as a place where there is a battle of leadership to determine what direction the country should be going in has faded away. Instead, we have an increasingly personality led and cliquish political class which has shifted to the margins of what most people feel is important in their lives.

Over the past ten years, political leaders, Gordon Brown especially, made a virtue of their support for the expansion of financial services, the housing bubble and the vast increase of credit based consumption . The absence of any alternative to this approach did not matter as long as the bubbles kept inflating.  Brown was able to claim that he had brought an end to boom and bust, although unfortunately as we now know the boom was built on the expansion of credit, paid for by the Chinese and others.  Growth did not happen because the UK had developed a new productive economy, but because the Chinese and other productive developing countries could not find a domestic use for their profits.

The collapse of the financial bubble revealed that the UK economy had not been built on solid ground, rather, as Tony Blair has since admitted, Labour was lucky. Its rule coincided with the availability of cheap credit. The narrowness and introverted character of our political life combined with a blind faith in the market,  encouraged a lack of proper examination of what lay behind the financial and housing bubbles.

Politicians here and elsewhere reacted with shock and disbelief when the recession began.  For a long time they could not believe that their faith in the explosion of financial services could have been wrong. When they did begin to react they tried to avert attention from their own complicity in what had happened by trying to pin the blame on greedy bankers.  This should have been the time to launch into a proper debate about what went wrong and to try to work out a new approach to the economy. Instead, having blamed ‘greed’ for the recession they set themselves up perfectly for their current humiliations over their expenses.

Now we are in a very dire state. We have a political class which is lacking in ideas and credibility. We have an economy which has lost its driving force. What can we do about these problems? These and other issues will be at the core of the discussion at the Battle for The Economy next weekend.