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The left/right divide is outdated and unhelpful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.

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war