Virtual Democracy Café

On Saturday 27 June 2020, a small group of us had a go at a virtual democracy café courtesy of Skype. Not altogether successful because of technical issues and the occasional drop out. Nevertheless, we did manage a discussion of various topics and it was good to meet up during this time of forced isolation.

The conversation started with the future of Salisbury and in particular the ill-fated library scheme. It was always a scheme which looked particularly precarious before the current Covid-19 problems with retail. The idea of shifting the library away from its current central position was not widely popular. Converting the tunnel into an arcade of shops also seemed a dubious proposition. The decline in retail activity during the forced lockdown was probably the final kiss of death for the scheme although the Salisbury Journal reported that it had been paused. In the last few days, Wiltshire Council is one of the authorities which are effectively bankrupt if they were a commercial concern. It was questioned whether the planning application had been withdrawn.

We spent a little time discussing the TV programme on the Salisbury poisonings which were mostly thought to be a good piece of drama. One of the scenes showed an angry meeting of residents and the person who was at the meeting said this was not how it was. There were angry questions but this was not the general tone of the meeting. Well, that’s drama I suppose.

We got onto discussing the future of Salisbury and it was suggested that it was an opportunity to rethink the city and how it will be in the future. Climate was one consideration and would the City take the opportunity to make it more green and do things like pedestrianisation and making it more people friendly?

Against this was the increasing use of cars with people less inclined to use public transport. People have also got used to on-line shopping in a big way and some may not wish to go back to physically visiting the city. More were working from home and this trend was going to increase as will more automation of work.

The effects of pandemics in history on politics was discussed. It sometimes had the effect of forcing political change: shortage of manpower after the plagues for example improved wages for the poorest if only because there were fewer of them. But, it was noted, inequality increased post the 2008 crash so disasters did not always result in improvements. It was noted that the [Overton?] window had moved a little in terms of things like government expenditure. The government had borrowed heavily during the crisis, a policy inconceivable in the recent past. The current government was committed to ‘balancing the books’ and it was likely that the ‘book balancers’ would emerge at some time in the not too distant future, indeed, George Osborne was busy opining to this effect on BBC’s Start the Week recently.

We hope to repeat this next month on 11 July but which medium we will use is currently being looked at. Those on the email list will receive an invitation to join so we hope to see some more people then if you care to join in.

Peter Curbishley

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