SATURDAY, 4 AUGUST 2012
The gods of economics have failed
The government was taking emergency bold measures to in effect nationalise the mountain of bank debt while leaving the banks in the same private hands that had been revealed, even then, to have spectacularly plunged us into the mess in the first place. I asked the Chancellor if it might not be a good idea, having stumped up so much public largesse, for the public to have a controlling stake on the board of the banks we'd just bailed out. Politely, it must be said, he refused the invitation as assorted Blairite creeps echoed one another's synthetic mirth.
And now we are four years down the line. The promises, hopes and clutching of straws of the last government and its even worse successor that the likes of Bob Diamond would turn their attention to bolstering the economy, lending to households and businesses if only we stuffed their mouths with silver have turned to ashes. As was entirely predictable, and predicted, the bankers have simply taken the money and refused to part with it back into productive investment in the economy.
The economic statistics attest to mounting misery - a weaker recovery from the initial crisis than from the Great Depression, now a double-dip recession worse than any in 50 years, manufacturing and construction slumping, shocking contraction across the economy as a whole. And the Prime Minister pledges that the savage austerity will carry on for the rest of the decade. There is certainly a fair share of culpability at the doors of Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street. But I think it unfair for sections of the media to brand Gideon George Osborne the part-time Chancellor.
Credit where it's due - it must have required great effort expended full time to bring about such a spectacular disaster. More seriously, the effort and intention are very real, outweighing charges of incompetence. This is a determined push to rehabilitate and turbo-charge the very economic model of neoliberalism that has come crashing down. It is the slaughter of the young, the old, the infirm and the vulnerable on the altar of the gods that have failed.
That's why the Labour front-bench attack on Osborne's open goal is all too often wide of the mark or merely ends up rattling the timber, creating a frisson on the opposition benches but not much else. For the problem is much more fundamental. It is the failure of the direction global capitalism has taken over the last 30 years. And that is an indictment not simply of Osborne, Cameron and Clegg, but of Blair and Brown who embraced the Thatcherite revolution with abandon. These were the good years, remember? But even then inequalities rose as the leviathans of the boardroom were cut loose of any moorings binding them to society.
So where we stand now is not in the winnowed space of what has come to pass for politics - great heat and clatter about differences that amount to so little. For politics, as in the mainstream farce, has also had the neoliberal treatment. It is policed by an army of spin doctors with focus groups and caution masquerading as radicalism, all aimed at winning the ear of powerful elite and the votes of a diminishing part of the electorate.
In one sense, it has become an anti-politics - the administration of things, not the transformation of lives. Instead, we stand at a new threshold where politics - the big political choices about the future of our society and planet - is back. As the giants of absolute impoverishment and the evils we witnessed in the 1930s gather themselves to their full, terrifying height, how dwarfish do the political class that struts their hour on the stage look. And deluded too.
In the comforting echo chamber they inhabit with the commentariat they mistake the apoplexy so many people feel at the political process for apathy with real politics. But "out there," where so few politicians dare to tread, the feelings of despair and rage are not only palpable, they are expressed in an idiom that is profoundly political. People have noticed that one by one central pillars of the Establishment have been shown to have feet of clay and boots filled with cash. The MPs' expenses scandal has left an indelible mark.
Then came the defenestration of not only Murdoch but so much of the rest of the right-wing media. Now the Libor scandal and other outrages have left millions of people unwittingly repeating Bertolt Brecht's dictum - what's robbing a bank compared to founding a bank? - a point eloquently made to me the other day in Parliament by a perfectly upstanding armed Metropolitan Police officer who guards the building.
There are important lessons here, I believe, for the left. So much of what we have to say can chime with vast numbers of people who feel abandoned. But to do so the message needs to speak with a radicalism - not to be confused with extremism - that genuinely matches both the scale of the crisis we face and the register of people's pain. Radicalism shapes not just the content, but also the form. A left that sounds formulaic and wearisome when it talks about the Dickensian levels of inequality will get little hearing.
If we want to advance the cause of working people and to reverse a whole epoch of right-wing ascendency, then we should sound like we mean it. We should also do things like we mean them to make a difference. That's why the decision by the trade union movement to build a people's demonstration against the government's austerity in October is so welcome. My experience in Bradford, on the street and in public meetings, from work in the media and from a growing interface through the social media is that there is a thirst for what I call an insurgent politics.
There is little sign of that registering on the front bench of the Labour Party, though to be fair Ed Miliband is reportedly of the view that the next general election will be like the epoch-making elections of 1945 and 1979. The problem is the Labour Party is behaving in anything but an epochal way. So this insurgency will have to advance where it can. Good people in the Labour Party should welcome that. If they hope to steer Labour back to where it once was, then the advance of real labour values in society and at the ballot box can only help them.
Many more people see this after the Bradford by-election in March. That's why the candidacy of Kate Hudson, standing for Respect in the Manchester Central byelection on November 15, is generating such widespread support. Hudson embodies those values and policies that the labour movement so sorely needs. She is an extremely prominent peace and anti-nuclear campaigner who has won respect through years of standing up for what is right, whatever the fashion. It is a mark of that respect that Alice Mahon, for many years as MP for Halifax and champion of the left in Parliament and in every movement that matters, has welcomed Hudson's candidacy, which will be putting the left case on the map in Manchester in a way that will shift the terms of what might otherwise pass for debate.
It is within the left's grasp to make what we have to say a central reference point again. It is already happening in Europe, as evidenced in the electoral campaigns of the left in Greece and France, and, in an attenuated way, even in the timid moves by French President Francois Hollande to tilt away from the neoliberal orthodoxy. Much more than that is needed. But for it to happen, those who not only recognise that this is a moment that will define our world for decades to come but who are prepared to act on that need to raise their sights, rally in unity and take the message of democratic insurgency across our country.
We know that nothing will simply fall into our laps. But if the extraordinary crisis we are living through has taught us anything thus far it is that the years of political humdrum are over, replaced with sudden shocks, explosions and new expressions of the centuries-old battle for peace, justice and equality.