How the left has lost (part 1)
It’s 2008. RBS has collapsed. Fred the Shred has fled The City: he’s forced into hiding in Highland Perthshire. The public, press and politicians spit about ‘spivs’ and bawl about bonuses. ‘Bank’ is uttered with the same tone as so many other four letters words. Neo-liberalism’s de-regulated house of credit cards has collapsed, and politicians compete to flail the financiers who built our false economy.
Two years later, we have a radically right wing coalition government. After the great failure of the free market, we are told that the state must be sliced to liberate corporate monopolies. After the banks had to be nationalised, we are told we must privatise our schools, because only businesses can survive the cut-throat world of GCSEs.
Over the last two years, the right has comprehensively thrashed the left. And until we understand how, we won’t be able to build a better Britain.
Of course, the answer to this question is complex. We could talk about New Labour – how Blairites believe that the right “won the economic debate”. We could talk about corporate ownership of the media, and the victory of Clegg’s Orange Bookers.
But for me, credit where it’s due: the right have played a blinder.
Because just at the height at public anger with the banks, just when there seemed to be, for the first time in decades, a real chance of some genuine economic reforms, The Telegraph payed their ace. On the 25th of March 2009, a someone vandalised Fred Goodwin’s car in Edinburgh as public rage with bankers reached a new peak. On the 8th of May the Daily Telegraph published their first stories about MPs expenses.
And suddenly public rage shifted its focus. The great crisis of neo-liberalism became the great crisis of democracy. Where so recently politicians had denounced bankers’ bonuses, now they had to defend themselves. Where we had learnt not to trust the private sector, we were suddenly taught to despise the State. And with the anti-elitist rhetoric of the left, the right swiftly distracted us from the big prize. They changed the story.
And many on the left bought into it. So much so that we gave their story legs. We stopped shouting about the capitalist failure which was about to cost many of us our jobs. Instead, we cursed about politicians who had cost us each a few pennies. We understood that this generation of politicians had failed us. These were the MPs who had de-regulated the banks, who had invaded Iraq, who had invested our nation’s fortunes in financial services and watched as they burned. And while we didn’t understand the financial de-regulation, we did understand duck houses. And so we went with it.
And as we accepted that public rage should be focused on our political system, we took the heat off the economic system. 18 months after Fred Goodwin had his car vandalised amidst anger at bonuses, the richest 1000 people in Britain have seen their wealth increase by more than 30% – half the UK’s public sector deficit. Yet no one has even bothered to report it. And so we took our eyes off the prize of economic reforms, and focused instead on political reforms: we demanded tinkering with a relatively powerless, post-privatisation Parliament. In doing so, we accepted the broader narrative: the economic system was not to blame, but a few greedy, powerful individuals. Just as some politicians felt newly empowered to begin to challenge the strength of capital, they were put back in their neo-liberal boxes. And the left helped force them there.
And once we had accepted that politicians can’t be trusted – that the state can’t be trusted – it was just one small step into deficit fetishism. And so the great crisis of capitalism which had morphed into the great crisis of democracy morphed once more into the great crisis of the state. Those greedy expenses grabbing politicians became those careless, spend-aholic Ministers. The State had rescued capitalism with the bankers’ bailout. And so capitalists are taking the chance to destroy the now weakened state.
Whether anyone planned this shift is impossible to tell. It may well be co-incidence that the Telegraph secured it’s story at just the right time – though with desperate bankers literally living in hiding a the time, we can only assume they were searching for some kind of distraction. But whether or not it was planned, it worked.
Intentional or not, this has to be the most incredible piece of re-framing in modern British politics. The credit crunch happened because financial markets were set free. It happened because capitalists stopped investing our money in new production and started to invest it in property bubbles. It happened because we stopped paying workers any more, but told them they should carry on buying. But by adding MPs expenses to the picture, the story soon became one of individual greed, not economic needs.
The heat was removed from the financial sector incredibly fast. The narrative moved so far, and so fast, that David Cameron was able to talk in the election debates about “wealth creators”. And when he did so, he didn’t mean builders, or farmers, of hair-dressers, or painters, or factory workers, or educators. He meant financiers. 18 months after RBS was bailed out, this man stood on a stage in front of the people of the country and told us that most of us don’t create wealth: that this is the preserve of his rich mates. And no one challenged him. No one pointed out that he had just insulted 99% of the population. Because no politician is willing to argue that wealth is not made by the rich, but is socially created by all of us. And this is despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Britain are engaged in creating wealth socially. No politician is brave enough to tell the simple economic stories of the left which challenge the simplistic economic stories of the right. Everyone in the country now believes that the deficit is a massive short term problem, even if no one can tell us why (with bond markets now booming, I literally can’t work out what the problem is). And so less than 2 years after RBS was bailed out, Cameron Cable and Clegg can cut the corporation tax paid by bankers, with barely a complaint.
Of course, this is not to apologize for those MPs who were genuinely corrupt. But if we look at the choice between serious reform of the UK’s economic strategy, and reform of the MPs expenses system, we’ve had a bum deal. Similarly, I have no delusions about how willing those at the top were to deliver real change. But by allowing the story to move on – by pushing the narrative that politicians are just as bad as bankers, and so, in the minds of many, that democracy is just as ugly as capitalism, we never even found out what they would have bowed to under pressure. And of course, the story is much more complex than all of this.
Whatever went wrong this time, disasters famously provide an opportunity to build something better. But you can only build the future you want if the right ideas are already lying around. And after 2 decades of New Labour scattering conservative premises into their national conversations, people weren’t equipped to challenge the Tories as they spun reality on it’s head and turned the credit crunch into an argument to cut.
And so we must pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down. For there will be more credit crunches to come. And we can’t afford to lose again.