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A House Divided?

‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’

Despite the Biblical quote, this is actually a blogpost about the state of politics in Britain and elsewhere. For many decades, with rare exceptions, most of us have experienced a form of democracy dominated by two major political blocs - Left and Right, conservative and progressive, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

Each bloc presented its ideological view of the good society and, in general, each were given an opportunity to implement policies based on that view. Despite sometimes seismic changes in policy direction between governments of differents hues, this was looked upon as political stability, mainly because most of those governments, whilst ‘campaigning in poetry, governed in prose’. Once in post, those who held the levers of power, by and large, tacked to the centre of the political sphere.

For this system to work, each bloc needed to gather into its tent a range of supporters who were willing to compromise some of their beliefs in order to achieve power and effect change. Each grouping had its dirty laundry but tended not to invite an audience to watch it aired. Undecided voters desired a united front and, for many years, that’s what they got. In all honesty, I think the right were better at achieving that unity because they believed that achieving and holding power was more important than any ideological position. Hence, we have seen the Tories radically change their economic position from protectionism to free-market liberalism in the course of the 20th century.

The latest spasms in the political order of the US and most EU member states have disrupted the left-right status quo. I increasingly think this is not a blip but a paradigm shift in the way advanced democracies are governed. In the British context, both main parties are riven by attitudes to Brexit and live in fear of their own members and supporters. The argument has moved beyond the old capitalist divide of workers versus owners to a new question of relationships with the rest of the world. This is, of course, not an entirely new question, but in previous centuries was bound up with visions of empire, laissez-faire economics, and naval dominance. Now it is framed in terms of free-trade agreements, regional power blocs and global capitalism.

For the Right, the prospect of a truly global market with free movement of goods, services, capital and people has provoked a retreat into nationalistic protectionism. The flirtation with neoliberal economics is coming to an end, with a desire to recreate a form of imperial trade based on exploitation and gross inequalities. In order to justify this new imperialism, some are finding it necessary to re-assert the ideology of civilisation that underpinned previous attempts at empire-building. ‘They need us more than we need them’ thinking has never really gone away. The current political discourse on migration is a classic symptom of this thinking, where rich countries want to stop inward migration whilst retaining visa free travel and settlement for their own citizens.

The Left, however, finds itself now struggling to come to terms with the new realities. The battle against the market was dealt a fatal defeat with the fall of the Berlin Wall and created an ideological vacuum that has been hard to fill. For the last thirty years, the democratic left has flirted with the idea of taming neoliberalism by tricking the market into providing social goods at no expense to the taxpayer. The credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008 revealed the severe limitations of that approach and the need to a new contract between the market, the individual and the nation state. We are still waiting for the first draft ….

How can the Left regroup in the era of global capitalism? I think it can (and must) find a vision that is both global in scope and local in delivery, tackles the current grotesque inequalities between rich and poor that do so much to undermine social cohesion, embraces the innovation and sacrifice required to enable our planet to flourish and continue to feed and sustain us, and provides the essentials of home, education, health and social care and human rights to all, regardless of background.

Globalisation is a Pandora’s box, by which I mean much of it cannot be undone and that it also provides legitimate hope. A politics of the Left cannot simply dismiss globalisation as an irredeemable evil. It must harness the positive aspects of globalisation in order to tackle the problems globalisation also creates and exacerbates. I suggest four ‘C’s:

Communications - this is the information age, where access to data has become the thing. The Left needs to fight for a true freedom of information in order to ensure proper transparency and accountability in government and commerce. Part of the new structures of poverty and wealth evolving in our world are built on access to the information that enables and empowers choice. We are also witnessing an assault on the freedom of the press in recent times that fundamentally undermines hard-won democratic freedoms. Access to professional, reliable and ethical journalism is a cause worth fighting for.

Citizenship - the Left has been at its best when it embraces international solidarity. The new Left must reimagine citizenship that goes beyond the nation state and reconnects humanity to our environment. The reality of multiple-belongings is hear to stay and the Left has nothing to fear from variegated allegiance. Constructing communities of belonging for people who embrace hyphenated identities is one of the major challenges of 21st century politics, but one that a political Left steeped in cosmopolitanism is well-equipped to lead.

Cohesion - in short, how to construct communities of belonging. It has been obvious for a while that the social market models pioneered in western Europe since the Second World War are breaking down in the age of migration. The need for a new social contract has never been greater and cannot be predicated on a return to the static populations of the past. Is it beyond us to create systems of taxation and distribution that expect large numbers of taxpayers to move across national borders during their working lives? Does the technology and infrastructure now exist that would allow individuals their own personal accounts into which they pay taxes and from which they draw benefits? And has it not long been the demand of the political Left to find systems of taxation with the fewest loopholes that ensure a proper levy on income and assets from all, wherever they are based?

Cooperation - globalisation demands collective action across borders. The threats humanity faces are too big too widespread to be tackled by one nation alone. Global terror, climate change, human trafficking, drugs, HIV/AIDS, conflict, refugees and extreme poverty are no respecters of borders. For the last forty years, we have watched as problems have been tackled in one place only to pop up somewhere else. Complex and intertwined problems demand nuanced responses that only cooperation can provide.

The Left’s internationalist credentials have become tarnished by those who have argued for tighter border controls and a withdrawal from the EU in order to protect British jobs and standards. Protectionism was wrong a hundred years ago and is wrong now. Encouraging models of international and regional cooperation that build truly sustainable markets not reliant on GDP growth alone to maintain living standards is the only way to a world that is at once fairer and more compassionate.

None of this is rocket-science. Like generals, too many political leaders are content to fight the last battle rather than the next one. I want to be part of a movement that sees the future as opportunity as well as threat. I believe that a humanity that has caused so much destruction and misery can also innovate, rebuild and help. The Labour Party was founded, not on ideology, but on a profound belief in people, the ordinary working man and woman. It’s time to renew that belief.

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