A crisis is at hand: only voting green will do
The people of Britain face three major interlocking challenges, none of which is being addressed seriously in this election.
Our economy is tanking. We’ve had a trade deficit since 1983, and rely far too heavily on an unstable financial sector to pay our way in the world: a house of credit cards which could topple in the slightest breeze. We have the lowest GDP per capita in Northern Europe, work longer hours to produce less than our neighbours and that wealth we do create is less evenly shared than in almost any other Western country.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, we are utterly deluded about this: almost no British person believes me when I tell them that we are poorer than Ireland. In fact, our GDP/capita is around 4/5 of theirs. If you want to know why the coalition is so keen for us to focus on the fiscal deficit, it’s because they’re desperate to stop us looking at any other economic stats.
The fiction that we are doing well is built on our houses getting more and more expensive. Driven by Quantitative Easing and our citizens taking out ever bigger mortgages, this inflating gut of the British economy does little of use to anyone but leave us feeling comfortable in our sluggishness. Worse, it ensures that for my generation, access to stable housing depends largely on the wealth of our parents. In the land of baby princesses, security in life is hereditary. In order to keep our heads above water, people in Britain borrow more money than the citizens of any other major Western economy – more than America or Greece. By 2020, the IMF expects the people of Britain to have borrowed more than those of anywhere but Portugal.
Britain’s economic woes are long term and entwined with those of the world. Arguably, we haven’t had a serious economic strategy since we retreated from directly plundering the empire. At least since Thatcher, though, our approach has been the same: cuts, privatisation, deregulation, financialisation: hope to improve standards of living by attracting capital by cutting standards of living. Of course, we’ve marched in step with the allied forces of neoliberalism. But since Thatcher, we’ve been in the front row, turning our land empire into an empire for capital, our remaining protectorates into the world’s biggest tax-haven network and our metropolis into the world’s banking centre.
Even in its own terms, this race to the bottom has failed. GDP per capita is flat-lining and Osborne has only managed to achieve half of his target of eliminating the fiscal deficit if we’re foolish enough to accept his dodgy accounting, where he’s included one off sales of assets like the Post Office, Bradford and Bingley and the 4G spectrum in his revenue figures. In 2013, John Lancaster wrote: “if you reverse the creative accounting and add the interest from the quantitative easing back where it used to be, as a Bank of England asset, it adds 0.6 per cent to the structural deficit. That takes it back up to 4.9 per cent – higher than it was when the coalition came to power.” I imagine the figures have improved a little since then, but they are nothing like as robust as the Treasury likes to claim and the media happily parrots.
Of all of these statistics, it is perhaps the figures around inequality which are most shocking. As this year’s Sunday Times Rich List showed, the wealthiest thousand people have more than doubled the size of their pile of treasure in the last ten years, from just under £250bn to £547bn. If you’re wondering where all of the money went, you need look no further. It’s worth remembering, of course, that this happened under both Labour and the Coalition: in 2009, the last year that Labour were in power, the wealthiest thousand got 30% richer. The scale of the riches produced by society which were transferred to them that year was bigger than the fiscal deficit that year. It’s funny that Ed Miliband is berated endlessly for the latter, but no one ever mentions the former. Looking forwards is even scarier than looking back. According to Oxfam, we’re on course to become the most unequal country in the developed world.
And these are our problems now. This is how we face the world as new challenges emerge, from China to increased automation, from resource constraints to ecological collapse, from demographic time bombs to international insecurities, we’e looking at stormy seas from a top heavy boat with a crew so obsessed with gambling debts between us that we haven’t noticed how few of our trading partners are buying our wares anymore.
In this context, we need a new economic strategy, a whole new direction. It’s not yet clear exactly what that will be, and anyone who announces with certainty that they know is probably wrong. But we do know some things: the answer will not emerge from a self appointed few. As long as investment decisions are made by those intent either on the fast buck or the safe bet, the wealth from our work will be poured into speculation not investment, making houses more expensive and quick gambles on the derivatives market.
Rather than allowing the shape of our future to be determined by the decisions of those who manage to monopolise money, we need to deepen our democracy. Rather than fetishising those with access to capital as ‘wealth creators’ we need to recognise that wealth is the product of the work done by us all. It doesn’t trickle down from the top, but emerges as a consequence of the labour and genius with which human society is abuzz, and it is in and by human society that it must be reinvested.
Instead of discussing in this election why the institutions of our economy are failing, we’ve ended up in an absurd zealots’ battle over who is willing to trash our economy fastest by forcing the magic number we’ve been told is important this year – the fiscal deficit – to fall. 26% of British government debt is owed to the Bank of England. The majority of the rest is owed to British taxpayers. And yet we are forever told that the fact that we owe ourselves money is the greatest problem we face. This laughable argument has such a grip on our discourse that anyone who challenges the entranced chants at the alter of deficit fetishism is told they are ‘economically illiterate’, or ‘living in lala land’. I usually reply by asking if they mean the trade deficit or the fiscal deficit, and why they care more about the latter than the former. I’ve yet to have a coherent answer.
The reason that this is so disastrous is that the only route out of the thirty year slump into which Mrs Thatcher led the British economy is investment. And with net investment in the British economy sitting at zero, that will require serious leadership from the state. Just when we should be taking advantage of low interest rates and borrowing in order to pour credit into building an economy fit for the 21st century, an absurd piece of blind ideology gags our national debate so tightly that we are unable to even talk seriously about it without being shouted down. Just when we need to discuss democratising our financial institutions, how we cope with the unemployment likely to stem from the potent mix of automation and resource limits, we are forced into an endless discussion of one statistic which tells us little about the broader challenges we face.
There is another way to put all of this. The power that capital has over labour – the power that investors have over workers – has been allowed to grow significantly. The result of this isn’t just that wages stagnate whilst dividends soar, that the rich get richer on the back of the work of the poor. It’s also that more and more decisions about the future shape of our society are made by fewer and fewer people. And that means they are made in the short term interests of those people, not the long term interests of society.
This is, therefore, not just an economic disaster, it’s also a democratic crisis. Over cautious and lazy, capital is desperate for new frontiers to cross to find new profits, whilst at the same time keen not to stray too far from its front door. Rather than back new inventions or lead the exploration of space, or think of something I can’t conceive of in order to make our lives genuinely better, it’s easier to commodify old commons, to turn those things which have previously been not for profit into dividends for their shareholders. And so, after the credit crunch, they switched their attention to feasting on the soft underbelly of European welfare states. It’s no wonder that there are close funding links between private healthcare companies and senior figures in the Conservative party.
The shift from public to private sector is a fundamental attack on democracy. Citizens becoming customers switches the core decision makers in our society from those accountable to us all equally to those accountable to us based on how much money we can spend. And as more and more decisions are made by the market, and fewer and fewer by those we elect, it’s no wonder that our faith in democracy is at an all time low.
This problem exists across the West, but in Britain, we are particularly ill equipped to deal with it. Our system of governance wasn’t fit for the 1960s, never mind the 21st century. A set up designed for one class to run an empire, Westminster and Whitehall are riddled with the corrupting pomp and circumstance of an elite who still think, deep down, that they ought to rule the waves. From the Lords Spiritual and the cronyism of appointed peers to First-Past-The-Post and the Remembrancer; from asymmetric devolution and the astonishing centralisation of our state to “The Crown in Parliament”, and our pet Protectorate tax havens; from the insidious control of our media to the recent abolition of equal access to justice, our constitution is a mess.
The Scottish referendum put that system on trial, and the likely arrival of a swath of SNP MPs means it’s likely to stay on the agenda. The no vote put it on life support rather than saving it.
It’s easy to dismiss the fact that our system of democracy is laughable as a side issue. It’s not something people mention on the doorstep when they are paying the bedroom tax, living off food banks or fearful of increasing NHS privatisation. But the reason it is vital is that democracy should be how we organise the power of the people against the bullies of the world. At the moment, our democratic structures are so weak that the state has instead been captured by those it is supposed to be a bulwark against. They are being used to bully people into low pay and insecure jobs, and sell, or, too often, give, our commons both social and environmental to those who care only for short term dividends. They are being used to trick us into thinking it’s all to make some magic number go up, or down, for the sake of some abstract ‘economy’ whose success, it seems, is no longer rooted to our lives.
If the first challenge we face is economic and the second democratic, then the third is environmental. With technological advance, our capacity as a species to take natural resources and turn them into tools for someone’s momentary delight advanced rapidly. What we could once extract in a month we can now extract in moments. Had we the capacity to seriously debate what to do in this context, it seems likely, as both Keynes and Wilde once suggested, that we would choose to take advantage of this in order to work fewer hours, to spend more time with our children, or learning languages, or sports, or arts.
Instead, though, the question asked is not how we can all enjoy life the most, but how we can maximise profits for shareholders. And so we have used our awesome labour-saving technology not to free our time, but entrap our future. Pumping the contents of the lithosphere into the atmosphere whilst we slash and burn through the biosphere, our failing economic system is purging life from the only planet where it is known to exist. A great extinction is driving thousands of unique species out of the universe. It is rendering the soil on which we depend infertile, poisoning the aquifers left for us by our forefathers of a thousand generations, turning our once teaming oceans to underwater deserts and burning through the resources on which our children would otherwise rely. Unless we stop our vast corporations from plundering our children’s future, they won’t have one.
