Friday, 8 May 2015

ELECTION 2015 - LOOKING FOR THE SILVER LININGS

If you're one of the 63% who voted other than Conservative, you may not yet have turned to wondering whether any good news can be sifted from this morning's surprise election result. The shock takes a while to wear off, but when it does a few glimmers of brighter light can be perceived.

The first is that the government's parliamentary authority is hugely reduced. Their working majority in the coalition was 73, but now it is 12. By-elections may eat into that, but even if they don't Mr Cameron, like John Major in 1992, is at the mercy of rebels on his own side and will be obliged to seek alliances across the chamber. The majority in England, however, is overwhelming, so we can expect to hear a lot about “English votes for English laws”. This simple slogan hides some complex constitutional issues, and the conversation that ensues could, potentially, have positive outcomes for regional and local government, as well as reopening debate about the broken electoral system.

The second point is that the outlook for the economy is nowhere near as rosy as the so-called “recovery” is supposed to suggest. Recent economic growth has been fuelled largely by consumer borrowing and spending, not real production. Interest rates may be low, but wages remain stagnant and productivity is going backwards while house prices continue to rise. Without inflation the cost of borrowing is not eroded over time, so something has to give. A slowdown within the next parliament is near-certain, a recession is likely and a further systemic shock, like the banking crisis of 2007, is on the cards. History suggests that whatever government is left holding the baby when the economy tanks will pay a heavy price at the subsequent election.

In my post on Tuesday I drew attention to the ethical dilemma this poses for people campaigning for fundamental change. If things must get far worse before the conditions are created in which they can get better, one may still hesitate to wish upon the homeless, the workless, the incapacitated and the underpaid another five more years of austerity.

Today's election results, however, do not suggest that the public has lost confidence in the free market economic model that gave rise to austerity, or that they are looking for a new system to replace it. Indeed, if voters remain invested in that model, it makes sense that they would prefer the party that “owns” the model, rather than the one that merely appropriated it as part of the “Blatcherist” consensus. Democratic political change can be a slow process, and while new, sharing, collaborative economic and political models are well established in the hothouse, they have yet to take root and spread within the wider public domain.

Fertile soil, however, certainly exists in that domain for these exotic plants, and on the evidence of yesterday's vote the extent of it is rapidly increasing. More than five million people voted Green and UKIP, over 16% of the votes cast and equivalent to 106 seats on a proportional basis. With a seat apiece to show for it, this group represents an unprecedented body of the disenfranchised.

The Liberal Democrats have been under-represented for decades on this basis, although rarely on this scale. By positioning themselves as a compromise between Conservatives and Labour, however, their politics have been embraced in aggregate by the two big parties whose free market consensus they share. Neither the Greens nor UKIP have this comfort, since these unlikely bedfellows share an ideological position distinctive to that of almost any other political group.

What the Greens and UKIP share is opposition to the workings of the free market. The way they express this could not be more different, but the similarity is real. For UKIP, the E.U. and its free movement of peoples is the bogey; for the Greens, the environmental and social effect of untrammelled greed and self-interest. But they are both talking about the same thing: a system in which individual people are rendered powerless by economic and political interests beyond their control.

Green opposition to the free market is rooted in the common good, while for UKIP supporters it may be that the free market has simply failed them. The latter are the “dispossessed” of contemporary politics - a growing group, both young and old, of people for whom a highly educated, flexible, increasingly mobile and disposable workforce has no use. Anti-market policies such as the basic income - a core Green policy that is gradually emerging into the mainstream - are directly relevant to their needs, opening opportunities of which at present they can only dream. It may be challenging to bridge high-minded Green idealism with the needs of this marginalised group, but the logic of doing so is impeccable. And the electoral rewards are there for any who can achieve it.

It is better to eat one's disappointment hot, and all at once, than to be obliged to chew it cold and slowly. President Obama's first term offered the latter dish, Britain's small-l liberals may one day be grateful that a minority Miliband government did not serve up a further helping of the same. At least, now, we know where we stand, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. The fight-back starts here.  

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