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27 February 2019

The post-crash era is no time for centrism

The free-market model is broken: merely trying to tweak it, as the Independent Group proposes, is futile. 

By Grace Blakeley

On 24 February, in a painfully awkward interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Independent Group MPs Heidi Allen and Luciana Berger tried – and failed – to articulate what the organisation’s policy agenda might be. When Allen stated that her “gut instinct” was against rail and water renationalisation, she qualified it with the favoured line of the interview: that the group would pursue policies based on evidence.

To some, this is profoundly refreshing. To others, it is mere political posturing. But the majority of people have probably been left wondering what the MPs meant by “evidence-based policy”. In fact, the phrase reveals more about the Independent Group than they may have intended. Politicians began to speak of evidence-based policy in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the defining ideological struggles of the previous 50 years to an end. Capitalism had won and it was now up to enlightened governments to manage the market in the national interest, choosing policies based on merit rather than ideological dogma. Politicians were to conceive of themselves as technocrats, fine-tuning the market system, not representatives of different interest groups.

For a time, this settlement appeared to work. Western economists claimed that the “Great Moderation” of the Nineties and Noughties – when inflation was low and growth was high – could be attributed to their efficient economic management. The traditional cycle of boom and bust had been ended through inflation targeting, taxes optimised to maximise long-term growth and the outsourcing of public services to efficient private companies. Wealth may have been accumulating at the top, but it would eventually trickle down to the masses, while rising inequality could be addressed through redistribution.

This confidence, of course, was quickly shown to be nothing more than hubris. The stability of the Great Moderation was based on the creation of unprecedented amounts of debt. Meanwhile, inequality rose, wages were decoupled from productivity and the share of national income accruing to workers, rather than owners, fell dramatically.

The political stability of the preceding period was based on the elision of these tensions. Middle-earners didn’t notice that their wages weren’t rising as fast as before because the value of their houses and pensions were booming. Lower-earners gained unprecedented access to cheap credit, which allowed many to live far beyond their means. But as soon as the bubble burst, the inherent economic and political instability of a system that sucks wealth up to the top was revealed. The politicians and economists whose faith in the market had blinded them to this instability were left holding the reins of an economy that they were no longer able to understand, let alone manage.

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The need for a new economic model explains the political polarisation of the past decade. Those on the left advocate democratic socialism: a more equal distribution of wealth, income and ownership. A YouGov poll published earlier this year found strong public support for policies such as the renationalisation of the UK’s water and energy companies (57 per cent), higher taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners (68 per cent) and rent caps (74 per cent).

Those on the right, meanwhile, argue that the nation state should be strengthened to ensure that citizens, not foreigners, retain their share of a smaller pie. Such politics gains ground where the left fails to articulate a radical economic alternative, allowing the right to scapegoat migrants for economic disruption created by the elite.

Those in the centre have no explanations for the current economic malaise and even fewer answers, which explains the Independent Group’s inability to assemble a coherent policy platform. They need to clearly differentiate themselves from Labour – they cannot build a party on antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn alone. But moving further to the right on economic policy will alienate most voters.

This dilemma – rather than first-past-the-post or personal disagreements – is why the Independent Group will not remain an enduring feature of the British political landscape. On economic policy, it is Labour that truly occupies the middle ground:  those who see themselves as centrists have nowhere else to go. 

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics