Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?

Our society has been deranged by neoliberal capitalism, says BARRY WINTER. How can the creative, reflective forces of the progressive left begin to counter the huge imbalances in power and wealth?

This is perhaps one of the most fluid periods that I can remember in UK and, indeed, world politics.

The crash of 2008 and its aftermath exposed the self-destructive and self-serving character of neoliberal capitalism. The high and mighty bankers and financiers, and their allies, stood exposed for unleashing an economic tsunami upon humanity. Yet the dominance of these elites remains largely unchanged and unchallenged. When the crash came, the blame was very quickly transferred to those in government.

Neoliberalism still rules, as one recent example shows: the coalition government has privatised the Post Office despite dogged opposition from the workforce and against public opinion, and did so at bargain basement prices.

Yet public feelings were not mobilised into political opposition; people, it seems, were resigned to the fact that it was going to happen. In an era of political cynicism and defeatism, the sentiment seems to be, ‘Well, what can you do?’ And, of course, that argument has a point.

99pc poster2Such sentiments are also reinforced by what’s happening to many people in their workplaces where the pressures and insecurities have never been greater – in both the public and private sectors. The recent exposure of Amazon, a company where workers are being transformed into robots, demonstrates that this deserves muuch greater attention.

Of course, there have been some mobilisations, such as the almost forgotten Occupy movement, which for a time dented neoliberal hegemony with its slogan about the richest 1% versus the other 99%. Yet we now have Boris Johnson, calculating and resurgent, praising the rich and belittling the poor for being genetically stupid, poor dears. Let’s hope his remarks one day come back to haunt him.

The main political opposition under Ed Miliband is struggling to create a coherent counter message as the Labour Party remains deeply wounded by many aspects of New Labour’s record. Under Miliband, the party sometimes rises to the occasion very well, such as in its commitment to tackle the energy companies which has forced the Tories to change tack, or at least appear to.

But, surely, the aim should be to take this sort of initiative further, to encourage the party to go live locally on the issue, for that is where it has a live membership. The party has to begin to mobilise public support on these issues.

Meanwhile, a Left Unity party has been created with 8,000 people initially responding to Ken Loach’s call. It has its work cut out. I am certainly not opposed to the venture itself, but I am not confident about what it can achieve in the current climate. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity is undertaking some constructive work opposing the cuts and health service reforms. But neither the new party nor the assembly are really making big waves – although that’s not meant to belittle their efforts.

I’d venture to suggest that progressive left forces have never been weaker, whether inside the Labour Party, in the trade unions, in other left groups, or in a variety of campaigns and initiatives. Nothing is yet gelling and that’s not for lack of trying.

There are issues which continue to come to the fore, such as the geographical concentrations of wealth. For example, while the coalition regularly talks about the need to rebalance the economy, the opposite is happening, and the government carries much of the responsibility here. Recently, the Guardian reported that councils in the north east will lose more than twice as much funding per person as those in the south east. A group of local authorities are warning that some of them are at breaking point and that, on present form, any economic recovery could bypass large parts of the UK.

In addition, we are all watching a very real challenge to the integrity of the UK itself in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. The polls strongly suggest it will not happen, but the situation remains fluid. Even a rejection of the idea is likely to lead to further powers being ceded to the Scottish parliament while in Wales Labour and Plaid Cymru are also seeking further devolution.

I won’t even speculate on the consequences of a ‘Yes’ vote. All I will say is that Alex Salmond is one of the most astute politicians I’ve observed and he usually runs rings around Labour in Scotland.

So there’s plenty to be concerned, or even fearful, about.

Exciting work

And yet, and yet, this is also one of the most creative and reflective periods I’ve known in politics. Thanks to the internet, but not simply because of it, there are a variety of groups, organisations, publications, think tanks and research bodies undertaking a range of exciting work.

Here are but a few of those which strike me:

  • the Kilburn Manifesto and the journal Soundings
  • the Living Wage campaigns
  • the IPPR, the Smith Institute and CRESC
  • Policy Network
  • Shifting Grounds website
  • Compass (perhaps)
  • Class (Centre for Labour and Social Studies)
  • the Max Planck Institute, Cologne
  • the US-based Democracy Collaborative and perhaps Transpartisan Politics
  • and, not least, the journal Renewal.

