I’ll start off by making one element of my political views abundantly clear: I believe that the Tory party in the UK offers no hope for the vast majority of people in this country and, with their Liberal Democrat enablers, they have, over the course of this parliament, been responsible for some of the most vile and divisive policies. It has been claimed that these policies bring about a kind of fairness for those homogeneously defined social groups known as ‘hard working families’ and ‘strivers’.
Your wages may be low and decreasing; you may have a stressful life spending so much of your waking life in a job you hate and you may be struggling to simply make ends meets – but don’t worry, the Tories solution to your hardship is to make the lives of those even more hard pushed then you, even worse.
If you’re looking for work, or unable to work due to being mentally ill or disabled, then you will face new taxes, increasing sanctions and a general social stigma (conveniently created by the major Tory allies in the Murdoch press and the overtly neoliberal Daily Mail).
The reality is that this is a classic divide and rule tactic. It’s hard to say if it is deliberate. I’m sure for some Tory politicians it is a well thought out strategy to gradually erode the welfare state and public services, in order to create a so-believed free market utopia. I suspect that for others this is a form of self-deluded well-meaningness born from a disconnect from the socioeconomic realities of their lamented ‘hard working families’ and ‘strivers’.
Regardless of intentions, these policies and their effects are real and increasingly undeniable. And those that support them – whether ignorantly or with volition – are part of a socioeconomic dogma that if allowed to continue will re-institute the kind of class divisions and socioeconomic inequalities last seen in Britain in the 19th C.
Indeed, the economic statistics, as so succinctly highlighted by Thomas Piketty in his latest book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, suggest we are reaching a period of economic inequality only seen since the dark period of the Satanic Mills.
To be fair, in Britain and most other Western countries at least, those that find themselves in the lower economic percentiles are materially far better off then their 19th C equivalents. And, at least for now, there is in Britain a relatively functioning, although increasingly limited and punitive, welfare state. But this is not a reason not to change these dynamics, which, nevertheless, are creating unnecessary hardship and suffering for millions of people across the country. Surely the fact that hundreds of thousands of people now have to go to a food bank to avoid starvation is a testament to the need for urgent action.
So what are the Tories’ stated reasoning behind these policies – which can be put more generally under the label of ‘austerity’?
First of all, they would argue that austerity is the necessary response to the overspending of the last Labour government. Moreover, Labour oversaw the effects of the 2008 US housing crash: the credit crunch and subsequent ‘great recession’ of 2008. So, if only we would wait it out, the Tories’ austerity will resolve all of this by reversing the evil of spending and, in the process, they promise, create a stronger economy positioned for the challenge of a modern, competitive and increasingly interconnected global economy.
Whilst I don’t think Labour are completely innocent (I’ll come on to this later) it is to me strikingly obvious and indeed the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that these austerity policies have increased rates of poverty and contributed further to the last three decades of rising inequality, further deepening social hierarchies and further limiting social mobility (see the Oxfam report on UK austerity here and this Guardian article discussing a study on social mobility in the UK).
So whilst I am making a case against the Tories and their anti-social justice policy of austerity over the last four years, I think that a perhaps even bigger crime is that by focusing on austerity and, ultimately, the interests of an element of the capitalist elite, this government has absolutely failed to take seriously or in anyway deal with any of the numerous impending threats to, not just the people of Britain, but likely the entire global population and even modern civilisation itself.
These threats include the impending global climate crisis, where sea levels are expected to rise to levels that will increasingly threaten populations and coastlines; the ongoing human caused mass extinction of species; rising political and religious fundamentalisms throughout much of the world (see ISIS and fascism in Europe as examples); and the current potential threat of increasing automation on the existence of jobs for many workers around the world (see my following article on automation for a discussion of this). Regarding the threats mentioned here, Noam Chomsky’s article here and Slavoj Zizeks’ talk here are worth looking at for a greater insight into these impending threats.
Considering these potentially catastrophic incompetencies of this government, it is clear to me that something needs to change. But what are the political alternatives?
The first, and perhaps most obvious, ‘alternative’ is voting for and electing the official opposition, Labour. But what, at best, might this achieve? Will Labour reverse the harsh neoliberal policies of the Tories? Will they deal with any of the numerous impending crises I have suggested we face?
To the last two questions, I suspect not. And the best we can hope for is the installation of the ‘lesser of two evils’. History shows that, since the creation of ‘New Labour’, the differences between Labour and the Tories are largely superficial. And, coming back to the issue of the Great Recession, there is no doubt that Labours’ gifts to the city of London, addiction to cheap credit and their overwhelming acceptance of the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal global consensus was very much apart of, and certainly not a protection from, the sudden collapse of the US credit fuelled housing bubble and the following global recession.
So whilst, as Noam Chomsky and others have stated, the centre left ‘lesser of two evils’ often does, in comparison to the centre right alternative, produce materially better results for the majority of people in Western ‘democracies’, I am increasingly convinced that the next few decades are, for the majority of ordinary people, unusually decisive with regards to the potential consequences they are likely to have for the quality of peoples livelihoods and their standards of living in the foreseeable future.
If Labour is nothing more then a less sociopathic version of the Tories, then what is the real political alternative?
This is where things become problematic. Personally, based on my ideological perspective and regarding an attempt to deal with some of the issues I talked about above, the Green Party would appear like a real political alternative.
They propose real efforts to deal with climate change; to modernise the economy into a green, truly sustainable economy; to introduce a basic income (a favourite of mine for at least partly dealing with the distributive issues arising from increasing automation and the resulting fewer jobs); a proposed £10 minimum wage; a pro-trade union policy; progressive taxation; an end to austerity; a commitment to reverse the privatisation of the NHS; a proposal to get rid of university fees; and many other actually progressive policies that would, in my view, start to deal with the issues we face and, in the process, create a more socially just society where opportunities are open to all regardless of their socioeconomic background.
Surely, then, this is the answer, if you, like me, desire these policies and a progressive and socially just politics? After all, although you won’t have heard this from the mainstream media, the Greens have seen a 40% increase in membership in the last year alone, are polling as high as the Liberal Democrats at 6%, already have an elected MP, Caroline Lucas, and, when internet users are asked on voteforpolicies.org.uk to rate policies, not parties, the highest percentage of people (nearly 26%) end up choosing the Greens.
But, unfortunately, the reality is that we are still dominated by a highly influential and predominantly right wing media that is owned by and represents the interests primarily of one of two types of elite (the distinctions between them becoming increasingly less relevant): the political elite and the capitalist elite.
Furthermore, the structure of our first past the post electoral system makes the election of the Greens a statistical improbability, even with a massive shift in support for them. The best a third party can hope for, short of an effective revolution (or massive media attention as seen in conjunction with the ‘rise’ of UKIP) is to, like the Liberal Democrats, achieve a minor position in a coalition with one of the two main parties. Achieving this for the Greens would of course be better then nothing, but for me this highlights what should be, in Britain, one of the major political aims: to, as part of a wider movement for the spread of democracy in Britain, win a restructuring of our electoral system from first past to post to proportional representation (PR).
This would, to a greater or lesser extent, remove some of the incentives for voting for the lesser of two evils simply as a tactic to avoid ‘the other party’ getting in. This would free many, though of course not all, to vote based on their political beliefs and, if the policy based voting intention website holds true for the general population, people would rationally end up voting for the Greens – or at least I can hope.
Of course the reality of PR won’t be the silver bullet I am perhaps making it out to be. But we are structurally straight jacketed from having any real chance of voting in a political alternative and historically low turnouts indicate people are fully aware of this lack of choice. Indeed, the massive turnout for the recent Scottish referendum on independence shows what happens when people are presented with real political choices. This is why winning a PR electoral system that allows people to make real political decisions is one, of many, steps required to bring about a more democratic and socially just political system in Britain.
Both new and traditional methods of political campaigning, civil disobedience and protests need to be adopted by the grass roots to bring about this change. It certainly won’t come about willingly from Labour or the Tories. This is no doubt a major challenge and will require massive and sustained political pressure. But it can be achieved if enough people understand and take seriously the threats not taking this action poses for them, the society they live in and potentially many others across the world.
As for the upcoming election, I am still undecided as to whether I should vote tactically – Labour in an attempt to avoid the Tories – or based on my political convictions – the Greens. Either way, a radical transformation of the electoral system needs to be won if we are to achieve social justice, have a truly democratic society and work to reverse the rule of the wealthy (currently being even more deeply entrenched through Tory austerity). The sooner we achieve this, the better.