Will our politics change?

A debate is starting about whether there will be a change in the way politics is done in Britain as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Will it be a ‘never again’ moment and force some fundamental improvements? I don’t think it will and in this blog I will argue why change will not happen except at the margin.

It is true that major events such as war or a outbreak of a serious disease does bring about change. I am writing this in English not in some form of French. That change came about because of plague which killed off a lot of the French speaking people at the top of our society and allowed in rough English speaking yocals into positions of power. The war brought about a significant improvement in housing provision.

The drivers of change

For change to happen, there has to be a groundswell of opinion – however ill-formed – for things to be done differently in future. People have to feel angry, affronted, or resentful at a political process and its leaders which contributed to the crisis. They argue vehemently for change. They may riot or march or do something physical to express their anger. There has to be anger in the air.

Another thing which might contribute to this anger is a flow of information which explains what has gone wrong. There also have to be polemics which set out how change for the better can take place. There is little sign of this happening either.

Ultimately, this anger has to find a voice. Almost certainly via a political party: someone has to set our a vision for a better world and a better run world. A world in which there is more equality of opportunity and where the benefits of our prosperity are spread more evenly. This has to be articulated into cogent arguments, and then simple phrases produced which encapsulate these ideas into ‘soundbites’.

Will it happen?

I don’t think this will happen for several reasons. Firstly, the nature and control of our media. That our print media is largely right wing and owned by foreign based oligarchs is well known. They are in a position to control the narrative and stifle unwelcome challenges to their hegemony. Readers of these titles will, for example, be largely unaware of the Paradise Papers and other major stories about the scale of tax avoidance carried out by the elite in our society. By contrast, they can run endless stories about scroungers and benefit cheats – who do exist of course – but are tiny in scale by comparison with the billions funnelled out of the country by the top 1%.

The broadcast media have been little better. The nightly No 10 press conference is a case in point. Various journalists are given the opportunity to question the minister and the advisers. It is of course difficult to do this properly across a video link. But their questions are over-long and, instead of asking one insightful question, they ask two and sometimes three. The minister artfully – and I suspect they are trained to do this – repeats the question at length, says how important it is, waffles around it and fails to answer the point. The journalist is then invited to respond and bafflingly, then proceeds to ask another, different, question which is also unanswered. The result is that egregious failures of policy and delays in responses to the crisis largely go unchallenged.

Such investigations which do take place – such as the BBC’s Panorama for example – have minimal viewing figures and are quickly slapped down by ministerial threats and newspaper allegations of bias.

Another crucial point is that this argument has largely been about facts, numbers and statistics. But none of the journalists or any of the ministers have science or mathematical backgrounds. It is like watching two people who cannot even open the bonnet of a car, arguing about how they might change a clutch. As soon as a statistic becomes uncomfortable, it disappears. So the death toll in comparison with other countries is no longer presented for example.

Finally, because of the pandemic, parliament is not properly sitting. In one sense that seems to be working for Keir Starmer who is operating in simulacrum of a court room, which suits his background. Early exchanges has enabled him to expose the emptiness of the prime minister. But the theatre has gone which means the exchanges are rather dull and forensic. Consequently, they do not get much airtime. The media wants conflict, anger, shouting and general excitement, not reasoned rational debate.

Why have we come to this?

The fundamental issues which have led us to our lack of preparedness and made us the worst in Europe are the neoliberal policies which have informed our politics for a generation. These are a set of beliefs which have dictated policy across a range of areas. Simply put, these are a belief in small government; that low taxes are best to enable people to spend their money how they wish; low regulation because this stifles innovation; that the private sector is superior to the public because they are inherently more efficient, and the best way to allocate resources is through competition. These are deep rooted and show little sign of disappearing.

Recent events have forced the conservatives to do the opposite. Government is bigger and more intrusive, regulations have increased, money has poured into the private sector to find a cure, competition has fallen away in favour of ministerial patronage and taxes will inevitably have to rise. There are reported to be great tensions in the party as a consequence of this. The right wing, free market and Brexit wing are quiet at present because during a national emergency people ‘rally to the flag’. This will end soon but importantly, it will be an internal conservative party argument which will not affect the state of our politics nationally.