Something is in the air. The questions are: What form or forms might this opposition take? What does this creative moment amount to? Is it to become a dead end or can it offer new beginnings? And, without wishing to exaggerate our importance, what should the ILP’s contribution be in this period?Frances O'Grady

One person who impresses me is the new general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady (left). In an interview in the latest edition of Renewal she emphasises the importance of “building alliances, to try to rebalance power” – and I strongly support her argument.

If anything I’d want to extend and develop the metaphor of ‘rebalancing’ much further to identify a number of specific fronts where power needs rebalancing: the world of work; education; the media; the extremes of wealth and poverty; politics, generally; and the economy, where corporate power has spread insidiously into all aspects of our lives.

Indeed, I’d like to suggest that we produce a pamphlet on ‘unbalanced Britain’ to expose the deranged condition of our society as a result of three decades of neoliberalism.

We should perhaps hold an ILP day school on the topic and submit our ideas for a publication to those who attend so that we can share and shape the initiative. We can draw on a myriad of examples. Every day there’s another, such as the recent accusation that the Royal Bank of Scotland deliberately bankrupted small businesses to acquire and then sell their assets.

In saying that Labour and left progressive forces have to change to meet the challenges we face, we also have to reflect on how best the ILP can develop. We took a small step in recognising the need to review our annual weekend school to widen our appeal.

We have some assets – a great website and a proud history which offers some fascinating political insights as well as warnings of what can go wrong. Our historical commitment to ethical politics and fellowship remains crucial.

All that’s a start, but now we have to look outwards, to develop links and to raise our profile with some accessible but intellectually sound literature. We have a contribution to make in these strange times. We have particular insights that give the ILP its particular character and, hopefully, contemporary relevance.

This was brought home to me recently when attending an event at Leeds University on ‘Ideology after the Crash’. One speaker, for whom I have much respect as a Marxist economist, gave a good account of how neoliberalism survived the economic crash. But when it came to the politics, he dismissed political parties of being of no value and argued the need for movements. Of course, we would share his opinion that social movements are valuable but to reject more mainstream politics – understandable as that temptation may be in the present climate – is politically disabling.

We need coalitions of progressive parties and movements to challenge the stranglehold of neoliberalism. That means building countervailing currents in civil society, the economy and politics to redress society’s multiple imbalances.

We need to be saying this on our website and through a range of literature which we now need to produce. We may not always get things right but we do need to offer our ideas to people in a variety of forms and formats, just as the early ILP did. This would give our politics greater visibility and accessibility while, hopefully, providing us with a new beginning.

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10 Comments

  1. Ernest Jacques
    14 December 2013

    A useful, thought-provoking article by Barry Winter about the way our society is and has been restructured by capitalist demigods and apologists (Tory, Labour and Liberal) over 35 years going back to the day when Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979 and gave us her memorable St. Francis of Assisi speech.

    “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

    Well, we all know (ILPers at least) what happened next. It certainly wasn’t harmony and for those of us who really desire harmony, truth, hope and social justice and the good society, it has been an unmitigated neoliberal horror story.

    Thirty-five years of privatisation, outsourcing, public service cuts, rampant individualism and corporate greed leading inexorably to an unbalanced and unfair society with growing inequality, a scam (casino) economy, unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, zero-hours contracts, deprived neighbourhood communities, a cost of living crisis, food banks, homelessness and hopelessness for millions. This is the exact opposite of what was promised by a political class who all promised jam tomorrow and, in the words of arch neoliberal Tony Blair, that “things can only get better”.

    Well, none of us is perfect, I suppose, and we all make mistakes but the difference here is that for most of us we usually have to pay for our own mistakes. But in this context the neoliberal experiment is proving to be a bloody big and costly mistake, and those primarily responsible for the debacle do not have to pay the price of failure and are doing quite well.

    While the ILP might have got a few things wrong over its long history, its perspective on the iniquities of the free market system, which treats humans as disposable commodities, is (I believe) as true today as on the ILP’s birth 120 years ago.

    Scotland and the independence vote
    Of course, that doesn’t mean we agree on everything and on the issue of the Scottish referendum vote I am much less ambivalent than Barry.

    The question of whether or not an independent Scotland would be a progressive or regressive move is highly debatable and cannot be conclusive one way or the other, with many in the Labour Party arguing that a yes vote might condemn England to a permanent Tory government.