The statistics in the UK alone are worth noting. Natalie Bennett was once mocked for talking too much about hedgehogs but before you laugh, get your head around this fact: the number of the creatures in the UK fell by a third between 2003 and 2012. It’s now around 1/60th of what it was in the 1950s. Given the species is seen as a key indicator of the health of the ecosystems on which we depend for life, this is grave news indeed. It’s not just spiny mammals. The UK’s only pod of Orca hasn’t had a calf in 20 years. Within a generation, they will be gone from our shores. The slow death of our final apex predator should scream a terrible warning to our island nation: that the seas in which we swim are dying.
There are lots of other ways I could talk about all of the above. The value of some of the firms on the FTSE 100 is based on the assumption that they will burn oil reserves containing in them sufficient carbon to wipe the value off the rest of the companies on the stock exchange and sink our civilisation beneath the waves. Our house of credit cards only remains standing because we have maintained the cognitive dissonance to pretend it isn’t built upon this contradiction.
The majority of growth in our economy in the last hundred years is the product of many more women entering the paid workforce, yet we have done nothing to seriously address complex questions of how we deliver the care work once considered a full time job. We just expect women to be superhuman, and talk vaguely of ‘modern men’.
Globally, Britain is more of an irrelevance than ever, which is perhaps no bad thing. Having pushed our citizens deep into debt in order to keep up appearances that this suburb of Europe is still the centre of the world, we’re trying to prove that we’re one of the cool kids by spending a hundred billion pounds on a grotesque piece of nuclear bling. Meanwhile, the grown ups get on with negotiations with Putin without us.
Perhaps most perniciously of all, we have a nasty habit of blaming exactly the wrong people for our problems. And as they get larger, the scapegoating gets worse: Britain locks up more of our black population than America, yet talks about racism as though it is a problem an ocean away. We treat immigrants as criminals. We have a benefits sanction system which has starved people to death, forcing the poor to be blood sacrifices for the sins of the rich.
I could go on. The point, though, is simple. Our crises don’t skim across the surface of British society. They are deep. They are systemic. And it seems to me that, when we consider how to vote in this election, it’s worth starting by asking a simple question: is my vote for the system, or against it? Am I helping keep the show on the road, or am I demanding a new direction?
Considering the economic crisis, it seems to me that a vote for UKIP, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would be a vote to take the country further in the wrong direction fast. There is a strong consensus among economists that austerity has extended our downturn and made us all poorer, and yet they promise more of the same. If you want a pay cut, or wish to take a sledgehammer to your local library, you don’t need to wait for election day. If masochism is your aim, I’m sure you can find a brick wall to smash your face against without walking to the polling station. I’d recommend instead sitting down with a quiet cup of tea and pondering on the world a little longer.
A vote for Labour or the SNP, on the other hand, is more tempting. Either would be a vote to try to rescue neoliberal capitalism from itself: more civilised than the Tories, more humane than the Lib Dems, but with little attempt at the deep reforms we need if we are going to pass a flourishing country to our children; little attempt to look in the eye the intertwining crises that capitalism in Britain, Europe and the world is facing and confront them in a coherent way. Both offer our economy a paint job, and that’s needed. But neither is willing to grasp the nettle (or should I say thistle) of corporate control.
If the democratic institutions of Westminster are to be replaced, then it seems obvious we can’t trust any of the parties which have become tied into that system to deliver that change. The Tories at least don’t pretend that they want it, apart from their EVEL mess. Labour are proposing a constitutional convention, but again this feels like the branches of the old imperial British state bending to accommodate the new world, not the planting of new seeds that we need. The Liberal Democrats, whose predecessors over two hundred years have been the party of constitutional reform, can perhaps be trusted more on this. But their ambition is too limited, and they haven’t made any sort of systemic change a key demand in post election negotiations. With the perspective gained by looking from Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru can see the dire need for a constitutional deep clean, and so leave more hope here.
Finally, none of the parties yet mentioned comes close to understanding the disaster unfolding around us in the form of species loss, resource use and the climate. Whilst they talk warm words, all are happy to perpetuate an economic system predicated on cashing in on the end of the earth as we know it.
A vote for Labour is therefore a vote to carry on more slowly down the wrong road. A vote for the Lib Dem’s or SNP would be a vote to, in different ways, address some of the democratic crisis, but stops short of digging out its root in corporate power.
In this context, it seems that what Britain needs is a party or parties radical enough to address these crises yet broad enough to attract a significant membership base and grow into powerful forces in our politics. It seems to me that one and a half such parties exist: the Green Party and, to an extent, Plaid Cymru. Unlike the SNP, the party of Raymond Williams is rooted in a critique of capitalism as well as the British constitution and deserves recognition for this, though its need to win over agricultural voters makes it weak on some environmental questions. There are other small parties of the left – TUSC, Left Unity and the Scottish Socialists, for instance. Whilst they have much to commend them, they sometimes veer too far for me into an economist determinism which oversimplifies human society, and don’t leave any assurance of long term strategies or survival.
