Margaret Thatcher’s most potent legacy has been an economy dependent on the City of London: a driving force of ‘disaster capitalism,’ an earner of levels of private wealth that beggar belief and a rapacious pressure on scarce resources.
Tackling this legacy is now possible. The reason why is that the formula of the New Labour project (Gordon Brown’s formula, to be precise) – free market economics as a means to create the wealth to fund social policies – has rebounded, intensifying social and environmental problems. This has highlighted the consequences of the increased dominance of the City: unacceptable levels of inequality – in education as well as in income; inflated house prices; pensions uncertainty; deepening divisions between north and south. As a result, the foundations of the new government are deeply riven.
The left in the Labour Party may be in an uncertain state (see ‘What became of the Labour left?‘) but the intellectual and political arguments coming from across the left – scrutinising privatisation, exposing inequality, proposing democratic reform – have had an effect, at least on public opinion. They make sense, connecting with people’s experience. Now the challenge for the left is to work on alternatives to the driving force behind all that it has been challenging.
Tackling the City involves at least three levels of strategy. First, there must be policies, national and international, for tax justice to halt the systematic offshore tax evasion, control other sources of the grotesque levels of private wealth, and in the process provide funds for radical social policies, including a massive programme of public housing.
Second, we need to rediscover industrial strategy, using public action at every level and building on popular desire for ethical investment and consumption to encourage and support a thriving real economy. The idea would be both to break the UK’s dependence on the City and at the same time to speed up a transition to the kind of environmentally-friendly economy we need for a good life (see ‘It’s a Pleasure’ by Kate Soper and Temperature Gauge in our Oct/Nov 2007 issue). This includes alternatives to the attempts of the rich to protect their lifestyles ecologically at the expense of the poor (see ‘Agro-fooling ourselves’ by Oscar Reyes).
Finally, we need internationally co-ordinated action to control financial flows. It was done to Al Qaeda after 9/11; it can be done to the City now.
Essential to all of these is a vision of genuine democratic control over the public institutions and resources necessary to such strategies, from local government through to the UN.
Gordon Brown just does not seem to get democracy. Take local and regional government (see Stuart Weir’s new column on democracy). On the one hand he makes regional government, where so many big economic and social decisions are taken, into an even more shadowy, unaccountable arena; and on the other hand Hazel Blears announces a toytown model of participatory budgeting (see ‘Power to Which People?’). Moreover, the government refuses even to consider reform of the way that it acts in our name in international bodies, taking decisions that frame what are now the micro decisions of the nation state without people even knowing, let alone having the chance to deliberate.
The government says its aim is to build up people’s trust in politics, and in politicians. But isn’t democracy the other way round: is it not about government trusting the people? This involves sharing power, letting go. And that means measures like more autonomy for local government and real pluralism through electoral reform, not building a big tent round the chief.
It also means democracy in people’s everyday interactions with the state. Here, government ministers talk of ‘co-production’ of services between the state and the public. But it’s an empty promise so long as state workers are treated as hired hands (see ‘Are you Listening Ed?’). High quality working conditions are a necessary condition – though not a sufficient one – a for high quality services.
Finally, genuine democratic control requires a political culture of robust debate, with no ‘no go areas’, no fear of ‘hostages to fortune’. The new-look Red Pepper and website marks a renewal of our commitment to promote such a culture. Milton’s remark on the importance of argument has always been our compass here: ‘Where there is a desire to learn, there will be much writing, much argument, many opinions; for argument is but knowledge in the making … It is this that makes for the best harmony, not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral and inwardly divided minds.’
Please let us know if we come anywhere near these ambitious goals – and suggest how we might do so! Join the discussion on our new Red Pepper forum or write to us direct: hilary [at] redpepper.org.uk or oscar [at] redpepper.org.uk