Shirley Bassey said it best, whatever innovations and revolutions are promised, it usually just turns out to be a little bit of history repeating. The same is true for British politics. David Cameron can walk triumphantly (and smugly) back into Number 10 whilst Ed Miliband hangs his head in shame and exits stage left but underneath the trials and tribulations of party politics history will just keep repeating. It is a history of capitalism in the UK and before we can change it we must have the courage to critique it.
“What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west.” These words are taken from Dougald Hine’s exemplary blog, a philosopher who understands the underlying tectonics of politics and economics. Using some of his blog as inspiration I will analyse why contemporary politics are caught in the endless repetition of history.
Tories: the Tories think they have won and, for now, they have. They quite marvellously (and maybe even unintentionally) weakened their political rival the Labour Party. The Tories successfully made people believe that Britain’s economic woes were the result of Labour’s over-spending and conveniently forgot to mention that the actual cause was the unregulated banking sector capitalising on the housing market and using too-good-to-be-true sub-prime mortgages to profit from toxic assets. The public bailout of the banks nationalised a private debt to the tune of billions that has still not been paid back. Yet the Tories have done next to nothing to try to re-regulate the banks thereby increasing the likelihood of another recession all too soon.
They tried to scare people into voting for them – it’s either our ‘sensible’ economic plan or ‘chaos’ – and it worked. Unfortunately, capitalism churns on unchallenged and booms and busts will continue to affect Britain. Yet, the Tories are unashamed in their imposition of austerity – a policy that will exacerbate inequality, weaken the working and middle classes and actually undermine Britain’s economic recovery. Even the IMF has advised against such a plan but George Osborne has ignored it. They got votes by promising people houses and security. But the middle classes will not be safe from the Tory cuts – austerity will undermine public services that middle class people rely on and increased inequality will cause greater social discord, discord that will reach the doorstep of middle class houses.
Meanwhile, with no serious redress of the housing crisis and no attempt to curb ruthless profiteering in the housing market, prices will continue to rise and people will find themselves trapped in unaffordable mortgages or conned into suspiciously affordable mortgages born on an ongoing housing bubble. The Tories are signing their own death warrant. They’ll take as much credit as possible for any minor growth in the economy and then squirm if/when the next bubble bursts and the economy dips. They told us that voting for Ed Miliband would result in ‘economic chaos’. That chaos is going to unravel anyway and this time it will be on the Tory watch and they won’t be able to scapegoat Labour anymore.
Labour: is trying to figure out how to rebrand themselves. Some think it best to become a New-New Labour type party, whilst others think they need to appeal more to the working classes. Going right for Labour means trying to play the Tories at their own game – using the defunct discourse of class politics to convince people that they can rise up through the social ranks and embed themselves comfortably in the land of the middle class. Heading this direction affirms the view that Labour have now shifted right of centre, a process initiated by Tony Blair as he embraced the precepts of neoliberalism (he was, after all, Margaret Thatcher’s self-professed “greatest legacy”).
Going left for Labour means trying to appeal more to the working classes but in a post-industrial society the working classes are not what they used to be. Firstly, Margaret Thatcher effectively won the class war when she crippled the mining communities and their means of representation in politics, i.e. the unions (it’s also worth bearing in mind that basing one’s community around the extraction of a finite resource, i.e. coal, is always going to ensure a limited shelf life). Secondly, in our post-industrial economy many of the industries we have now revolve around 0 hour contracts, call centres and other service sector jobs – it is very hard to imagine flourishing and cohesive communities forming around these sorts of work. We have also outsourced so much of our labour to countries like China that we have far less of a working class anyway. So if Labour do go left they won’t be able to rely on their old industrial working class style rhetoric.
Ukip: will do what they do best – completely ignore the larger macro-economic issues and scapegoat immigrants for the inevitable loss of jobs following a recession. A tried and tested approach, remember Enoch Powell.
The Next Five Years: sadly things won’t magically get better. Unless the ruling government addresses the economic instabilities built into the British capitalist system then history will keep repeating – we’ll have more recessions which will result in people losing jobs, even more jobs will be lost as labour is taken on by machines and the sectors in which new jobs are created will only provide temporary redress (although maybe not for hairdressers and plumbers).
So in about five years time we’ll be fed up of the Tories who will have crippled the long-term chances of the British economy with over-zealous austerity. We will be desperate for change and will turn to the rebranded Labour Party, they’ll promise a land of milk and honey, and will blame the Tories for causing the latest recession. If they get into power, which isn’t guaranteed, they’ll try to ride the wave of what little economic growth follows the recession. Meanwhile, extreme right-wing parties will scapegoat immigrants for our economic woes and stir up xenophobia. It will be all too similar to the times that Thatcher beat Callaghan, Thatcher lost to Blair and Brown lost to Cameron/Clegg. Indeed, as Shirley Bassey astutely observed, it will all just be a little bit of history repeating.