Left and right, the policy problems don't change. Photo: Getty Images
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The left/right divide is outdated and unhelpful

Lines in the sand don't make for good policy-making, says Matilda Murday of the Democratic Society.

Your political ideology is probably nonsense. I don’t mean this as an insult, mine is too. It’s a convenient shorthand to describe the person we want people to believe we are: “Oh hi, I’m left wing too, let’s go live together and have cats.”

The problem is that there is largely a consensus amongst the political elite. Just listen to Labour talking about Tory welfare cuts. Only the most rabid right wing libertarians would be willing to do away with the NHS or welfare. The neoliberal agenda remains strong right across the political divide. Few would embark on a full course of re-nationalisation and state control of markets. In fact, veteran Thatcherite Nigel Lawson looked on the additional financial deregulation Gordon Brown introduced with horror.

The two main political parties are not as clearly defined down Left/Right lines as one might imagine. Whilst the Labour Party have abstained on the Conservative’s austerity welfare bill, the first Tory budget since 1996 reduced tax benefits for entrepreneurs and increased the minimum wage (inaccurately renamed the “living wage”); the CBI, IoD and aspirational self-employed are not the people you'd usually expect to be complaining about a Tory budget. Left and Right are an out-dated way of framing political parties, drawn from a largely obsolete political landscape.

Also, our class identity isn’t as clear-cut as it once was. You can blame this on neoliberalism. But it’s more than that, society functions in a markedly different way. Labour relations have changed. Global capitalism means you might think your boss is a monster, but it’s not his fault you have rubbish wages, a zero hours contract and a worthless pension. What screws you is an employment system that simply needs you less. The combination of technology, deregulation and globalisation has made us potentially obsolete but - paradoxically and relatively speaking - also very rich; even when many can’t afford to eat. It’s what Geoffrey Ritzer called the McDonaldisation of society, turning us into cogs in a machine that even the people running it don’t understand. Politics today is more about economics than people.

Jobs are changing and their value is changing. Productive work has been progressively devalued and life-long jobs are a meaningless dream for many. No matter how hard the RMT fights, the London Underground will eventually be automated. Traditional jobs will continue to disappear and the knowledge society has neither time nor place for the poor and poorly educated. And all the time, government fudge unemployment figures by making people carry out “self-employment” courses and unpaid work, masking the reality that the job market and the way we work is changing.

The precarious nature of many of our new economic realities have led to less clearly defined groups and identities, and the changing nature of political parties’ ‘core voters’ means it is difficult for parties to retain a consistent policy direction, or a distinct identity. This, in turn, can lead to disengagement and disenfranchisement, but it doesn’t have to.

What matters is that, in the midst of huge social and cultural change, we protect our democratic rights. I’m not talking about voting, but taking more responsibility in what we do in between elections. We need to find new ways to get people more involved in how policy (and therefore laws) are shaped, written and scrutinised. New digital tools create an opportunity for “open policy making”, but to take it, we need real and lasting reform in our democracy, and we need to make sure the new tools are available, accessible and usable. In that dread phrase: we need to talk.

Open policy making is about bringing in wisdom from outside government. This means involving the public sooner, more and more often.  At its is drawing on the wisdom of the many to create better policy, allowing people to have a greater say in how they are governed. This means radical changes to the democratic environment, not just more people involved in decision making but promoting more cooperation and collaboration between them and their government. In return we get better policies that have been shown to save money and, one hopes, bring greater public trust.

There are already experiments in open policy making taking place in local and national government. It relies on a number of things, but it has to be genuinely influential. Unless open policy making is used to create, modify or destroy policy, it is pointless and will do little other than alienate people taking part.

The present political system is also a problem for open policy. Spin-doctors are less effective these days but they have transformed how policy is made. Policies that the Government and party machines believe will be popular are fast-tracked, often before any consultation is underway, in order to grab the constantly moving media spotlight and appeal to voters. Too many think-tanks with dubious credentials and shadowy funders tout their wares.

The belief in a clear and distinct Left/Right divide is not just redundant; it’s counter-productive. Most people care about the issues that affect them not the perceived ideology. If we really want to reshape democracy for future generations, and ourselves, we’d do better to take advantage of open tools and digital technologies, such as local participatory budgeting projects, NHS Citizen, and community planning projects.  Our professed political identities might be meaningless but our views and experiences aren’t, we need to make them heard, so if we really want policies that benefit “hard working families” then we need those people involved in the policy process.

 

Matilda Murday works for the Democratic Society.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.