We need to look beyond the politics of growth

The next election must not simply be fought over who can put the most money in our pockets.

Sometimes when I read the paper, the world reveals itself as if by some editorial fluke. Stories connect as the pages turn, like the stars in the night sky that make up the great constellations, individual dots join to paint a bigger picture. 

It happened again last Sunday reading the Observer. It started on the front page with a  story headlined "World hunger crisis looms as extreme weather hits harvest", which was developed as a double page spread further in. On page three we had "Don’t carpet bomb the NHS with competition, says health chief", followed on pages six-seven with a story on "Sixth formers pay up to £350 in bid to cheat the university admissions system". Stay with me, there are a few more dots.  Also on page seven, we had "Audit costing £1m might have stopped west coast rail fiasco", on page 10, "IMF austerity warning gives Osborne a £76bn headache" and then, in the business section, an article headlined, "Treating food stocks like stocks and shares is a recipe for disaster."

So what is reveled is nothing less than a society and culture that is being steadily marketised.  A world where we feed multiple times more grain to cattle for hamburgers to make profit, rather than feed people directly. A world where rising temperatures caused by the fossil fuel burning necessary to ramp up even further our turbo-consumer culture, are reaching a level that crops are failing and sending food prices for the poorest through the roof. A world where nothing is sacred and nothing is beyond the toxic reach of competition – even our health. A world where the state is cut back so far to stop it ‘crowding out’ the private sector that it can no longer save the market from wrecking the utility industries on which society depends  – like rail and banking.  A world where our children are under such intense pressure to ‘succeed’ in the learn to earn rat race that the market of course provides a short cut – at a price.

A picture of market fundamentalism emerges out of these disjointed dots and seemingly unconnected news items. It is the story of the unrelenting, disciplined and organised march of the market into every aspect of our lives. It succeeds through lobbying power, intellectual arguments, clever framing of language and through the seductive power of consumption.  We want this stuff, we desire it, it makes us who and what we are. Why fight it? And yet at the same time we know many of us have more clothes that we can wear and yet no time to be with the people we love. We know we buy things we didn’t know we needed with money we don’t have. And we know others don’t even have that dubious choice – and instead face the daily humiliation of not being able to keep up and take their place as a ‘normal’ member of our consumer society.

If the economy picks up again – then what is our story?  Is it just to go back to "business as usual" as fast as possible? A politics of growth, jobs, money, consumption and choice at any cost? For the last thirty years, growth has masked the redistribution of income and wealth from the bottom to the top. Are we happy for that to just kick-start again?  

The Labour Party has worked for a century around the politics of more. But the "more" in question has increasingly just been stuff. More money to buy more things. On one level, it reflects the problem that, for most, real incomes have been flatlining and the spoils have gone to those at the top.  This, by the way, is the inevitable and necessary result of a marketised society.  But what if, by some miracle, capitalism defied its genetic impulses and distributed goods more evenly? Is that all there is? What of the social recession and not just its economic counterpart? What of a planet that continues to burn? What has happened to the well being and happiness debates?  When is enough ever enough?

If the next election is fought mainly on the terrain of who puts more money in our pockets, then I fear for the outcome. Yes, people need jobs , but not at any cost. We have to find a way of addressing the complex insecurity people feel – not just economic, but social and emotional. The politics of time, mental illness, loneliness and what it means to be human in the 21st century. I long to pick up the paper and see the invisible lines that join stories about more hope, care, respect, tolerance, autonomy and a world in which the market serves us and not the other way round.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

The City of London sprawls out, as seen from the under construction 20 Fenchurch Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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