We live in perplexing political times. Ed Miliband delivers a conference speech praising the best of British business in the highest possible terms, and is dismissed by so-called Labour bloggers as an anti-business leader. Long-time anti-racist campaigner Diane Abbott is denounced on national television for racial stereotyping through Twitter. And now Maurice Glasman writes an article for the New Statesman calling on Miliband to deploy the gifts that only he can deploy, and is roundly condemned for turning against his own leader.
There are, of course, some standard explanations for these confusions. We live with a press that loves nothing more than an internal party dispute. Journalists, bloggers and tweeters all long for challenges to authority, even for a frenzied leadership election of the sort that brought down many a Tory leader in the last two decades. And perhaps our politicians should chose their words more cautiously as a result.
But there is something more fundamental going on too.
Our politics is in flux and confusion is the almost inevitable result. The flux is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008. That event did not just bring over a decade of Labour government to its end, it also displayed the bankruptcy of a political, social and economic order that began in the 1980s and continued unabated through the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
That order sometimes goes by the misleading name of “neo-liberalism.” But it was much more straightforward than the technical jargon suggests. It was an order premised on the idea that the financial might of the City of London would power economic growth in the UK so long as it was left essentially unfettered by the demands of normal democratic politics.
The tax revenues that then flowed from the City would prop up the rest of the country, either by supporting employment through public sector expansion or by provided a financial guarantee for welfare benefits. Labour opposed this order in its early days. But it eventually largely capitulated to it. In the Party’s “New Labour” formation, it openly committed itself to maintaining the same order, just running it more efficiently and more equitably than the Conservatives had.
The crash brought all of this to an end.
Nobody now can seriously deny that our politics cannot be run like that anymore. Any objective observer of our situation would accept the need to “rebalance” our economy, to transform our national provision of skills and training, to open up access to capital for small and medium size businesses across the country, to find a way of ensuring real and sustainable private sector growth.
But even if our situation should be clear, Ed Miliband is the single political leader who has consistently demonstrated that he really appreciates just how significant a change Britain’s new situation demands.
He was the first to identify the dangers our economic malaise posed not just to the poor but to the vast middle class of our country. He was the first to call for a new culture of responsibility, not just among those dependent on benefits but on those in our boardrooms and among our nation’s shareholders. He was the first to highlight both the moral evil and the economic stupidity of runaway executive pay.
Such far-reaching calls for change scare people. Most clearly, they scare some members of our political class and our commentariat who would prefer things to go back to the way they were. There are always going to be some people who long for the familiar tussles of the past, who feel they understood the minor differences between a Blair and a Brown, or even a Blair and a Thatcher.
They understand our contemporary politics through the lens of the 1980s and the 1990s. And everything is classified in the terms that those decades presented: pro-business or anti-business; pro-public sector or anti-public sector; pro-privatisation or anti-privatisation; Blairite or Brownite.
But this is to make a terrible error. Our politics is necessarily different now. The choices are not the same. Our hope remains, of course, but our aspirations are necessarily chastened by the experience of the crash.
As Miliband reminded us in his New Year message, Labour must now offer a programme for social justice suitable for austere times, not for times of boom. That will require imaginative thinking, tough decisions and, most importantly of all, real political courage. When someone points that out — whoever they may be — it should not be taken as a sign of contemporary disloyalty nor a treacherous abandonment of the achievements of the past, but as an appreciation of the seriousness of the situation that we face. If our politicians do not have the courage to face the challenge head-on, then it will be our country that suffers as a result.
Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.