    On the face it, it is a potential nightmare but it is also likely to arouse a debate about the whole political arrangement (including, hopefully, the House of Lords, which needs to be reformed and brought into the 21st century). And if it nudges us away from the current undemocratic first past the post, two-party system, then great, I say.

    What we do know is that a ‘No’ vote will help to preserve the status quo and prolong our existing political arrangements with its democratic deficit. Why would anyone want to perpetuate an undemocratic system that the Scottish people do not support and have never voted for? At least working class people there have the advantage of free university education, no bedroom tax and a more predistribution economy.

    Nuclear weapons
    If a vote for full independence resulted in the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish territory that would be hugely significant and positive for all UK citizens and for our separate national economies. It could then call into question the viability and usefulness of our so-called independent nuclear deterrent, which is so much the better, especially if it would release billions to be spent on productive industry, economic regeneration, skills training, job creation and the millions of much-needed social houses.

    If this were to happen it would mean that Tory and Labour politicians would no longer be able to swan around the world in the naive belief that they have the answer to the world’s problems in the way that the Blair governments got us engulfed in the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles with all the associated wasted billions and human misery, with the dead and injured paying a terrible price.

    Problematic perspectives
    The No campaign north of the border is wholly unimpressive and underwhelming. It seems to be based on nothing more than a vote for the status quo and unconvincing arguments about doom and gloom, the end of the world as we know it should the Scottish people be foolish enough to vote for self-determination.

    Yes – but not an SNP vote
    To my mind, national self-determination and devolving power closer to the people is something all democrats could and should support because a vote for Scottish independence is not necessarily a vote for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party.

    For all the problems and difficulties associated with Scotland’s independence vote and the SNP manifesto, given the option of self-determination and a chance to turn away from a political system that is self-serving and undemocratic, the yes vote seems to me to be a no-brainer.

    That is why this north Yorkshire Sassenach will be urging his son, Karl, and daughter-in-law, Jennifer, now living in Fife in a former coal mining village, to vote yes on referendum day.

  2. Harry Barnes
    19 December 2013

    Barry’s article is important. I hope that the sources he refers us to will all be incorporated into the ILP’s list of ‘Links’. So that we can turn to these easily in the future.

    We face a key period inside the Labour movement. At next September’s Labour Party conference, the policy programme which the Party’s 2015 general election manifesto will be drawn from will be finalised. Yet we have the diversion before then of a special conference on 1 March to try and re-define Labour’s relationship with the trade union movement and to give a developing category of registered supporters the power to determine who the Labour candidate for mayor will be in London – a practice which can then be expanded into other areas of candidate selections.

    My concerns about these moves are expressed here: http://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-cart-before-horse.html

    Then, on 22 May, the Labour Party will be absorbed in European and local government elections.

    The time and opportunities to influence the shape of Labour’s political stance are very limited. By around July, most of the bits and pieces are likely to have been determined.

    Nor is there any recognisable form of democracy inside the Labour Party which can be used to even influence the final outcome. Party units, individual members, all-member discussion meetings, and even outsiders can submit ideas to policy forums and task forces. Although even this will require action by someone who is a computer expert.

    Yet there is no official feedback as to who is pushing what. Just final reports for endorsement where those submiiting ideas might be lucky and recognise something in passing that looks like one of their proposals. If anyone is up to the task, then they will probably search reports in desparation looking for a reflection of their proposals.

    Yet, what can be done if we feel that local government needs a new settlement to give it more independence and better resources? How do we seek to turn the tide away from privatisation and the contacting out of public services? How do we press, not for a withdrawal from the European Union, but for its democratisation? What do we do to further moves to tackle climate change and to make the world a fairer and less dangerous place? How do we achieve the basics for all of minimum living standards, fair employment and decent homes?

    For the long term, I am fully committed to non-doctrinaire political educational processes where people meet, analyse, debate and advance their understandings. And I am all for importing such activities into Labour’s day-to-day practices. But this is unlikely to be the way to achieve a breakthrough in the next six months or so.

    The only alternative for this in the short run is to attempt to nobble Labour’s movers and shakers. Those who have the ear of Ed Miliband will at least include numbers on Labour’s front bench. We can try to get them to come to us.

    I feel that the ILP should seek to try to get some of these to address discussion meetings in a place to which there is reasonable access – say Doncaster, where is there is reasonable access by rail. Such activities might get onto Ed Miliband’s radar as he is one of the town’s MPs.

