Friday, 31 January 2014

BUSINESS AS USUAL?



From the Reimagine blog

Does the much-heralded “recovery” mean a return to “business as usual” in British politics? Don’t count on it…

ONS Graphic
First of all, the “recovery” is largely consumption-driven, in a situation in which wages are not rising, having fallen significantly in real terms. People are either drawing down savings or borrowing more. As such it is highly vulnerable to correction. Either way, the “cost of living crisis”, which should really be called a low pay crisis, has a lot more mileage in it yet. Many new jobs are part time and low paid; productivity has fallen, and any modest rises in production are a result not of investment but because people are so cheap to hire.

In that sense the economy is going backwards, and there is plenty of time for this to go seriously wrong before mid-2015. The London-based commentariat may be getting excited about the recovery, but because it is largely based on transactional activity (Britain now has the largest ever number of estate agents) rather than new wealth-creation, it is not increasing real wealth and there are many people and many parts of the country that it is not reaching at all. Internationally there is talk of problems in the emerging markets following a run on the Argentine peso, which any tightening of credit in the US can only make worse – so there is scope for a bumpy ride on the international stage, too.

What is more, since both government and opposition have been taken by surprise by the “strength” of the recovery, and particularly the drop in unemployment, it can be difficult to see the connection between an increase in optimism and the actions of the existing political class. Should they get the credit for something they did not predict? Will they? Both government and opposition remain unpopular at the same time, and the “third force” of the Lib-Dems no longer commands any sort of “protest” or alternative vote, for obvious reasons. Plenty of voters, therefore, and not only former Lib-Dems, looking for a new home. Ukip has the protest vote, for the time being. But Ukip, as everyone now knows, has no policies, so its capacity to challenge is limited to say the least…

And what about the many people eligible to vote who are currently “put off” by contemporary politics. It is not something they “relate to” or find “relevant”, etc., etc. This includes a significant majority of young people. Are they looking for a new political “home”? We don’t yet know, but it is worth trying to find out.

So – where does Re-Imagine fit into all this…

Well, usually it’s a mistake to start by saying what something is not, but it’s important to state that Re-Imagine is not a substitute for all the exciting and innovative work on social, economic and political renewal that is happening in Britain and elsewhere.

Instead, think of it as a platform to draw attention to all that work, pointing out the problems inherent in the existing model and reminding people that plenty of alternatives are already available. Think of it as a vehicle with the specific purpose of conveying all this new thinking into the heart of the electoral process. The vehicle has plenty of seats and the hope is that many existing proponents of change will get on board.

Re-Imagine is saying that the real political “opposition” (i.e. alternative) at the moment is not in parliament but among individuals and movements all over the country who can see that the present politics has failed and have many ideas for its renewal. For this “opposition” to have any impact it has to organise in some way.

So here’s a problem. Because the existing political model is so broken, and because the centralisation of power in Westminster is one of the main barriers to change, the idea of creating a platform to challenge for power at Westminster does not sit easily with the new, ground-up models of political and economic localism that many advocates for change rightly favour.

Remember, however, that in politics – and particularly in economics – the transition is almost as important as the outcome. A good transition will generally tend to a good outcome, but a failed transitional process can leave things worse than they were before.

There are two ways that the transition can happen. One is that the present model just gets more and more unsustainable, and something else (not necessarily pretty, as the Greek far-right have threatened) necessarily and messily emerges to take its place. This is the most likely, and it is certainly true that the more people who are thinking constructively about what that something else is, the better the outcome is likely to be.

There is also, however, the possibility of “managed transition” – whereby power at the centre is used very deliberately to create the conditions in which a new model may flourish. This depends upon the emergence of facilitative leadership at the centre of power – leadership that deliberately tries to create conditions in which people may govern themselves.

Re-Imagine is trying to get on this second track. It may seem a long shot, but then it’s difficult to think of any election in the past forty years when the three main parties were so stuck in the same place, offering little if any real alternative to each other, and when politicians and politics in general were held collectively in such low esteem.

Re-Imagine is saying: “Let’s give this a shot – there may never be a better moment”. It is structured as a two part process, in which the first is “get on board” and the second is “build our electoral platform”. That “get on board” is absolutely not an invitation to sign up to a pre-existing manifesto, but to join in to help create one. The knowledge, ideas, experience and inspiration are all out there; but at present their is no vehicle in which to bring them together and offer them to the electorate as a viable whole.

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