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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.

Tony Blair said his Third Way’s world view was "shaped by reality not ideology". Photo: Getty

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