Britain just can’t generate the politics with which to build the new reformist consensus its political economy so badly needs
A key problem for Britain at the moment is that it can’t give birth to the politics that its political economy needs. Marxists used to think this was impossible, believing that the sub-structure (political economy) would always determine the super-structure (politics). Most of us, in fact, do actually expect political economy to condition or shape politics in deeply meaningful ways, and most of the time of course it still does. But not so much lately, it seems, in divided, troubled Britain.
What do I mean? The entry-point into my argument is that two emergent programmes of reform of the British political economy have now successively been strangled at birth in the general elections of 2015 and 2017. In 2015 Ed Miliband’s Labour Party offered some modest, but ultimately insubstantial, ideas about how to soften the more predatory features of British neoliberalism in the cause of a revived social democracy. In 2017 Theresa May’s Conservative Party proclaimed its desire to reduce somewhat the ongoing dominance of market fundamentalism on behalf of those citizens who were only ‘just managing’ as a consequence and who had accordingly voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum.
As has been widely remarked, there were striking similarities between these two electoral pitches. This was noted even by Ed Miliband himself in satirically describing as ‘Marxist anti-business interventionism’ a Conservative plan for limiting energy price rises that was remarkably similar to the scheme he had advanced just a couple of years earlier and which had at that time been roundly condemned by the Conservatives as ‘Marxist’ in inspiration.
Indeed, there were moments across the course of these two elections when it seemed that the two main British political parties had flipped positions. Just remember in whose manifesto these left-wing remarks were penned: ‘We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.’ In case you’ve blocked this out as literally incredible, it was not Labour (even in its 2017 incarnation)! To a degree too, this confusing swapping of traditional ground continues. Just a week or so ago, and even after a summer to ponder her defeat, Mrs May was referring to the practice of businesses paying excessive salaries to their senior executives as the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’.
It’s easy to be facetious about this sort of political cross-dressing and, in so doing, to miss the key point that underpins it. This is the emerging reality that major politicians on the centre-left and the centre-right in Britain have begun to identify the early building blocks of a programme of reform of the country’s failed political economy that could in theory constitute a policy consensus lasting the next 20-30 years. This is surely pretty remarkable – and largely unremarked upon.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, the fact is that some common ground has already been set out: around the need to rein in the most egregious behaviour of some banks and companies, the importance of re-engaging again with the notion of industrial strategy and the growing pressure to address seriously the complex set of issues around ageing, housing and inheritance. Needless to say, it’s also true that much more agreement would need to be forged, especially on key issues such as increased public spending and borrowing, corporate governance reform and labour market regulation, and in general on the establishment and public articulation of a new balance between the market and the state and a new deal between capital and labour.
That said, shut your eyes for a moment and you can surely see here the basis of a centrist programme for government that could conceivably hold for a generation, albeit swinging a bit left or a bit right according to the democratic intervention of the people at regular intervals in general elections. Such a broad consensus governed Britain pretty successfully, especially when viewed retrospectively, during the 1950s and into the 1960s and was described popularly in the press at the time as ‘Butskellism’. This was a phrase first used by a leader-writer in The Economist in 1954 to catch the common elements of the policies successively followed by Hugh Gaitskell and R. A. Butler as Labour and Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer successively between 1950 and 1955.
So, in a similar spirit, let’s dub the latent centrist consensus that I see emerging in British politics in the last 2-3 years as ‘Milimayism’! Neither politician will like the phrase, but that can’t be helped. Given that there is strong evidence that the British political economy badly needs just such a programme of reform to be followed with consistency and determination by governments of both parties for several terms, I think the vital question becomes: why hasn’t ‘Milimayism’ taken off and become the new governing consensus?
The problem is that British politics just can’t give birth to it. Partly, this is a facet of the anachronistic and damaging ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system to which the country remains attached. Any kind of proportional representation would have brought into office precisely the kind of centrist ‘coalition of stability’ I’ve been describing. But it’s also that the political reaction to the failures, up to and after 2008, of the Thatcher/Blair/Cameron consensus around different inflections of neoliberalism has pushed both major British political parties to their left and right extremes. For, as we know, the Corbynistas now control Labour and Mrs May is trapped by her own post-referendum embrace of the Brexit (and largely still Thatcherite) right in her party.
Truly in Britain the centre did not hold: in fact, it shot itself. Its suicide was achieved by its failure to adjust significantly enough the balance of winners and losers from neoliberal globalisation, initially in the later Blair/Brown years before the financial crisis, but then, even more culpably, by the Cameron/Clegg coalition government after the writing was vividly plastered all over the wall.
Britain’s current political tragedy is that neither of its two leading parties seems able to deliver what the country’s political economy needs. Corbyn’s Labour may possibly win the next election and bring in much-needed anti-austerity measures, but for reasons of ideological rigidity, personal history and rhetorical style its leaders will not be able to forge the working deal with business upon which the creation of a genuine British developmental state depends. Mrs May’s Conservatives may hang on in office, perhaps under different leadership, but the Thatcherites will not easily give up their control of the party and they certainly won’t let Mrs May implement reformist policies reminiscent more of Ted Heath, Mrs Thatcher’s unlamented predecessor as Conservative leader, than they do the lady herself.
Is there any hope that British politics can somehow generate the programme of government the country needs? It’s unlikely and bizarre, but it is just possible (no more) that growing realisation of the coming economic and social disaster that Brexit represents might open up that door and, in effect, see Britain’s political economy again shape its politics. We’ve seen Labour move a little this last month in the direction of Britain remaining a member of the EU customs union and single market after March 2019. Who knows where that process of adjustment may take the party? At present it’s not easy to see how the centre-left can regain control of the party from the Corbynistas, but maybe inch by inch the latter can be socialised into framing a workable programme for government that can capture the support it will need from key economic players.
On the Conservative side, we see less shifting of position on Brexit, at least as yet, although the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, appears to be trying. To be fair, it’s obviously harder to pull off such a manoeuvre when actually negotiating as opposed to taking up positions. Mrs May could unquestionably help more. She says lately that she is ‘no quitter’ and wants to continue as Prime Minister until 2022, but her difficulty is that she now relies for office on the support of the Brexit Thatcherites. The truth is that if Mrs May is serious about governing differently on behalf of those ‘just about managing’, she has no option but to take on the Conservative right and pull her party back towards the centre ground. Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that she has the political skill to be able to do this, even if she desired to do so.
Moreover, even if both of these distinctly hopeful ‘dawning of reality’ scenarios were somehow to unfold, it’s even harder to imagine that they would so in a way that facilitated the building of a genuine reformist consensus about the shape of a new political economy for Britain around which the parties could gather and compete for a long enough period. Unfortunately, ‘Milimayism’ looks destined to remain still-born.