Beyond a nominal commitment to stopping Brexit, there is no substantive vision of the policies voters might expect when throwing their lot in with the Independent Group. Some members of the IG have squirmed under light interrogation, reticent to voice their views on the 50p tax rate or nationalising water utilities. “We’re not a political party,” they say. “We’re not ideological.”
It seems they consider shallow anti-politics to be a source of strength. While other politicians mud wrestle over Universal Credit and the Windrush scandal, members of the Independent Group float serenely above the melee and refuse to take a side. They want to “change politics,” because politics is broken. Fine. Great. But they refuse to tell us how.
For all this talk of change, the IG is singing from an old and ropey hymn sheet. They declare themselves free from ideology because the dominant ideology of market solutions to social problems is favourable to them. A fish does not need to be pro-water; likewise the IG can remain noncommittal about disrupting the status quo because that status quo suits them just fine.
But behind their declaration of ideology free politics lies an ideology of a very specific sort; one that culminated in the years of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Thatcherism had dealt a killer blow to collective bargaining, and a triumphant neoliberal consensus witnessed the parcelling of social and economic infrastructure for sale to private companies. New Labour abandoned its commitment to collective ownership of industry in favour of an economic common sense drawn from the Chicago school of thought, which posited the best way to run society was to privatise its parts and let the markets run free.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared the advent of the “End of History” – that the liberal settlement of government steering capital towards efficiency represented the culmination of all human evolution. No more barnstorming polemics about justice and economic transformation. No need to examine the power dynamics which undergirded this economic model – and the ideologies from which they spring. Such ideas are the realm of troublemakers and rabid red dreamers unanchored from sober realpolitik. All that is needed is armies of bureaucrats to gladly steward the economy forward into a changeless future.
The late Mark Fisher described this ideology as Capitalist Realism: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” It inculcated what Fisher termed “business ontology,” the idea that politics can be collapsed into the work of the private firm. According to this logic there was no need to consult the populace; like the affairs of a business, those of politicians were best left to more qualified people in more expensive suits.
So it’s unsurprising that the IG’s public statements echo city-boy corporate speak, privileging evidence-based policy and ideology-free politics. They are revanchists for a neoliberal past where politicians were considered first and foremost businessmen occasionally inconvenienced by elections.
For a while this dogma seemed to work. Blair’s Third Way promised to enrich everyone through unleashing the ruthless efficiencies of the market. The economic boom of the late nineties and early noughties appeared to make good on those promises. But it couldn’t last. By deregulating the power of finance capital, the morbid centre paved the way for its own destruction.
The uneven economic prosperity which briefly vindicated these methods proved to be a bubble. In 2008, it burst hard. New Labour haemorrhaged votes. Politics polarised and fled the centre, finding new homes in the radical left and right. And still, adherents to New Labour’s doctrine blame collapsing constituencies on cultural shifts: their former voters in (implicitly white) industrial heartlands, terrified by a sudden influx of brown people, are no longer enticed by politicians’ formerly cosy promises. They prescribe that Labour must reconquer this territory by cracking down on migration, yet seem unaware that the economic foundations of their entire philosophy have crumbled beneath them.
Consider for a moment the vacuous psychopathology of the morbid centre: of declaring that the cause of Britain’s crises is that too many people having new ideas. It’s almost pitiable. If one basically agrees with the overarching structures of our economy and society, then it would be easy to conclude the problems are new ideologues bringing their uncouth faiths to politics and troubling a collective mind wiped spotless by the reassurance that there is no alternative to neoliberalism.
It is for the same reason that Victorian doctors confiscated books from hysteria patients – it will only agitate her. Ideas become a disruptive influence on market forces. This is your brain under capitalist realism.
But the IG will find it difficult to flog their brand of shallow liberalism in a post-crash political landscape. A cursory glance at their voting records reveals barely concealed commitments to the reheated neoliberal politics and economic orthodoxies which careered the economy off a cliff edge in 2008. The IG can repeat their “lack of ideology” till they’re blue in the face. Voters will still recognise latent loyalties to ideas that are unmistakably ideological. People have other ideas. The end of history has been cancelled.
Someone should probably let the Independent Group know. They hand-wring about Labour’s capture by the “radical left,” tactfully ignoring the popularity of the 2017 manifesto’s economic and social policies. They oppose Corbyn, without realising collective disdain does not constitute a convincing political offer, particularly for an electorate living with a crumbling economy and a dying planet. They promise to reverse Brexit while remaining loyal to the policy tropes that empowered the Leave vote.
Resetting the clock to 2016 and calling the job done will not heal structural inequalities. This might not be a problem for the likes of Anna Soubry, who still thinks austerity was a good idea. Nor may it bother Chris Leslie, who balks at a 50 per cent top income tax rate. Yet it is very much a problem for the millions of people who, by 2016, were already plunged into penury by policies they support. The IG think they have the solutions; they have no idea that they are the problem.
So what does the IG really want? They want people to pipe down, stop demanding transformation, and realise that their inability to pay the gas bill is actually part of a very sensible business plan for the future. They want business as usual. They’re beholden to revanchist nostalgia for a dead political era.
But it’s not good enough. Only real political confrontation, with real political ideas and a real recognition of the mistakes of the past will release the grip of an economic model currently strangling Britain. We deserve better than a handful of malcontents sulking that they are no longer trusted to run the country that they ran into the ground.
Eleanor Penny is a writer and editor at Novara Media and Red Pepper Magazine.