Circles of Crisis

April 3, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

All national crises are made up of various circles, each within the next, and Britain now is no exception. The national economic crisis is embedded within a global crisis and within the national economic is another, political, crisis.

The system has failed not just economically but politically. Both dimensions of this collapse were recently summarised by Colin Crouch in a lucid Compass Thinkpiece:

“And so a second regime to reconcile stable mass consumption with the market economy ended. Both Keynesianism and its privatised mutant lasted 30 years. As regimes in a rapidly changing world go, that is probably as good as it can get. But the question arises: how are capitalism and democracy to be reconciled now? Also, how will the enormous moral hazard established by governments’ recognition of financial irresponsibility as a collective good now be managed? The public policy response has not been ‘now stop all this’, but ‘please carry on borrowing and lending, but a little bit more carefully’. It has to be so; otherwise there will be a danger of real systemic collapse.”

The problem, which Crouch poses, though without any adequate answer, is how can a government based so staunchly on the politics of Thatcherite neo-liberalism solve a neo-liberal economic crisis? In practice, it is certainly having and will continue to have great difficulty. It can see no further than supporting the very financial institutions which precipitated the crisis because any other course involves forms of political action alien to its core ideological position. How else can one explain such moves as the privatisation of the Post Office, welfare reforms aimed at reducing benefit levels and continuing squeezes on council budgets and student loans, which not only produce rebellions amongst its core supporters but are also directly opposed to the reflationary Keynesian policies to which it is, in principle, committed? These apparent aberrations, and they are only a sample, are the surface form of a deep political problem, which is approaching a crisis.

For almost a hundred years, the British political system has been based upon the dominance of a two-party system in which the two parties swapped power under an electoral system, which prevented any outside party from mounting any credible challenge. Indeed on a wider perspective, this has been the mainstay of British politics for close on two hundred years with only one disruption, the takeover of Labour from Liberal in the 1920s. This stability is essentially unknown in the rest of Europe, countries where there have been makeovers of the political system at quite regular intervals. There are, of course, particular British reasons for this stability including the lack of occupation by foreign armies or defeat in a major war as well as, until recently, the absence of any religious, national or regional differences sufficient to override a single national political hegemony. However, one necessary feature of such a two-party system is that there should be enough of a political divide between the two principals to suggest, if only suggest, that their simple exchange provided sufficient variation to prevent the system from falling into disrepute provoking, what Gramsci termed, a crisis of legitimacy. The simple Labour/Conservative, north/south, working class/middle class dichotomies, however complex in practice, have long provided such variation and have enabled British political life to remain alive.

The coming election, presumably in 2010 unless the turkeys decide to choose Christmas, will mark the end of that necessary difference, one that was expiring in 2001 and 2005 but which still maintained some purchase. Now, as most commentators agree, there is really no obvious difference between Labour and Conservative however much they may still fight in Parliament like snakes in a bag. There are numerous Cabinet ministers (dare one name names; Burnham, Purnell, Balls, Miliband…) who would sit very comfortably in a Cameron Cabinet, probably more than those would be fidgety there. This is not to mention a complete team of unelected ministers (Mandelson et al) who could carry on running the absurdly named Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform without even noticing that an election has occurred. Adding the half-party of the Lib Dems to this mix makes very little difference except for a slight thickening of the left-centre part of the political plot of differences between the MPs in the parties, which dominate the House of Commons. One possible, perhaps probable, consequence of this is the formation of some kind of ‘national crisis government’, something that would largely resolve the current phoney warfare in Parliament though it would also deepen the public perception of politicians. One can see this happening either as a last desperate throw by Brown or as a preliminary coup by Cameron to cement his authority. Such a development would be a final throw of the dice by politicians vaguely aware of the political crisis but unable to do anything other than circle the party wagons.

The forthcoming election may throw up some ‘wild’ results – perhaps a Green seat or two in mildly eccentric constituencies or the BNP coming close in a couple of places or the election of some independents or expelled Labour MPs. The most likely deviancy will come in the Celtic nations as nationalism really does take over from class divides. It is probable, however, that the most striking sign of a crisis of legitimacy will come from falling turnout. Already in the low 40 per cents in the Labour strongholds of North and Central Manchester where I live, it would be surprising if battered Labour voters were to do other than turn away entirely from the electoral process. But whatever the overall result – Conservative landslide, Labour resurgence, hung Parliament, national government – it will do little to solve the legitimacy crisis engulfing British electoral politics.

In this mix of disillusion and wildness, one factor is missing; any kind of leftwing political challenge to the present hegemony of essentially neoliberal politics. This is the most obvious differences between now and the previous periods when the industrial economies were battered by deep recessions, the early 1980s and during the depression of the 1930s. Of course, in the latter time, both communism and fascism were real and ominous threats to the capitalist system, whilst in the 1980s the challenge of socialism was essentially a house of cards. But the challenge, nevertheless, was present in the political process. In spending some hours recently in tracking through the many websites maintained by various components of the British (or at least English) left, the absence of any such comparable voice became drearily apparent.

Essentially, one can split the politics of the organised left into three parts. The first comprises those in the Labour Party who still see themselves as the ‘left’ of that organisation grouped either into the Labour Representation Committee or the Compass group (which may be a pressure group, a think-tank or a political fraction depending upon sources). Both look to an individual MP (McDonnell or Cruddas) to bring light to the Labour party and thereby the nation whilst omitting discussion of any possible public political process, opting instead for an unlikely victory in an internal Labour leadership election following election defeat.

