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. 

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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