What we saw in the UK election campaign and the recent coalition deal is the level of opportunism amongst the political parties, and the real absence of politics and ideas on how to deal with major crises in the economy, over climate change and of our political institutions.
Interviewer: Nick Buxton
Why do you think the elections led to no clear winners?
Two reasons: first there is a general disaffection with the political class as a whole and loyalties to particular political parties has been steadily diminishing, even since the 2005 election. Secondly, I think a key reason for the impasse was that there were very few differences between the parties on key issues, with there was no major Party putting real solutions on the table. For example on cuts to public budgets, Labour differed from the Tories only on timing.. They would have delayed cuts a little longer, but they didn’t have a serious redistributive policy to drive growth and expansion, let alone plans to seriously control banks. Indeed the problem of how to reform the banking system wasn’t even an election issue.
What we saw in the campaign and the recent coalition deal is the level of opportunism amongst the parties, and the real absence of politics and ideas. As a result, although the closeness of the campaign created a certain excitement, the election campaign was intellectually and politically boring. There should have been big options on the way forward as we are dealing with major crises in the economy, over climate change and of our political institutions, yet there was no political debate to match the depth of crises.
What can we expect from the new Liberal Democrat Conservative Coalition?
I think there will be a lot of rhetoric about new politics, dialogue, partnership etc. We may see some progressive steps on civil liberties, such as getting rid of ID cards but the civil liberties of immigrants and asylum seekers with will be threatened; there will harsher policies on immigration. Ultimately the government will be defined by far-reaching cuts as the Tories will continue to be neo-liberal on economic policy and there is little sign of resistance on this from the Lib Dems. The people who will suffer will be public sector workers, and people depending on public services. Despite the Conservative rhetoric of democratic control, local government will bear the brunt.
Does a Lib Con coalition offer hopes for progress on civil liberties and the environment?
This Labour government has been very bad on civil liberties. The government has always had an authoritarian streak, which has been very consistent with the way it has treated the Labour Party itself, effectively destroying any democracy within the party. But the idea that the Tories, even tempered by the Liberal Democrats, will be much better should be treated with caution. While there is a right libertarian strand in the Conservative Party, there is also a very authoritarian approach, represented by Thatcher. There will have to be strong public pressure on civil liberties and political reform to make any real advances.
Despite the new coalition’s rejection of the third runway at Heathrow, I don’t think the coalition’s commitment to the environment will go much deeper than the rhetoric. To me Tory policy is symbolised by the story of Cameron cycling to work, yet having a limousine behind him carrying his clean shirts and brief case. I wouldn’t expect anything more. The Tories certainly haven’t swallowed the idea of the necessity of regulation. Any green policy needs regulation and redirection of investment that would be anathema to the Tory party.
What do you think drives the Tory party? Are they any different to the days of Thatcher?
I think electorally, they were forced to move to the centre in order to win, but this was basically a drive to get into office. But there is still strong anti Europeanism; they are still the same alliance of business and vested interests.
What about Cameron’s talk of Big Society?
It is interesting that Cameron adopted rhetoric about empowering society – an open advocacy of privatisation would not have been electorally popular. But when you look at the details you can see it is really a cover for privatisation. The aim seems to be to dismantle the state in favour of the voluntary sector. It’s a strategy which completely evades the deep inequalities that exist in society. For example giving people the power to set up a local schools if the existing one isn’t adequate is fine if you are well resourced and middle class, but that isn’t the answer that can be generalised or that people want. What people really want is good public schools and this will need investment rather than false semblances of democracy. Ultimately it seems to about turning schools into companies and opening doors to further privatisation. See more at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/14/david-cameron-big-society-conservatives
The Tory emphasis on local control also pointedly ignores the issue of giving people economic power. They certainly would never extend their commitment to elected public officials or to businesses, allowing people to elect managers or allowing workers to turn factories into coops.
Given that the Left has been right on many issues – economic crisis, environmental crisis – why is there no strong alternative emerging?
I think the Left has not been good at turning critique into alternative policies. In some ways it has not recovered from the defeats of the trade union movement and other social movements in the 80s. It hasn’t found lasting forms of social and economic power on which to base alternative policies or moved on from past, traditional state focused collective forms of organisation to embrace alliances with social movements, the social economy, more horizontal networked forms of politics.
However I am not pessimistic about the ability of the Left to turn it’s considerable intellectual resources and innovations into a practical alternative strategy. The existing critique of the Left on the economy and environment clearly has a resonance with the wider population, even if it is more of a ‘structure of feeling ‘ rather than precise policies The challenge is to turn this generalised critique into concrete policies.
If we don’t shy away from reform, identifying policies that can win victories now and open way to continuing struggle, we can make significant progress. For example there are lots of successful struggles against privatisation which we can learn from, in showing how to win public services back from private sector and where we can demonstrate concrete practical alternatives. We need to begin to apply those alternatives to rethinking the state more generally.
In Britain and around much of the world, there is a clear vacuum left of centre. It is up to us who are critical of mainstream politics and feel we have or can point to alternatives in practice to work out how to present those, popularise them and link them to real struggles and movements
Hilary Wainwright is Research Director of the TNI New Politics programme