Follow the Mexican way

The fast pace of politics is damaging. Our new government could learn from the Zapatistas.

After the frantic campaigning and deal-making, what next? The financial markets and 24-hour media are already calling for urgent action and instant solutions from the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. The economic crisis demands such an approach, they argue. But are quick fixes really what we need? Would we not be better off with a complete change of pace in the way we do politics, geared towards the con­sidered, consensual, long-term reforms that our fractured economy and political system need? Politics should be slower. That may test the patience of news junkies, but it would bring real benefits to Britain.

The question is: will we, the voters, allow our politicians to shift down a gear? Promises of immediate solutions have become de rigueur. And rather than admit to the powerlessness of government to provide these, politicians stoke public expectations, implying that social ills, economic problems and even democracy itself can all be sorted out in double-quick time.

One accusation that can be thrown at Labour justly is that, over its 13 years in power, it became addicted to spinning the wheel of politics ever faster. The new government should learn the lessons from that period. Three decades ago, most ministers remained in their post for at least three years (of a four-year term). Now, the average ministerial tenure is just 16 months. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, has had eight secretaries of state come and go since it was created in 2001. Compare this with the average tenure of a head teacher (six to seven years) or a local authority chief executive (four to five years).

The result of this ministerial merry-go-round has been a perpetual cycle of new faces. It is no longer unusual to find ministers being reshuffled just as they get to grips with their brief. The "lucky" ones make their mark through rapid initiatives or new legislation - but they are rarely around to see their ideas through (or take the blame if they go wrong). Even government departments come and go. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills lasted little more than 23 months.

With so little time to make an impression, Labour ministers found that they were under enormous pressure to initiate policies. Programmes were refashioned or jettisoned before they had been evaluated. The charity Action for Children calculated that Labour introduced more than 300 initiatives, strategies and acts of parliament affecting children and young people between 1997 and 2008. It described this approach to policymaking as "volatile, wasteful and reactive". The same might be said for other areas of policy; the UK parliament has passed six criminal justice acts since 1997, one for every Labour home secretary appointed in that period.

Regulation, regulation

The frenetic pace of ministerial activity also accounts for the rapid increase in parliamentary decision-making by secondary legislation, in the form of statutory instruments (regulations, rules, orders). About 3,500 statutory instruments are passed each year, totalling roughly 12,000 pages of legislation - more than double the volume passed by parliament 20 years ago. This has led to questions about whether parliament can fulfil its duty to scrutinise legislation, and whether governments can monitor if new laws are being implemented properly. A House of Lords committee inquiry last year expressed concern that so little time is spent reviewing whether regulations work, and provided copious evidence of incidents in which poor implementation had led to ineffective or even damaging outcomes.

The preoccupation with the fast and new plays havoc with front-line professionals' ability to do their job. The time needed to bed down any initiative is entirely at odds with political time frames. The electorate is invited to judge polit­icians' impact every four or five years; given their limited tenure, ministers judge their own contributions in even tighter time frames. Yet programmes such as Sure Start are only now beginning to yield results after 12 years. It will take 18 years for the Child Trust Fund (an IPPR idea), which the Conservatives have pledged to restrict tightly to the poorest families only, to come to fruition. Perhaps the fund will have positive benefits, but it seems we can't wait that long to find out.

The pace of politics is also born of a need to feed our 24-hour media, which, at times, appear to dictate the speed of decision-making. The media pressure on ministers to take action in the event of a tragedy is immense: witness the former home secretary Alan Johnson's decision to ban mephedrone 13 days after newspapers ran stories about the deaths of two teenagers. The last senior drugs adviser to resign, Polly Taylor, expressed frustration "that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day's press". The news media threaten to undermine good policymaking, leaving politicians little time to weigh up the merits of a decision.

Clearly it is futile to expect the tide of 24-hour media to turn back. Besides, there are occasions when a fast pace is desirable - how much better that politicians and Treasury officials did not take a weekend off in October 2008 instead of dealing with the banking crisis. Indeed, at times politics can feel painfully slow. As anyone who has worked on a government white paper knows, often a huge amount of displacement activity takes place before real decisions are reached in the final stages.

Yet the inability to think beyond the next electoral hurdle encourages politicians to take a limited view. As the playwright David Hare put it, they are in open competition to think small. In his autobiography, the ex-MP Chris Mullin quotes a former cabinet secretary's advice to new ministers: "Remember, you are not going to be there for long, so don't try to put the world to rights - have two or three modest aims."

If the new government is serious about making a coalition workable, however, this will require a different set of skills. Designing Britain's economic future, establishing our place in the new world order and responding to the threat of climate change hardly lend themselves to quick fixes. Slow, patient, collaborative efforts will be necessary.

So we urge David Cameron, as the new Prime Minister, to promise less legislative and ministerial change and to focus on a long-term commitment to seeing ideas through. Rather than ratcheting up expectations about what might be achieved in its first 100 days, or rushing through an emergency Budget, the new government should spend its initial phase listening and debating with the public about the changes we need to make to our economy. Cameron should plan to keep his ministerial team for a full term and sack members only if they are manifestly incompetent. The House of Commons should agree a limit to the quantity of legislation it can scrutinise effectively in one parliamentary term. The major long-term issues facing Britain that require consensus, such as climate change, social care, pensions reform and national security, should be considered
by expert cross-party working groups, charged with coming up with consensual decisions that will last through the next 20 years, and not just the next spin of the political cycle. Such plans would bring about a marked change in our style of politics, one that would be for the better.

Hello, Mexico

It could be done. Countries with more sustainable economies and better-balanced societies already do things more slowly, often through a more devolved style of politics. In his recent book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Raj Patel documents how the Mexican Zapatistas are practising slow politics, using village-wide assemblies and rotating governing councils to draw all community members into decisions about local governance.

As Patel notes, genuine democracy takes time. And while few would relish the endless meetings that dominate local party politics, the recent surge of interest in community activism - highlighted by the impact of groups such as the Citizen Organising Foundation - could be a sign of slow politics in action.

Britain may not be ready to leap from central­ised policymaking to Zapatista-style politics, but, on our way to a more democratic system, politicians would do well to consider why we have allowed politics to become so frenzied. On election night in November 2008, Barack Obama outlined the challenges facing the United States and cautioned: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

After the heavy demands of an election campaign and coalition-building, Cameron should take inspiration from these words, and demand a slower way forward.

Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim are co-directors of IPPR

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain