Is Britain Broken?

Some eager bathhouse members managed a field trip to a Guardian debate last night that asked ‘Is Britain Broken?’ (The link has a podcast of the event, by the way) So in the spirit of things, it seemed only right to share some thoughts.

‘Broken Britain’ is such a pithy, general and meaningless slogan that any number of issues can collapse into it. The state of social housing, the expenses scandal, the deficit and divorce lawyers were just a few of the bugbears cited by the audience and as symptoms of a broken society.

Yet Will made a good point by wondering just how useful the term actually is. Does ‘Broken Britain’ cloud or clarify the issues in question?

For me, many of the social issues that matter are outcomes of an unequal society rather than anything else. But equality has different aspects to it. While plenty has been said about the spiralling income inequality, there has been nothing about the inequality of political power.

Asking a government to promote the interests of the majority is pointless when that majority has little power. It’s a chicken-egg conundrum. With the break-up of unions, political power over the economy has been lost, and with the collapse of party membership numbers, power over the party system has been lost.

Until we discover ways of giving the majority of people political and economic leverage, the left will struggle to find electoral success. The obvious question is how exactly do we do that?

Will suggests joining the New Labour party. But it has spent the last two decades ridding itself of a historic tie to equality. That said, what else can we do?


5 thoughts on “Is Britain Broken?

  1. Agree that Broken Britain is clearly very unhelpful term. Like any term that is not defined it can be whatever you want it to be.

    With regard to the power dynamics in modern politics I think that the neither party is ideologically committed to much of anything anymore. This means the decisions are arrived at pragmatically on the basis of policy economic impacts, donor interest, public opinion and just occasionally the principles of rebel MPs.

    With this spirit the power moves away from the traditional sources of ideology to the personal opinions and allegiances of the elites as they conduct the policy impact assessment and shape public opinion. In this case the best thing you can do is to be involved in the decision making process.

  2. I think things like ‘economic impacts’ and ‘public opinion’ can’t be removed from how power is distributed.

    ‘Economic impacts’ on who? Without wanting to glorify or romanticise unions, when they were stronger, the economic impacts of any pragmatic policy decision would have been different. Certain policies were not an option because it would harm the unions who were a powerful political actor. This meant that policy had to defend the interests of the majority (in the guise of unions – with all the problems they have).

    So I don’t think the spirit of politics has changed. Instead there has been a triumph of elite power over majority power, which means it’s pragmatic to ignore the interests of the many.

    How does the majority find power? I’m not sure. I don’t see a clear enough link between being a member of New Labour and ‘being involved in the decision making process’. Should we all join Nestle and change them from the inside? If, instead, we all disarmed the power of finance by being part of a mass credit union, then suddenly our interests become pragmatic to defend. Perhaps.

  3. Two things.

    Firstly, I’m not sure Labour – even New Labour – has lost all ideology, and nor have the conservatives. Ideologies have shifted towards the centre, and they have been too willing to sacrifice ideology in favour of easy pragmatism, but I think ideology is still there. (As we might find out to our cost in a few months?)

    Secondly, we can’t sit around in pubs and moan about inequality of political power while simultaneously refusing to engage in it – no wonder it’s unequal. Single issues are fine, but they don’t address that inequality. By all means join a credit union, but for me that doesn’t seem proactive enough. Perhaps become a Union rep? Or set up a credit union? We need to do somethign other than bemoan, and so far party politics seems to me the way to make most difference (despite that fact that I really don’t think I’d like it). If you can come up with credible alternatives that involve Doing Somethign About It, rather than just decrying it, I’m happy to be convinced.

  4. Good stuff all round.

    I’m not sure how useful it is to think about the difference in parties in terms of ‘ideology’. It’s too vague. Thatcher and Regan were vocal in their ideology of ‘small government’ and ‘pro-market’ but their policies were the opposite. Instead both swelled public spending to an degree never seen before. What they were doing was defending their interests. Both propped up, protected, subsidised and expanded the military and financial sectors, and dropped taxes on the highest earners, while making the rest of society pay.

    So rather than think about the Tories v New Lab in terms of ideology, I feel it’s more useful to try and look at which interest groups they try to protect. Jonathan Freedland wrote a decent piece, talking about how the Tory rebranding as cuddly and green doesn’t match the elitist groups they try and protect.

    As for joining or not joining New Labour, what I want is a description of how campaigning for a party that has fostered a widening of inequality in its 13 years in power will help promote equality. What is it that joining will enable us to do?

  5. The debate seems to have moved on to the uses of the term ‘ideology’ in understanding and defining party policies.

    I agree that specific parties use ideological frameworks that do not necessarily cohere with actual policies – such as Thatcher and Raegan spending in the 80s. However, I do not agree that these policies were attempts to defend the interests of specific social groups.

    People pick and choose ideologies that best suit their peronal frame of reference and their social circumstances. In other words, the socially proactive logic of Tory policies of high end tax reductions would have seemed perfectly logical to them as a means of letting the market run freely and undoing the damage done to the economy by years of left-wing Keynesian interference. In this case, the interests of the highest earners and Tory party membership become aligned with the rest of society. Now this is a highly problematic statement, I find it a little rich to conclude that politicians enact policy in order to defend their own. The act of being a politician requires that you have a vision of what society (as a whole) should look like and a strategy of how best to achieve this and I do not believe that even the rather loathsome Redwood, wants to see mass pauperisation. If they only cared for their own interests, they wouldn’t bother.

    So, where does that leave us? As Sahil pointed out, the division between ‘left’ and ‘right’ cannot be defined by comparative levels of state spending. We can however identify the direction of state expenditure and the manner in which the money is spent. For instance, since new labour came to power, finances have been strongly directed toward the UK’s education system. This was not the case during the Tory years. Additionally, New Labour made a great deal of changes to the governance structure of the UK’s national infrastructure (gas, electricity etc) that massively reintroduced state control into the equation. They did not re-publicise the services but this does not mean they were not enacting policies that were partly aimed at benefitting the disadvantaged.

    In short (or more likely long), I agree with Will that it is too much to claim that New Labour has lost its ideology. I think that maybe, those who claim to represent an ideology need to update their mode of analysis beyond the traditional concept of state owned or privately owned. And to claim that New Labour has ‘fostered’ a widening of inequality gives too much credit to the power of political parties in control. As pragmatic wielders of power, they have to manage a wide array of pressures and interest groups when implementing state policy. I hold firmly to the belief that the UK would be far more unequal if the Tories had been in power for the last 13 years.

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