Monday 17 April 2017

“The Alternative”: some notes on the editors’ introduction

Nandy, L, Lucas, C and Bowers C, eds (2016), The Alternative, London: Biteback Publishing

The Alternative is an attempt to sketch the skeleton of a progressive politics. The editors’ introduction juxtaposes despair and optimism. It was born in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election which saw off Labour and LibDem challenges to the Tories and rewarded the Greens with one seat for more than a million votes.

Votes per seat per party in 2015 make interesting reading:
SNP 25972
Conservatives 34347
Labour 40290
LibDem 301983
Green 1157613
UKIP 3881099 (which is of course now no seats for nearly four million votes)

It takes 11 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as an SNP one, and 7 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as a Labour one.

And it takes 44 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as an SNP one, and 28 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as a Labour one.

Does this imply the need for a change in the voting system? The editors reach for PR, but I think this is inadequate as an overall response. A new system will change the balance of power within Parliament, but will not necessarily change the relationship between politicians and voters.

We now live in a world of uncertainty. The editors refer to this – nation states and globalisation, and the state of information. They refer also to inequality, but instability is a different thing from unfairness, and I suggest instability rather than unfairness is the driving force behind much of the protectionism, isolationism and conservative sentiment we are living with today. Inequality and instability are closely related. Inequality is probably one of the most powerful driving forces behind instability. But in my view inequality is not what people feel; instability is.

Instability has been with us for some time, and it will not go away. I am reminded of 1997. Before the election there was much talk of the “feelgood factor”, implying a feeling of confidence that the Tories hope was returning to the national mood. After the election the phrase was dropped instantly and entirely from national discourse (or maybe it was just the media discourse). It was as if we recognised at last that the old securities of a job for life had gone and we needed to get used to it.

I suggest the same is true now. Globalisation and its bastard offspring neoliberalism make it unlikely that we can make employment more stable and secure. But we can make income more stable and secure, by having fairer distribution to start with, and effective mechanisms for dealing with troughs in employment.

Part of this process is making a more effective state to regulate neoliberalism’s daily excesses and create structures within which people can be more secure. And part of that process is putting into office politicians who actually listen and act. They are part of what a progressive politics looks like. To go further with this, we need some sort of agreed starting point. The editors offer a definition of “progressive” which is worth quoting in full.

Progressives want to move beyond the current system and create a better one. We continue in the tradition of those who ended slavery, won votes for women, built our welfare state, and fought for the protection of our environment. Progressives believe in cooperation. We want a supportive and responsive state which brings the best out of people’s instinct to share success and support each other in hard times, and which offers genuine equality to all citizens, together with social justice, civil liberties, human rights and responsibilities, without discrimination on grounds of gender, age, physical ability, race or sexual orientation.

Progressives are, by definition, radicals. We re-imagine the way our society and our economy works from the bottom up. We wish to reform the socially isolating and environmentally degrading mainstream economics that has dominated our political discourse for several decades. While wealth creation is important, we need fairer and more effective ways of distributing the fruits of that wealth so that everyone benefits. We therefore want power and wealth redistributed, in order to empower citizens to work together to build fair and resilient communities for generations to come.

Progressives come from many ideological positions – including socialists, liberals, feminists, ecologists – and none. We share a rejection of the politics of fear and division, and wish to move towards a more inclusive society in which every citizen not only has the opportunity to develop themselves to their full potential but has as much control as possible over their own destiny and the chance to shape the society in which they live. This way we believe we will build a society that both empowers people and allows us to live within environmental limits. (pp xix-xx)

I don’t agree with all of it. As soon as I started looking at it in detail, I started nitpicking. Agreement is not to be expected, but this is a very good starting point for debate and progress towards working together.

To return to the start, perhaps optimism is not what I feel right now. What I do feel is purpose. Politics is a long, hard road, and I have no idea where it will take us. We are entering new territory fr progressives, territory where we co-operate rather than split, so we need new tools to survey it, map it and make it ours. We make the road by walking so walk we must.