The elephants in the room of British politics

The cover of this week’s New Statesman caught my eye. ‘WANTED: AN OPPOSITION’ it reads, next to a picture of a glowering, moustachioed Lord Kitchener. Inside, an impressive array of pundits and politicians hold forth on the parlous state of Britain’s centre left, but their analyses offer scant cause for anything but the deepest pessimism.

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The Labour Party has become ‘the decaying tree under whose shadow nothing can grow,’ writes David Runciman. The SNP in their own way are as hell-bent on the destruction of ‘liberal Britain’ as the Tories are. The Liberal Democrats are pursuing a kind of inverse UKIP strategy – turning themselves into a single-issue, pro-EU party – that may bring them some short-term gains, but in the long term will make them irrelevant. As Philip Collins writes, ‘it is an understandable short-term tactic but, as the salience of the [Brexit] issue declines over time, and as the Liberal Democrats define themselves as the pro-EU party, that will quicken the shrinking of liberal Britain, rather than ensure its recovery.’

So, time for a new party? The prospects here are scarcely more appealing. George Eaton reveals that, in the week after last summer’s EU Referendum, George Osborne approached both the Lib Dem leader and (unspecified) Labour MPs about the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats”. His suggestion fell on deaf ears. Right idea, wrong messenger, perhaps.

But even with a different messenger, no new party can realistically break through without a change in the electoral system: just look at what happened to the SDP in the 1980s. Two years after the ‘gang of four’ split from Labour in 1981, the SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the popular vote in a general election (to Labour’s 27.6%). But, due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, the Alliance ended up with just 23 MPs to Labour’s 209.

How about a ‘progressive alliance’ then, a looser coalition of the existing centre-left parties – Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens etc? This would probably be the most tactically astute option – favoured by Robert Harris and Paddy Ashdown, among others – but unlikely to happen. Currently, none of these parties are willing to work with any of the others.

There’s a deeper malaise, too, that goes beyond the tactics of how to provide effective opposition to the Tories. ‘Liberal Britain is not being heard,’ writes John Gray, ‘because it speaks incessantly of a past that cannot be retrieved… the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism in Labour and other parties have shirked the question of what liberalism means in the irrevocably changed conditions of our time.’ In short, he concludes, ‘liberal Britain has nothing to say.’

Gray’s dissection of the centre-left’s woes begs a question that none of the contributors properly address: what should ‘the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism’ be talking about? Right now in British politics, all is subsumed by the festering, self-inflicted wound of Brexit. But this too shall pass. Possibly we will plummet off a proverbial cliff edge, though, more probably, we will muddle on through: a bit poorer, more irrelevant and insular, but still much as we are today, facing the same intractable challenges and divisions in our society.

There are, in my view, three major forces that will shape – and if politicians don’t step up, potentially destroy – Britain’s society and economy over my lifetime: climate change, technology and demographics. At present, almost nobody in mainstream politics is talking coherently and consistently about any of them.

As Andrew Simms wrote in The Guardian last week, climate change has almost completely disappeared from political discourse across Europe. It was not mentioned once in Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50. Gibraltar – a rock in the Mediterranean with a total area of 6.7 km2 and a population of 30,000 – also got missed out and there’s been no end of a fuss about that. But rising sea levels, mass extinction, the toxification of the air we breathe (which already contributes to 40,000 early deaths a year in Britain, according to the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Paediatrics and Child Health), perennial political instability and refugee crises caused by the increasingly uninhabitable climate of large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle East: meh, we’re not bothered.

We think we’re better than America because at least our politicians believe the science. But believing the science doesn’t do us much good if you then do bugger all about it. Better almost to be a denier than to acknowledge the reality of the problem and then fiddle while the planet fries. Simms rightly argues that the failure to act on climate change – or even talk about it – means that ‘those who think of themselves inhabiting some political centre are, in fact, extremists. They preside over systems calmly marching us over a climate change cliff.’

The disruption wrought by technological progress is another defining issue that mainstream politicians have woefully little to say on. When, on occasion, they try, they mostly expose the depth of their own ignorance and incompetence. Take, for example, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who invited ridicule when she told Andrew Marr after the Westminster attack that you just need people ‘who understand the necessary hashtags’ in order to stop terrorist propaganda being spread online.

Or consider this wonderfully garbled Twitter card from Comrade Corbyn, which I was quite certain was a spoof when I first saw it (it isn’t):

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At least Corbyn has heard of the fourth industrial revolution. But neither he, nor anyone else in British politics, has shown any inclination to engage with the profound implications of technological change for the future of work and the welfare state.

Fears of an imminent robot takeover and mass unemployment are overblown. But that doesn’t mean that the labour market isn’t changing profoundly. As The Economist’s Ryan Avent explains in a brilliant recent blog on ‘The Productivity Paradox’, the onward march of technology is creating a strong downward pressure on wages. ‘The digital revolution,’ he writes, ‘has created an abundance of labour.’ People can’t afford to drop out of the workforce altogether – our social safety nets are too thin for that – so instead they struggle on in increasingly part-time, low-paid, precarious forms of employment.

There’s a positive side to this story too – for lots of people, the ‘gig economy’ or ‘sharing economy’ is a liberation. Study after study shows that the vast majority of people working for old-fashioned companies with massive workforces, sprawling bureaucracies and rigid hierarchies don’t like their jobs. Why? A lack of autonomy.

So the shift to more fluid and flexible forms of employment has the potential to greatly increase the sum of human happiness – but it needs to be underpinned by a re-imagined welfare state. The old way of dividing people up – those in employment versus those not in employment – doesn’t make sense any more. We need a social safety net and a pensions system that works for a society where increasing numbers of people are neither fully employed nor fully unemployed.

The third – and final – trend that we need to drag into the spotlight is demographics. Britain’s population is ageing rapidly. That’s a good thing, on the whole – it means we’re living longer – but it once again has profound implications for the structure of our welfare state. And it requires politicians to have some hard conversations with us voters.

The pension age almost certainly needs to go up substantially. The NHS is doomed, unless we make a concerted effort to radically improve its efficiency. (Currently, neither Tories nor Labour seem interested in doing this: the former seem happy to run the NHS into the ground and the latter shirk serious reform in favour of making the case for ever-increased spending.) And, in all probability, we need more, not fewer, immigrants in order to make the sums add up. Working-age immigrants who are net contributors to the UK Exchequer will be vital if we are to support the growing weight of native pensioners.

So why does nobody talk about these things? Ask a politician and they’ll say it’s because voters don’t want to be told that they can’t retire until 75, that the NHS is being put on a radical diet and, by the way, we’re going to let in as many immigrants as we possibly can. Well, maybe so, but how close to the cliff edge do we need to get before someone has the courage to speak a few unpalatable truths?

Alas, this is a classic case of what Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has termed ‘the tragedy of the horizon.’ No government yet faces a direct incentive to properly address these issues because their consequences will play out beyond the current political cycle. The tragedy is that by the time these issues become truly material, it will almost certainly be too late to address them. Short-termism is democratic capitalism’s fatal flaw.

And you thought Labour’s polling numbers were depressing.

I know that the agenda I’ve outlined isn’t exactly likely to be a vote winner in 2020. But I for one would like to see an opposition that talks about the stuff that really matters – even when the pollsters warn you it’s suicide and the tabloids scream bloody murder. Isn’t that, after all, what political leadership is meant to be about?

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