These have been dispiriting times for those who oppose the ideology that the Coalition Government is enacting with a brutality that should surprise no-one, but somehow always does (mostly because they haven’t read the Orange Book). In the week that we have seen the House of Lords approve a huge cut in the living standards of thousands of vulnerable people through the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – with Liberal Democrat lords leaping happily through the division lobby to ensure that yet another piece of Orange Book ideology is slipped into place – and in which we have seen Government Ministers debating whether to award the Queen a new yacht for her Diamond Jubilee – we see the official opposition throwing in the towel.
There has been some controversy about what Ed Balls actually meant in his comments about a future Labour government and cuts in an interview in last Saturday’s Guardian. The fact that so much ink has been spilt in trying to decipher Balls’ gnomic utterances is in itself part of Labour’s problem; an opposition that cannot express itself clearly has obviously got a problem. Those who defend Balls argue that he is simply being realistic – that by the time Labour comes to office it will confront a situation in which deep cuts have been made and which will form the baseline for what Labour does. But Balls went much further than that – he stated that public sector workers will continue to take pay cuts and public expenditure decisions that have eviscerated the living standards of the most vulnerable will not be reversed. It’s all very well to talk about the need to preserve jobs, but in doing so Balls has failed to notice that it is the economics of austerity that is putting jobs at risk. The clear message from Balls is that the poorest in society will continue to bear the costs of the failures of economic elites, and talking about tax evasion is no more than a cosmetic sop. He’s adopted the Tory axioms and assumptions and has allowed Cameron, Osborne and the Orange Bookers to drive the economic agenda.
This is serious, but not surprising. Labour has long since ceased to be a party that challenges the neoliberal ideology, but in the past the complicity has gone by default rather than being explicit. It seems to mark something of a turning point, though, in the tone of political debate; after a year and a half of coalition government, the Tory party is resurgent and appears to dominate debate.
But there’s a subtext too – one that is reflected in the current debate about independence for Scotland. I have spent quite a lot of cyber-ink on this blog talking about crises of democratic legitimacy; this appears to be the moment at which Westminster politics finally took leave of its democratic pretence. It’s not just the fact that a ruling party which dared not expose the extent of its ambitions to the electorate, and which achieved a little more a third of votes cast in 2010, is now left without any meaningful opposition to its imposition of a feral neoliberal agenda – it’s that the ethos of the ruling coalition is defined, not by what it told the electorate in 2010, but what it tried to conceal. And now the official opposition has joined in.
Whatever that may be, it is not a healthy democracy. The large majority of the electorate did not vote for this – which is why the Westminster neoliberals use the language of necessity, of realism, of common-sense to describe a set of ideas and values which are largely unsupported by any empirical evidence. Austerity is failing and the burden of that failure is falling overwhelmingly, and in some cases almost exclusively, on the people who are least able to bear it, while the perpetrators of the latest round of crisis continue to enrich themselves. It need not and should not be like that, but there are no voices in the political mainstream with the courage or insight to say so.
The obvious implication is that opposition to neoliberalism must now take place entirely outside the Parliamentary process. Three mainstream political party share the same assumptions and debate across ever-shrinking territory while the real questions facing our society are all about the validity of their consensus. It is impossible to see any realistic prospect of change within the three-party system that is not forced from outside (and which depends on the mainstream media). The neoliberals realise this – the closing down of public space, the criminalisation of protest and the active promotion of hatred for the poor and vulnerable demonstrate this. Consider the case of the students – many of whom voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, the first time they were able to vote, on the basis of Clegg’s promise on tuition fees; when Clegg and his party of fools and liars pissed on their idealism they took the path of legitimate protest only to find themselves collectively punished by kettling and beating. Of course there was a strong element of self-interest in the student movement; but what I remember from that first demonstration in November 2010 was a belief that they were upholding democracy and had yet to learn that this was how Westminster politics worked. Or we could ask why the neoliberals are so afraid of the Occupy movement and have, especially in the United States, deployed such extreme violence against it. The threat is not about a few dozen people establishing camps; it’s about the risk that questions will be asked and answers proffered that blow apart the fictions on which the elite justifies its power and wealth.
Above all, this is the Government – and now the opposition – that chose to abandon evidence. I mentioned the way on which the political elite has sought to demonise the vulnerable. It has done this through a combination of spin, insinuation and downright dishonesty. Its guiding principle is not truth but pandering to the prejudices of a mass media which is, at almost every level, a fantasy factory. Those of us who have long understood the evidential base for climate change, or watchers of the US Republican primaries in recent weeks, or even followed the genesis of the Tea Party, will recognise the methods; it seems that all mainstream Westminster parties are striving for a politics of unsupported ideological statements in which victory goes to the producer of the most attractive lie. For all the language of realism and common-sense it is those who criticise neoliberalism from the Left who remain grounded in the world of evidence.
The sight of a political elite abandoning wholesale the intellectual disciplines of empiricism is deeply disturbing. It’s very easy to criticise the position of the Republican Right; but our political mainstream is, in essence, no different. What Labour has done is make that abandonment of empiricism public and obvious.
Returning to Miliband and Balls, I for one am getting very fed up with hearing special pleading by people whose loyalty to Labour as an institution is greater than to the people on whose behalf Labour used to speak. Labour, after all, began as a movement to give a voice to the voiceless – to bring the trade unions, with their everyday experience of the daily lives of working people, into Parliament. It now joins in a political consensus that diminishes those authentic voices, and spins away the witness of ordinary people about their lives.