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Labour must be bolder as the storm brews

Despite Miliband's fine words, the party still clings to a busted economic model.

"The presence of a broken economy looms over everything". Photograph: Getty Images.

"There is a storm coming." It’s the last line from the first Terminator film.  It’s a quote that haunts me.  Its been gathering for a while now – not just in the economy but physically in the environment and emotionally in all of us. A palpable fear of a world going far beyond our control, in which we become lonelier, more isolated, anxious and insecure. We have lost the shoreline and there is, it seems, no captain to steer us home or lighthouse to warn us away from danger.  

Of course the presence of a broken economy looms over everything. It’s not just that times are hard but the best we are offered is a return to business as usual – the booms and the busts, the inequality and the endless slog of the earn-to-spend treadmill – but our politicians cant even deliver on that miserable promise. There is pain but no gain as child poverty rises, health inequalities widen and the budget deficit grows. Poverty is returning to Europe – not my words but those of Jan Zijderveld, Unilever's European boss, on why the company is using marketing strategies designed for developing countries to sell their goods in Europe. A tunnel with no light at the end is a disorientating place to be.

Before you think I’m going to say something cheery we have to face an even bigger threat: that of ecocide. We all know something bad is happening to the planet. The scientific evidence stacks up but we can all see, hear, smell and touch. The weather isn’t right just as the sight of bees in the winter is alarmingly wrong. An economy out of control triggers a planet out of control. The ice melts at record rates. Serious water shortages await. Food prices rise as crops fail because temperatures soar. Energy and mineral prices go through the roof as both become scarcer. The poor are hit first and hardest.  But we all will be hit eventually. No gates can be built high enough to thwart what’s coming.

Is this just more leftie doom and gloom? Maybe. You decide. But bad news usually tends to be even worse news for the left. Lenin is long rumored to have said "the worse it gets the better it gets", in the belief that from misery will come revolution. History doesn’t bear this out. The left thrives on hope and optimism. Caution and conservatism are more likely to spring from hard times.  This is especially the case if the left fails to meet the challenges that confront us.

Fredric Jameson tells us what we already know to be true "that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism". Which, as the new political season is about to kick off, brings us to our own backyard and the gaping chasm between what is and what needs to be in British politics.

There is a double arm lock in place. The crash revealed not just the weakness of the financial system but the incredible hold of neo-liberalism on our national psyche. It has become a truly "hegemonic project" in the words of Stuart Hall, recently interviewed in the New Statesman. To suffer such a potentially fatal blow as the biggest crash ever, but get up and carry on, reminds us of the Terminator films from which this article began. It is a system held firmly in place for many reasons but one is the British electoral system of first past-the-post – which purposefully denies the space for viable alternatives to grow as all the focus remains on a few swing voters in a few swing seats. To secure office means nothing must change.  Surely something has to give between the epochal change taking shape all around us and business as usual at Westminster. But when and how?

Here we turn to Ed Miliband, Labour’s underestimated but still under-performing leader. His instincts are to be bold and radical. But his actions are too timid and cautious. Understandably, he feels hemmed in by his shadow cabinet and the PLP,  too many of whom want just want one more heave - but without any heave. He has been proved right in his attack on "predatory" capitalism but has so far failed to either develop the concept or build the alliances and forces to make it happen.  Labour, in effect, still clings to the same-busted economic model of trickle down from the City. And on public service reform, from welfare to the NHS, Labour paved the way for the Tories to do the same, only worse.  Unless and until Labour breaks from its past, no one will believe it will be any different in the future.

It is still early but look across the channel to France and François Hollande.  Yes, the left can find itself in office when right-wing governments contrive to lose but unless you go through the long hard process of renewing your political ideas and organisation then you never find yourself in a position of real power.  As things stand, coming a close second to the fear of losing the next election is the fear of actually winning it. What would the left do about an economy and an environment that are out of control?  To rebuild Britain we must rebuild not just Labour but a much wider and deeper political alliance for change. That is not just Miliband's job but that of everyone who wants a good society.   

Gramsci advised us to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned. In these grim times, we must look for the cracks in the system and find inspiration, hope and a toe hold for a better society. From Transition Towns to Community Links, from Citizens UK to 38 Degrees, from Greenpeace campaigners to UK Uncut, from the soon-to-be-launched pressure group  Own It to UK Feminista, from Danny Boyle’s soft progressive sentiment to Joseph Stiglitz's hard new economy by way of Jon Cruddas running the Labour policy review and even, yes, the Liberal Democrats calling for a tax on wealth – a better way can and must be found.

Neal Lawson's column will appear every Thursday on The Staggers.