The Green Party of course has emerged from an imperfect world and has many of its own problems, often reflective of that world. It’s too white and too middle class. Whilst it’s tied closely into some of Britain’s most exciting street movements, it lacks links to our trade unions. With democratic policy structures come some badly expressed, badly thought through, or downright bad ideas. The party has been made to pay in recent weeks for this.
Likewise, it’s faced some growing pains in recent years, and has yet to resolve tensions around wishing to transform the world and what to do upon taking power in local council offices which, in our system as is, don’t offer many of the levers needed to deliver such a transformation. But it is a democratic party, aware that it is imperfect and willing to change – particularly now that most of its members have joined in the last year.
Yet despite these failures, it is the best electoral tool available to those of us who want the deep systemic changes we need. In this election, it will be tempting for many who believe in such change to vote Labour anyway, not because they believe that Ed Miliband will deliver what’s needed, but because he will keep the Tories out. And it is of course true that a Labour government is preferable to a Tory one, in that they travel more slowly in the wrong direction. I’d even go further. Miliband is the best Labour leader in my life so far, and I can see the temptation to back him.
But seven years have passed since the collapse of the banks and seven months since the Scottish referendum. Both taught us the same lesson about the Labour party: that when push comes to shove, it exists to protect the political and economic system of which it has become an integral part. It’s a lesson written through the history of that party, from its opposition to the 1926 general strike to its refusal to stand with the miners, as Ed Miliband’s dad well knew.
Of course, in most seats, there is no need to believe there is a dilemma: there are few constituencies in the UK which are marginal between Labour and Tories or Lib Dems. Where I live, in Oxford East, there is no chance of either of the coalition parties winning, and so the choice is not difficult.
But even in a marginal (with one exception (1)), I would still vote Green. A vote for Labour is still a vote to maintain our political and economic system. A short term tactical vote is always tempting. But we won’t change our country if we put short term tactics ahead of longer term strategy: the only way to ensure that you don’t have the same terrible choice next time is to build up the Green vote now. If you play the game, then the game will go on and on. If people in Brighton hadn’t voted Green in 2001 and 2005, Caroline Lucas couldn’t have got in in 2010.
Likewise, I don’t think Labour has done enough to earn the votes of those who want serious change. It’s possible to point to detailed ideas in their manifesto which are worthwhile. But sometimes in politics, it’s important not to be distracted by detail. Looking at Miliband’s main interventions in this election: his statements in the TV debates and the policies he had carved in stone, we see a leader who has capitulated far too fast on most main issues, before he’s even reached office.
In the challengers’ debate, he preached austerity, professed the need for Trident, argued that migration is to blame for problems caused by bosses and declared the SNP pariahs because they affront his British nationalism. I don’t know what’s worse: the idea that he believes any of this nonsense, or, as I am pretty sure, that he knew he was talking nonsense on the biggest stage in the land, but was willing to do so anyway. For all Miliband may be the most left wing Labour leader since Kinnock, his campaign is more conservative than that run by Blair in 1997.
Over the next few years, we need to grow a party capable of building our systems anew. If we fail, it will be the most vulnerable who will pay dearly. Every vote for the Greens is a contribution to that long term project. It is a statement of intent for the future of the country and a demand that we will not roll over and capitulate.
This is a long article, and I haven’t mentioned in it a single specific policy. I could list many: Greens are the only party standing in most seats to oppose TTIP and the false logic of free trade, to support investment over austerity and the banishment of profiteering from the NHS.
It’s the only party to support a replenishing of trade union rights, including a workers’ right to turn their firm into a co-op, taking our utilities back into public ownership and investing seriously in the renewable technology which must power our future. It’s the only party calling for free education, sufficient funding for the arts and science and the writing from scratch of a genuinely democratic British constitution. Greens are the only party proposing to end the right to buy and build new neighbourhoods of council houses comparable in scale with the generation built in the 50s and the only party with the foresight to see the need in an increasingly automated economy to move towards an unconditional basic income.
I could go on. But the point is this. We can choose to keep our head down and muddle on, or we can choose to start investing in ideas as big as the challenges we face. If we do the former, we must understand that the path on which we are walking leads to inequality, impoverishment and a barren planet. We will be keeping the show on the road to destruction. The latter will require inventiveness and the challenging of vested interests. But it seems to me that it is the only viable route. And on Thursday, that means voting Green.
1. My one exception is Ceredigion, where there is a good Plaid Cymru candidate, Mike Parker, with a chance of unseating the Lib Dem. Despite there also being a very nice Green candidate, I would enthusiastically vote Plaid if I lived there as I would in Arfon, Ynys Môn, and other Welsh seats where there is no Green. Where there is no Scottish Green, I would vote SSP or, more reluctantly, SNP. In England, without a Green, it would depend on the seat.