    Then, as it is difficult to get Labour front benchers to leave London or their constituencies, the ILP should approach these people to see if face-to-face meetings can be arranged with them in the Commons. It might be possible to fix things up on nothing more expensive than a day return basis. Other bodies are doing this, and they don’t have the ILP’s historical standing. We should use the cards we hold.

  3. […] Barry Winter from the ILP gives a stimulating analysis of neo-liberalism’s ill-effect on British society and suggests some responses: “Neoliberalism still rules, as one recent example shows: the coalition government has privatised the Post Office despite dogged opposition from the workforce and against public opinion, and did so at bargain basement prices. Yet public feelings were not mobilised into political opposition; people, it seems, were resigned to the fact that it was going to happen. In an era of political cynicism and defeatism, the sentiment seems to be, ‘Well, what can you do?’ And, of course, that argument has a point. Such sentiments are also reinforced by what’s happening to many people in their workplaces where the pressures and insecurities have never been greater – in both the public and private sectors. The recent exposure of Amazon, a company where workers are being transformed into robots, demonstrates that this deserves muuch greater attention…” (https://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/2013/12/13/unbalanced-britain-what-can-we-do/) […]

  4. Liam Cook
    22 December 2013

    After being asked to respond to this, I’ve found there’s little I can add as I either agree with, or am woefully ignorant of, most everything put forward in the article. I have, therefore, decided that as a voice ov da yuth (being technically and legally 17), to expand on some of the things Barry talked about, mainly the state of the left at the moment.

    I feel that politics is going weird places at the moment, and those places aren’t necessarily places we don’t want it to be. There is rising apathy, that’s patently obvious, and there is a growing view that politicians are all men in suits who stand for the same thing. This is largely true, hence our difficulties in stopping people believing it.

    There are, however, a surprisingly large amount of young people turning to far left politics, radicalising themselves. At a meeting of my college’s socialist society last week there were 50 people, for instance. That group hits 70 fairly regularly. The same college’s ‘Right Way Forward’ group struggles to find 15 like-minded souls, and they all derive from those whose parents couldn’t afford to keep them privately educated. And this is York College, in a primarily conservative area.

    This isn’t new to my generation, as most people have the brain power to see that neoliberalism is a poor way to run things. However, this generation have the Tories to fight instead of having to half heartedly cross ‘Labour’, knowing they are instigating most of the policies they hate. They are, however, being pushed down the revolutionary socialist route, and that’s worrying because the revolution seems an awfully long way off, and thus the number of people who go down that route, and then reach a ‘blow-out’ stage when they see it’s not doing what they want, increases.

    What can we do, as good progressive parliamentary radicals? My personal answer would be to fight tooth and nail to get the living wage implemented into law, somehow. Why? Because it is the perfect policy for everyone in Britain to get behind. Of course, everyone in employment should be given enough to live above the poverty line, it seems obvious. The fact it isn’t proves that the people in power (be they governmental or in corporations) have no actual care for human life. And the Tories, for as much as they shout about how it’s a ‘possibility’, don’t want anything that means businesses actually have to pay their staff, so they’re going to have to half-heartedly try to stop it.

    And if we can make it a Labour-led movement, we get people involved with the party again, and it then starts the discussion on why people’s living standards are more important than business’s bank balances.

    A tad poorly written, I apologise, however it is my best idea at the moment.

  5. A Tale of Two Speeches - ILP
    17 February 2014

    […] critique of Unbalanced Britain I have written about elsewhere starts from similar foundations. Of course, this goes well beyond […]

  6. […] meeting is the first of a planned series of one-day seminars on the theme developed by Barry Winter on the ILP website at end of last […]

  7. […] ‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter is available here. Tags: ILP history, Labour Party democracy, Parliament, Socialists and Socialism, The Labour Party, Trade unions, Working class […]

  8. […] also: ‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter, and ‘Labour and the World of Work’ by Ernie Jacques. Tags: Economics, […]

  9. […] also: ‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter. Tags: Capitalism, Con Dems, Economics, Financial crisis, The Labour Party, […]

  10. […] also: ‘Unbalanced Britain: What Can We Do?’ by Barry Winter, and ‘Labour and the World of Work’ by Ernie Jacques. Tags: Economics, […]

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