House of Lords

It may be a massive cliche, but it bears repeating. The novel coronavirus has swamped our lives. The pandemic has brought illness, disruption, job losses and underemployment, and death to millions, as we navigate a political and economic system that has responded to crisis by revealing its most hostile and brutal tendencies.

In the midst of this disruption, the political class has responded with a combination of disregard, incompetence, and incoordination – which now even the Sunday Times has extensively admitted. The Tories’ outright malice and brutality have been matched by the Labour Party’s failure to hit home on government failures around protective equipment, the speed of response, and workers’ rights and security to name just a few. The scale and scope of artificial disaster is hard to articulate and even harder to comprehend; and yet it sometimes feels like many of those responsible for our futures aren’t trying.

Beneath what could seem like just another failure for our hopeless political class, we can discern something more significant. More than just another bump in the road, there are signs that this crisis could be revealing a deeper malaise in the sprawling and unaccountable British state.

In just a few short months, coronavirus has upended a neoliberal consensus that was superficially strong, but really quite brittle. Given the sheer scale of the impact of the pandemic on economic activity, and the obvious futility of immediate stimulus in a lockdown situation, the government was forced to put the economic system on life support. It has made interventions it wouldn’t have dreamed of making just months before. Some of these, to the keen observer, appear to blow great big holes in its basic premises. But the consensus limps on.

Imagine a more vibrantly democratic political system and culture, where demands and expectations of government were of a different nature and altogether greater. What would our response look like? It’s possible that they could have paved the way for a reappraisal of the role of the British state and economy: how is it made up? What and who is it for? And where does power truly lie within it?

These questions aren’t being asked – much less answered – because the British state is undemocratic at its core. In fact, its archaic nature has held us back for years, and may continue to do so if we don’t act.

Centralising power and the damage of austerity

In our democracy, power is concentrated and centralised to an enormous degree. Despite New Labour’s piecemeal reforms in the late ‘90s, devolution of powers to the regions and nations has been limited. Public sector cuts only made this worse: according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, local government spending on services fell by 21% between 2010 and 2018. The result is that spending is centralised in Westminster, and local communities are less able to determine their future. The prerogative of raising and doling out tax money overwhelmingly lies with central government, meaning that any grants are fundamentally precarious and the poorest localities are left with least.

The people’s ability to resist these dramatic cuts to services and spending is limited. Unlike some countries, the UK has no clear legal framework enshrining social and political rights in law. Comparison with other countries yields important lessons.

Take Portugal: there, in 2014, public sector austerity was rolled back by judgements from the country’s strong Constitutional Court; these included judgements rejecting measures that made it harder to fire civil servants. Other judgements protected public employees from wage cuts. The sum of such judgements was much greater than its parts. The echoes of such judgements were heard far beyond the hearing chamber, galvanising social movements and stimulating massive collective resistance. The democratic legacy of the country’s 1976 Carnation Revolution, in which a fascist dictator was removed by left and prgressive movements, was clear to see.

The country’s proportional representative democracy was in far greater health, providing the basis for genuinely progressive parliamentary struggle. The ruling Socialist Party relied on the support of smaller left formations – including the Left Bloc, Communists, and Greens – which were able to keep the government on a strongly anti-austerity course and strengthen its hand in negotiations with the Troika.

The lesson of the Portuguese experience could not be clearer. Britain, which never had its democratic revolution and never dismantled its imperial state, has suppressed fundamental questions concerning power, who exercises it, and for whom.

To address our unresponsive shambles of a political class – and really uproot their neoliberal dogma – we should be diagnosing the poor health of our democracy.

Who does our democracy serve?

Decentralising power in Britain and taking the social and economic rights we deserve: these are enormous tasks. But these hectic and crisis-ridden times should lead us to question the fundamentals of our political system. Who does it serve? Who is it accountable to? And why?

Neoliberals of different shades are answering these questions in their own horrific ways. As they grapple with the social and economic effects of lockdown, they are very clear that we work for them – and not the other way around. For Donald Trump, the answer is for us all to “reopen the economy” and self-immolate at the altar of someone else’s profit. For Sajid Javid, the answer is to keep things locked down but solemnly insist that we must all pay for this disaster with years of austerity. They are answering that society must work for profit before people.

We’re fighting back. Mainstreaming our answer – the answer of hope and humanity in the face of crisis – means promoting real rights and real powers for people, right now. And we can’t start soon enough.

This is a massive conversation, but I’m proud to be alongside some of the Greens who are leading it. The Young Greens have launched a massive and exciting campaign of radical political education, encouraging people to think big about our politics before taking concrete action for humanity.

The next talk will take place on Monday 20th April at 8pm, from Adam Ramsay, co-editor of openDemocracy. Together, we’ll be discussing the state of our politics and how to reshape our democracy in a time of crisis. Wherever you are, we want you to join us there.

This article is part of a series highlighting the forthcoming programme of talks and training hosted by the Young Greens of England and Wales. You can see the full programme here.

Image credit: vgm838 – Creative Commons