The large number, seemingly about a dozen or more, of groups descended from the Communist and Trotskyist parties of the 1970s, still rely heavily upon that old favourite, the rising consciousness of the working class, whilst spending much of their energies on denouncing the particular characterisation of that elusive phenomenon by their rivals. Thirdly, the Green Party (of which I am a member), which is basically the thinking-person’s social democracy, relies upon a slow-motion electoralism picking up council seats in the hope that one day this will translate into higher things.

The one common feature of these perspectives is an apparent lack of any serious desire to engage with other fractions of the left to discuss just how they could work together to take any kind of role in the national political drama currently being unfolded. This appears to be true even between left factions inside the Labour Party let alone any wider dialogue. This is despite a very large measure of agreement on the policies, big and small, needed in national government. Nationalise the banks? Save the Post Office from privatisation? A green new deal? Support the Palestinians? Raise basic benefits? Get rid of nuclear weapons? Yes, yes and yes again. But effective dialogue let alone cooperation?

Meanwhile outside this organised left, what an acquaintance calls the ‘vertical’ left lies what he terms the ‘horizontal’ left – that large group of mainly young activists involved in various kinds of environmental and social campaigns. Large and growing, certainly larger than any summation of the organised left, most Compass members would probably be surprised at the level of rejection of the conventional political process which exists amongst these activists. This rejection can be seen in the difficulty, which the Green Party, apparently their natural home, has in recruiting members from their ranks. Green electoralism is, patiently, accepted as not actually opposed to their position just somehow largely irrelevant. These campaigns, notably on environmental issues but including, for example the Convention on Modern Liberty, now form much the most vibrant and significant areas of progressive politics and also the most effective – at least within their own limits.

In their recent essay, No Turning Back, John Harris and Neal Lawson, provide a good example of the central political problem. They provide an exemplary analysis of the policy basis, which could underpin a left government as well as a stimulating attack upon policies, which fall back upon the ideas of a failed neo-liberal politics. Yet there is a missing heart to their analysis; the process and the agency, which will bring about these policies. Looking though the essay, a m̩lange of actors appear; the Labour movement, civil society, unions, NGOs, social movements, churches, civic groups, almost everything in fact except the one agency that, in this context, matters Рthe electorate. In Britain, provided one rejects the idea of social change coming about by a Chavez-inspired uprising by the junior officers of the Brigade of Guards, political change comes about from elections. And here lies the crux for already the hammer of the two-party, first-past-the-post British political system is being raised.

Harris and Lawson believe that “form follows function”. OK, the function is to get a government elected which will have the parliamentary majority and the popular basis to carry though their ten ideas and more. So what is the ‘form’, which follows from this? Here are the currently available options:

• Vote Lib Dem for a hung Parliament and proportional representation. (It might be unwise, however, to rely upon Nick Clegg to insist on this if a few junior ministries were on offer)

• Vote Conservative to ensure a really large Labour defeat to be followed by the election of a Harman/Cruddas ticket in the ensuing leadership election.

• Vote Green to show one has a good heart though, outside Brighton, no chance of affecting the outcome

• Or, and here one already sees the express train coming down the lines, hold one’s nose and vote Labour to keep the Tories out. This will, of course, result in a triumphal re-crowning of Brown and the swift running for cover of all the “left Brownites”.

Sorry to be so brutal but that is all that is on the current agenda. Harris and Lawson avoid all this but it would be surprising if, in about six months time and in the absence of any new alternatives, they were arguing for other than option four even though the consequence of Labour re-election would be the reinforcement of a political process diametrically opposed to their argument.

Crouch does offer an alternative kind of political resolution to the crisis, one that he himself views with a considerable degree of ambiguity. In it, firms and government become much more closely intertwined, political parties lose all vestiges of difference and political campaigning resolves itself into lobbying by special interest groups. These groups can include the ‘horizontal’ activism noted above as well as business and other interests. The crisis of legitimacy is resolved essentially by moving democracy, if it can be called that, outside Parliament and into a new sphere of controlled public debate. Crouch’s ‘ambiguity’ is understandable given the resemblance of this system to, at best, Bushian America and at worst a kind of fascism. But is clear is that any resolution to both the economic and the political crises which has a discernibly left label is totally absent from such discourse.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for stepping away from brute reality into fantasy. Suppose some kind of gathering were organised by a group of people roughly representative of the main currents within the left, let us call this, just for convenience, a Convention for Modern Politics. Suppose this gathering agreed a broad left manifesto, much along the lines of the Harris and Lawson ideas. Suppose this manifesto was presented to all prospective candidates in all constituencies to ask for their comments. Suppose that recommendations as to how to vote were then publicised based upon those comments. Suppose then that, following the likely election of a government committed to none of the manifesto ideas, another gathering was held with invitations to all those candidates who had supported the manifesto. And suppose that this gathering set to discussing just how they could organise to better advance the ideas of the manifesto. It is all just fantasy of course. But I am afraid that fantasising is all we have right now.

Back in reality, one very small and flickering light in this gloom is the recent Convention of the Left held in Manchester in September, parallel to the Labour Party conference, and followed up in January by a one-day gathering. This attempts to bring together all parts of the self-defined left including both those organised into political groupings and activists belonging to no group. It is unclear where this Convention is going and it is not without its sectarian squabbles. Even so, to bring together 200 people from around Manchester not to hear speeches delivered from any platform, indeed lacking any notable speakers at all, but just to discuss how the left can advance is a notable achievement.

This article first appeared on the Convention of the Left Forum website –

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This post was written by Michael Prior

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