Connecting abstract ideas about political economy with people’s everyday lives is what politics in the UK should now be about
Craig Berry’s paper, ‘The disoriented left? Growth model failure and the nascent politics of a transformative narrative’ is a most welcome contribution to a debate around the political economy of the UK. This debate has largely been limited by a lack of fundamental critique and failure to imagine an alternative world beyond the narrow boundaries created by political parties focused on the centre ground (as defined by pollsters and strategists).
Berry rightly argues that growth models are the ‘product of political struggle far more than any objective view of how capitalist economies grow’. The public often forget this and accept the prevailing common sense. The Conservative party has been particularly effective in constructing a narrative around austerity and a re-emboldening of the idea that, in Mrs Thatcher’s famous phrase, ‘there is no alternative’. The global financial crisis has thereby been reconstituted as a crisis of the welfare state, which has formed the basis for the direction of Conservative policy ambitions to resurrect the pre-crisis model of growth.
Berry identifies the three issues of ‘value’, ‘place’ and ‘equality’ as major areas upon which the right has powerfully built in order to shape this narrative and develop policy and programmes that are consistent with it. This constitutes a powerful analytic frame that provides valuable insights into the politics in the UK.
In terms of value, Berry notes how individualised notions of work have become central to the idea of economic participation, with a powerful discourse becoming ever more embedded in relation to the supposed division between ‘hardworking’ people and ‘skivers and scroungers’, the latter portrayed as dependent on ‘welfare’ and therefore ultimately a drag on the economy. People’s anxieties about place have been defined through fear and anxieties around immigration and Europe, giving rise to a notion of Englishness that seems to be mostly about a rejection of the Scottish National Party and a devolution agenda that is accompanied by the imposition of cruel and unnecessary cuts to budgets for local services. The final pillar of ‘equality’ continues with this largely regressive approach, constructing welfare ‘reforms’ as necessary to ensure ‘fairness’ to the ‘taxpayer’. Needless to say, this has little to do with social justice as widely understood by the left.
One of the problems with Miliband’s Labour was that it seemed to contest these areas on the terrain established by the Conservatives, seen through former shadow cabinet member, Rachel Reeves’s pre-election assertion that: ‘We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.’ This was seen as the ‘moderate’ line to take, but surely an effective opposition would point to the dynamic nature of people cycling in and out of work and point out that the reason why the long-term unemployment rate increased after the financial crisis was because the economy shrank? A truly alternative approach would be rooted not in division but rather on supporting the millions of people who do not benefit from the current model of economic growth.
The Conservative response to the crisis has been effective in terms of electoral success and constructing a narrative that suits their objectives. But Berry points out that it is somewhat fragile, highlighting in this context Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s appropriation of the language of the living wage for an increase in the minimum wage, the recent contestation over cuts to tax credits and, most emphatically, the attempt to resurrect a growth model that is fundamentally broken.
The transformative narrative, in which he identifies the elements that should be included within any new model, is the most intriguing part of Berry’s paper. It is worth quoting at length:
It would of course put finance in service of the genuinely productive parts of the British economy, and initialise higher levels of public and private investment in support of higher productivity, quality employment opportunities and, crucially, enabling the development and adoption of technologies that can assist our response to the existential challenge of climate change. Shareholder value would give way to norms around the civic duty of private enterprise, enabling a longer-term orientation in relation to wealth accumulation. Social and economic goods which cannot be provided by market mechanisms – either because the market will not deliver equitable outcomes or, in many cases, because the goods in question do not lend themselves to marketised forms of co-ordination – would be co-ordinated collectively. The value of labour in the production process would be valued much more highly, starting, but certainly not ending, with higher levels of remuneration.
What struck me when I read this was how rare it is to see an alternative political economy set out by the left. Perhaps this is the reason why the left is so disoriented. It has stopped thinking about alternatives and been consumed with trying to work on the same terrain as the right for too long.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell do provide an alternative (although one that arguably requires clearer articulation and innovative approaches). For instance, the logic of austerity can now be challenged in mainstream debate, while a growth-led deficit reduction programme is being articulated by the Labour party with more confidence. In my opinion, this is critical. The dominant narratives that have enabled the Conservative party to push through a political programme of austerity favouring the elites in society must be contested and reconstructed as a pre-requisite for developing an alternative policy programme. Otherwise the left will remain stuck on the terrain set out by the Conservatives.
Yet Berry notes a significant hurdle. This message needs to resonate with workers in low-paid and insecure work, as well as small businesses and young people that want to be able to use their skills to be able to pay the bills rather than smash the system. In other words, it has to connect with our everyday lives in a meaningful way.
I couldn’t agree more. If policies are to make a difference, they must have an impact on the everyday experiences of people, making life better on a daily basis, while also moving towards a more equitable future. One of the best ways to achieve this is to speak to people in a meaningful way about what is important to them on a daily basis and then to connect this to a policy programme that can invigorate our collective imaginations. Of course, connecting seemingly abstract ideas on political economy with people’s everyday lives is no easy task; but it is what left politics should now be about.