These neoliberal beliefs have led to increased privatisation being introduced into the health service and the market led ideas introduced by Ken Clarke when he was health minister. Austerity was the cover which enabled Osborne to reduce funding for the service and the Lansley reforms also did more damage (what philosophy was behind those is a mystery, perhaps even to Lansley himself).

All told, the public sector, including local authorities, were seen as inefficient, cumbersome and of little value. They could be cut with impunity because nobody cared. They were helped by near silence from them as well. How often, even today, when the issue of what LAs are doing and the role they play in tackling the pandemic, do you see a local authority person interviewed? Rarely. They almost never appear on programmes like Question Time. Despite their size and significance, they can be cut, lampooned and denigrated to politicians’ heart content.

There is no groundswell of anger of people looking for fundamental change. Such anger as there is is about whether people can go out or not or how many people they can meet. The Labour party has to tread carefully because if they criticise the government too hard, they will be called disloyal. So far, there has been no sign of arguments about fundamental change from their people.

This is why I suggest there will be no fundamental changes. Sure the medics will get a pay rise – even the current crop of boneheads would risk denying them that. But inequality will continue to get worse. The super rich will continue to avoid their taxes. The six or seven posh schools will continue to provide a disproportionate supply of politicians, journalists, media folk, judges et al. Privatisation of the NHS and other areas of public life will continue however corrupt or incompetent the suppliers are. Power will still reside in Westminster and any kind of regionalisation will not happen.

Covid-19 will not change the fundamental flaws in our society.

Peter Curbishley

2 thoughts on “Will our politics change?

  1. Thanks, Peter. I’m delighted you’ve started this thread.
    I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with your contention, but there are some counter-arguments, and they might be worth an airing.
    Summoning my inner Prof. Joad, I would say “it depends what you mean by change.” Could we have an improved society? Yes. Will the structure of the political state change? Maybe not. It’s a bit like the argument about whether the coronavirus crisis will do for the right-wing populist leaders or not. The answer is probably “some of them.”
    I think there are some aspects I would want to emphasise as being indicative of change this year:-
    1) The Overton window has undeniably moved on the economy. Talk of creating money is no longer ridiculed, and deficit financing is now a thing. There’s a long way to go to convince everyone that a government is not like a household, but I’m more optimistic than I was.
    2) The role of the state is back on the agenda. Government control of the “foundational economy” (utilities, transport etc) is widely supported, and post-CBILS many companies will end up partially state-owned.
    3) The Boris factor is important. He won the election by “being Boris” – this will probably not have a long run as he reveals his failings.
    4) Don’t underestimate this government’s incompetence. Public tolerance will probably give out sooner rather than later.
    5) Brexit is still to come. I would imagine the anger you seek might well turn up next January, when people realise what they’ve been landed with (OK, I’m not holding my breath on that one).
    6) The Union is under huge strain (even Northern Ireland, FFS). And the regions are asserting themselves. Khan, Burnham, Street et al are big hitters and easily show up the cabinet’s inadequacies. (Granted the small towns will take longer).
    7) Climate change. Some form of Green New Deal is inevitable, however big the pushback. The opportunity is there now.
    8) I wouldn’t press the point, but the empathy issue may have an effect. At all events, the voters will be unhappy at a restoration of the position of rentiers if it is seen as being at the expense of carers and other key workers.
    On the question of the media, it’s true that the Telegraph and the Mail remain committed to neoliberalism, but both have broken ranks somewhat recently. With the Barclays in family crisis and keen to sell, who knows how things might go? Whether social media will replace the press and broadcasting, and what that might mean for truth, are still to be decided, but it will presumably reinforce cognitive bias and therefore division. That’s certainly a worry.
    Re tax avoidance, the big concern is post-Brexit, when we may go for a Singapore-on-Thames solution (unlike Singapore now, it seems). Low tax may not be enough to attract foreign investors after COVID anyway, and the public will be hostile to selling the country to the highest bidder. The offshorists will go on fighting a vicious rearguard action, but I’m optimistic that international action will catch up eventually. But it will take time.
    OK, some of these are party points, but, as you say, change can only come about under the aegis of political parties, and it looks as though the opposition is thinking along these lines. Changing the public mindset is hard but not impossible; Major was done for by Black Wednesday, but carried on for 4 years, and we may find we have a similar zombie government this time. We may not need a display of public anger to get change, though I agree it wouldn’t come amiss.
    There are, it seems to me, some areas where we cannot look for change in the short term – the country’s international poor reputation, the ongoing threat to human rights, the parliamentary nonsense – but it will be interesting to see when (if) this all ends, which things have gone by the board and which have stuck.
    Nesrine Malik, in today’s Guardian, argues cogently that the old order will return unless we fight hard against it, and I’m sure this is true. But I have tried to indicate that this is a time when there are any number of opportunities to prevent this happening, and, if not now, when, as they say. Never let us forget that there will be a huge enquiry into the coronavirus mess when the dust settles, and that will, along with the fallout from Brexit (I know, I’m sorry), determine the way politics is viewed in the next few years. So, will things change? Some of them. Probably.

