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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“We can’t run away from Brexit”: Labour MP Bambos Charalambous warns his party

The new MP for Enfield Southgate on how he won a Tory seat, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and being a celebrity in Cyprus.

Enfield Southgate is an iconic location in election night history. It was this suburban tip of north London that played host to 1997’s “Portillo moment”, when the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo – tipped to be Tory leader – lost his seat in a shock defeat. Stephen Twigg, the Labour candidate who won with a 17.4 per cent swing, became the rather stunned face of Labour’s landslide.

Twenty years later, the constituency went unexpectedly to Labour again. Bambos Charalambous, a local councillor for 23 years who attended the ’97 count, defeated the Conservative David Burrowes who had been MP there since 2005.

As the first MP of full Cypriot descent, Charalambous has been warmly invited into the BME MPs’ WhatsApp group. But he doesn’t have an office yet, so he’s squatting in his old friend Twigg’s office. Luckily, as a housing lawyer, “I know my rights,” he jokes. He was a solicitor on Hackney Council’s housing litigation team until he was elected.

We settle instead at a table in Parliament’s glass-walled Portcullis House. Charalambous – whose full name is so wonderful that the Huffington Post points out you can sing it to “Copacabana” and “Mambo Italiano” – looks smart in a suit and silky maroon tie. He is also very tanned; he took his parents on holiday to Rome at the beginning of the campaign – booked for their anniversary before the election was called.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment”

Brought up in Enfield, which has a large Cypriot community, Charalambous has lived there all his life. He’s now a bit of a local celebrity; his friends and family have started taking pictures with him at every opportunity.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment,” he says, rather deadpan. “It’s a bit surreal when your relatives are asking for selfies with you. My cousin had a christening a couple of weeks ago, and my cousins and uncles and aunts wanted selfies with me. I was like, ‘Are you guys insane? You’ve got pictures of me wearing shorts and stuff!’ So it’s quite amusing.”

To be fair, they’ve been waiting a while to celebrate. Charalambous ran for the seat in 2010 and 2015, but couldn’t beat the Tories. And abysmal polling for Labour initially suggested this wouldn’t change.

“People told me at the start of the campaign, ‘you’re mad, you shouldn’t run, you’re going to ruin your reputation’,” he reveals. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’ve run before and I think I deserve to give it another go, and you never know what’s going to happen’.”

“I was initially sceptical about Jeremy. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong”

He won the seat by 4,355 votes, with a swing of 9.7 per cent, and gives a variety of reasons for his victory. Firstly, he was a Remainer running in a pro-EU seat (63 per cent voted Remain) against a Brexiteer Tory. He also found “young people enthused” by the campaign and “dragging” their parents out to vote, which he hadn’t seen before. Local schools are facing budget cuts, and he felt the Tories’ “complacency” about the problem harmed them electorally.

But he also has Jeremy Corbyn to thank. “The manifesto was fantastic,” he says. “I think Jeremy as the leader, he came into his own during the election period and his stature just grew and grew and he will be a credible Prime Minister . . . through the television debates, people could finally see he could answer questions directly. He wasn't fazed by them, and gave good answers and had something to say. He also gave a vision of hope and optimism.”

Although Charalambous supported Andy Burnham to be Labour leader in 2015, he now gives Corbyn his “100 per cent support”. “I didn’t have a problem with the policies. I was initially sceptical about whether Jeremy could be a strong, credible leader,” he admits. “Clearly he is. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong . . . If there were an election tomorrow, or in a few months down the line, Jeremy will be Prime Minister.”

Charalambous says a lot of his constituents who are EU nationals, or have European partners, are worried about their future. He will be focusing on this, and says Brexit should “clearly” be a priority for Labour. He warns his party that, “we can’t run away from Brexit; that’s a big priority”.

But even before he’s spoken up in the Commons about the stickiest subject in British politics, his name is already up there “with the greats”, he grins. “Barry Manilow – ‘Copacabana’”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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