Never mind the left-right panto – we need big ideas

A couple of weeks ago, this actual headline appeared in a British newspaper: ‘Free school meals: we’re all socialists now.’ It was at the top of a report about Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s promise at his party conference to give free meals to all primary school kids in Britain, which is apparently ‘a form of socialism’. A week later, pretty much everything that the two Eds – Miliband and Balls – said at their Labour Party conference was described as ‘socialism’. Miliband was christened ‘Red Ed’ for, among other things, promising to freeze people’s energy bills, which, almost unbelievably, the Guardian described as ‘Bolshevik-style’ politics.

The Tory Party, gathered for its conference in Manchester this week, is lapping up all this socialism-talk. Tory chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne even compared Miliband to Marx – talk about defaming the dead – and said the Tories must fight against this socialistic scourge. ‘It is the historic work of this party to put that right’, he told an audience that somehow managed to clap despite being covered in the cobwebs of the Cold War. In turn, the Tories are referred to by some of their critics as ‘free-market fundamentalists’, even as ‘hard right’, despite the fact that their one big conference announcement so far – the proposed ‘Help to Buy’ mortgage scheme – actually involves more state spending, not less.

What’s going on? How can media and political people who are presumably quite intelligent – a massive swathe of them went to Oxbridge, after all – seriously believe that Britain in 2013 is sharply divided between left and right, between Reds and free-market hotheads, between socialists and hard right-wingers, when absolutely every piece of evidence points to the contrary? How can anyone keep a straight face while referring to Nick Clegg as a socialist? Nick Clegg! The most belief-free, ideology-allergic politician in Western Europe! Why do people take Balls’ claims to be a socialist seriously even when he says in his very next breath, ‘But I’m not talking about any kind of economic programme’? How can the Tories be talked about as ‘free-market fundamentalists’ when state spending has actually increased in the three years they’ve been in power?

This party conference season’s promiscuous flinging-about of political tags and badges from the past shows how emptied of meaning such categories have become. That either of the Eds can be described as Red only confirms how much real Red politics, which was about rather more than keeping people’s gas bills low, is now just a distant, hazy, black-and-white memory, ripe for being ripped off and distorted by modern politicos. That the Tories can be described as free-market fundamentalists for effectively just fiddling with housing benefit, while leaving the rest of Britain’s overreaching, interfering, Byzantine, £600bn state intact, suggests people don’t know what either the phrases ‘free market’ or ‘fundamentalist’ actually mean.

The categories of left and right are dead, and what we’re witnessing in Britain now is the dragging of their unfortunate corpses on to party conference stages, where they’re being dolled up with a bit of slap and used as props in photo ops with modern-day politicians bereft of new ideas or ideological daring. Feeling the chill of declining political legitimacy, of public cynicism and disapproval, our leaders are wrapping themselves in the comfort blankets of nostalgia, hoping that by plundering the history books for old words and images they might manage to look serious and stately. Both sides benefit from this political pantomime: Labour and the trade unions can pose as carrying on the good fights fought by workers of yesteryear, while Osborne’s comments about the Tories’ ‘historic work’ of fighting socialism confirm that he more than anyone loves – and needs – this attempted resuscitation of long-gone political categories: it gives his otherwise directionless, ideas-lite party a flash of relevance, a fleeting sensation of Cold War seriousness, a thrilling Red-baiting rush.

The truth is that the meat of the historic left-right clash, the substantial question which for two centuries divided politicians and vast swathes of the public into Red (or reddish) and right-wing camps, is notable by its absence today. And that question is this: who owns and controls society’s wealth, and who oversees the production and allocation of resources? The disappearance of this question that motored political clashes for decades is clear from the fact that the only thing today’s politicians talk about is living standards, or ‘bread-and-butter issues’, as Ed Miliband calls them – questions of how much people spend on food, electricity, clothing for their kids, etc. Questions about how things are made, and by whom, and who owns the means of production, have been replaced by a narrow focus on how affordable the essentials of life are for individual households. Politicians’ focus on household spending confirms the extent to which far more massive social questions about wealth, production and power have disappeared entirely from the public sphere.

Indeed, there is now cross-party agreement on the question of production, which is that too much of it is a very bad thing, firstly for the environment (it hurts Gaia) and secondly for people’s mental wellbeing (being obsessed with stuff apparently makes us stressed, selfish and sad). To that end, the traditional political clash over wealth has given way to a new political spat over wellbeing – the public’s wellbeing and nature’s wellbeing and how these might best be stroked and nurtured by our leaders. As the various happiness gurus, nudgers and American-imported therapeutic advisers who now surround both the Tory Party and the Labour Party argue, yesteryear’s politics was too much focused on material wealth rather than emotional welfare, and now we need a new politics which meets the ‘emotional as well as the physical needs of human beings’ (1). In short, the old question of how politics and society might be overhauled in order to make people wealthier – to boil down the arguments of socialists in particular – has been replaced by the new, infinitely pettier question of what politicians need to do to make people feel better about themselves.

The shrinking of the scope of politics, the retreat from asking big questions about wealth and resources to narrowly focusing on ensuring that people have bread and butter and high levels of emotional self-worth, is bad for many reasons. Two in particular. Firstly, it copperfastens the unproductivity of society, where to make things, invent things, build homes, create airports and lay down super-fast rail tracks come to be looked upon as eco-unfriendly activities, and too risky, and therefore we probably shouldn’t do them. And secondly, it invites the political class and the state into our minds and hearts, into our emotional lives, in the process denting our moral autonomy and wilfully ignoring the fact that people become fulfilled by doing something with their lives or in the greater world, not by having their minds massaged by officialdom. Politics today is both scared of production and illiberal, giving up on the task of creating more wealth in favour of chasing the fantasy that it can boost wellbeing and create more happy people.

It’s this shared ground of modern politics that progressives and humanists should critique today. Cast off your pseudo-Red garb, stop talking about non-existent neoliberal fundamentalism, and let’s come up with a new language and new ideas that might assist us in declaring a war of words on the simultaneous smallness and authoritarianism of modern politics.

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Footnotes and references

(1) Rethinking Social Policy, edited by Lewis, Gewirtz and Clarke, 2000, Sage Publishers