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  2. Much of the commentary around the pandemic has focused on how it has been like waging a world war and because of the widespread impact and the seriousness with which it has been met, I believe that there is more reason to believe that it could lead to some fundamental changes in our society.
    Firstly, the scale of government intervention in the economy is unprecedented in peace time. It shows the weakness of neo-liberalism and market forces in times of crisis and the need for government. It took the Second World War for people to recognise the potential of the collective vs the individual and to elect a government that championed protecting the working person. Perhaps, in time, this crisis will result in the same.
    It is always possible that the deep recession caused by the pandemic will be used by the Tories to bring in another decade of austerity, of further abandonment of the economic potential of the state actor, and of attacks on the living standards of the poorest in society. However, given that the Tories victory in the recent election is based on the votes of people in poorer constituencies this could backfire for them. It is important now to start working on a counter-plan of economic planning and investment to build a fairer and greener economy, with much more localism and resilience, once the current crisis has passed. It can bring a new focus for societal resistance to the Tories. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society. There is only family and looking after your neighbours. Boris Johnson contradicted her during the crisis by saying that the decision by 20,000 retired NHS workers to go back to work to deal with the pandemic is evidence that there is such a thing as society. Does it mean that we are re-discovering old values like empathy, solidarity, localism and resilience? Did these values really go away? Or, is it that they are being highlighted by the response to the pandemic? Empathy, solidarity, localism and resilience are all virtues that are not valued by neo-liberalism. That society is rediscovering them could yet open the way to a brighter future.
    The Government has taken steps to reduce the risk to the homeless of contracting the virus by moving them off the streets, showing that government can act to solve problems when there is a will to do so. The increase in homelessness since 2010 due to Government policies has been dramatic. It has taken the pandemic for them to do something about it. The test will come when the pandemic is over. Will the Government just throw these people out on the streets again?

    The Governments response to the economic impact of the virus has shown that there is a “magic money tree” after all when we need one. The monetary authorities through the Bank of England are covering the extra borrowing required by the Government by printing more money (QE), thus allowing the Government to fund the extra spending at very low cost as interest rates are so low. If they can do this during the pandemic they can do it to initiate a Green revolution/New Deal and save the planet when we get back to some semblance of normality.
    The pandemic has given us an unprecedented opportunity to pause and reflect on the way that we see things, what we value and how we want the world to operate. Do we just go back to the same way of working as before, making the excuse that we don’t have time to think about or do anything about issues like destruction of the planet, inequality, homelessness, food poverty? Now that we do have time, we can reflect on these issues and think hard about what we can do to create a better world from everyone. If we do that, we could look back on this as time well spent.
    We have changed our behaviour as we have adapted to try to keep ourselves and others safe and to protect the NHS. The pandemic may have changed the way we answer questions like; How do we live a virtuous life? and; How do we build a good society?
    For citizens being virtuous involves keeping a distance, eg. moving in to the road to avoid others, and wearing a mask in public. Because being in public carries danger, certain workers are highly valued and seen as virtuous. Our attitude about who is a key worker has changed. Lockdown has led to simple pleasures being appreciated more and regarded as virtuous.
    For politicians virtues such as competence and a capacity for sophisticated dialogue (as displayed by leaders in NZ and Germany for example) have been prised above charisma (UK and US).
    Failure to provide adequate PPE, the vulnerability of our older citizens and the poor, begs the question as to whether we have built a good society. The virtues of good governance based on accurate information and expert advice have been highlighted, as opposed to slogans and hollow boasts. Citizens may want their governments to live the Spartan virtues they see in key workers: selflessness, courage, grim determination.

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