Tony Blair said his Third Way’s world view was "shaped by reality not ideology". Photo: Getty
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Why politicians should stop dismissing the importance of ideology

We need ideas and idealism as well as processes and action; our problem is not too much politics, but not enough.

I’m having an identity crisis. I am one of a growing number of youngish people who are looking for political alternatives beyond the Westminster bubble. Russell Brand’s Newsnight performance struck a chord. We’re excited by grassroots democracy and collaborative decision-making. But what do we call ourselves? Left wing? No, left and right are over. Progressive? Too woolly. Democratic? Too general. The only term that seems to work is anti-neoliberalism. And that is a hideously inelegant label to rally around.

What does it even mean? Despite admirable attempts to define the term, by cultural theorists Jeremy Gilbert and Will Davies among others, it’s stubbornly hard to pin down. Is it a specific market-fundamentalist programme, or a diffuse set of strategies designed to protect elite power? Why don’t neoliberals themselves ever use the word? It’s also not clear to me whether neoliberalism favours centralised state power or whether this power is only designed to prepare individuals to fend for themselves. Amongst the general public, neoliberalism has little or no currency.

It’s not only those who I’ll call the new left that find themselves at a crossroads of political nomenclature. All the main parties have got their linguistic knickers in a twist, coming up with ever more mangled policy statements and slogans. "Hardworking Britain Better Off". "An economy that delivers for people who want to work hard and get on in life". And so on. Ed Miliband shrinks from uttering the words "labour" or "the left". David Cameron steers clear of terms such as "right wing" or "conservative". The only markets he associates himself with explicitly are in Portugal selling fish. As the conference party season and the long general election campaign loom into view, this impasse will become ever more apparent.

David Cameron’s announcement this week that domestic policies will now be "tested" for their "impact" on families was a clear illustration of how politics has been reduced to morality and "evidence". The bit that is missing is ideology.

According to the OED, ideology is "a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy". In a paper I’ve written for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), I ask the question: why is that so terrible? Why has ideology become so toxic? In a speech last month marking the 20th anniversary of his becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair said the Third Way’s analysis of the world was "shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusional thoughts based on how we want the world to be", and warned Miliband to avoid "playing to the gallery of our ideological ghosts". Miliband denounces  George Osborne’s cuts as "ideologically driven", as though it was the fact that they are ideological that’s the problem, rather than their direction of travel. Even Jon Cruddas – himself arguably the most "ideological" of Labour backbenchers – has cited Tory strategy on rail ownership as an illustration of their tendency to "put ideology before common sense".

The truism that ideology is a dinosaur, no longer relevant to a complex, pragmatic, supple new political culture, doesn’t explain the vehemence with which politicians and commentators reject it. The point is, ideology is not dead: it’s just buried.

It’s no accident that the consignment of ideology to the dustbin of history has coincided with the growing dominance of the right in Western politics over the last three decades. When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of ideological debate 25 years ago, he was a neocon. We should raise an eyebrow when Nigel Farage, who supports a flat tax and the abolition of worker rights, says right and left don’t exist any more. The "death of ideology" thesis is a highly ideological confidence trick designed to render the tools of democratic challenge obsolete.

Politics is broken, we are constantly told. Yes it is, but how? It’s true that politicians have become professionalised and "out of touch". But they are pursuing the wrong remedy, dismissing idealism as highfalutin and producing increasingly mangled impressions of the vernacular and the concrete: Cameron and Osborne posing in hard hats; Cameron tackling a bacon sandwich; all this down-to-earth talk of money in your pocket and food on the table. The "problem with politics" is identified as its tribal, confrontational style: politicians are told to stop fighting each other and "get on with the job".

Yet this common-sense, bipartisan technocracy, underpinned by a moralistic work-culture of duty and shame, is a kind of soft totalitarianism. It chimes too readily with the reduction of political choices to economic optimisation, with claims that the need to "make efficiencies" is an apolitical matter of fact. Anyone who suggests otherwise needs a "reality check". Populism is no cure for the professionalisation of politics: the demotic posturing of Farage and BoJo is determinedly right-wing ideology in anti-political disguise.

Meanwhile, to the left of Labour, there’s a danger that the click-your-own, grow-your-own revolution unwittingly mirrors the tendencies of its opponents. Grassroots and community action is hugely inspiring, but without coordination and a coherent ideology it’s difficult to scale it all up into a concerted, enduring alternative to austerity and – for the want of a better word – neoliberalism.

The new left is, like the Tea Party in the US, eschewing the big state in favour of single-issue, local and horizontalist forms of organisation. But the state not only provides a safety net: it’s the only theatre for political contestation we currently have. 

New theatres may emerge, but what is clear to me is that we need ideas and idealism as well as processes and action. In a sense our problem is not too much politics, but not enough. It may be unfashionable in these crowdsourced times, but I’d like to see politicians give up trying to impersonate ordinary people, and embrace their role as leaders who set out their vision for the future. The recent explosion of interest in "framing" amongst NGOs and think tanks is a symptom of the glaring absence of blueprints and articulation. It’s time to get it all out on the table, to declare agendas and reclaim politics. But it may be that our existing language is irrevocably tainted and that, to borrow the title of NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2013 novel, We Need New Names.

Eliane Glaser is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. She tweets @ElianeGlaser

Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.