The evidence is there for the social-democratic case. It is time we put it forward properly.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that right here, right now, British politics is in a mess. Moats, duckhouses and now a bell-tower … It seems the political class are living on a different planet from the rest of us. Those of us who define ourselves as political activists with a deep commitment to the democratic process ought to be first in line to defend the authenticity of public debate in this country, but this is easier said than done. Whilst the latest revelations in the expenses scandal make our elected representatives look ever more ridiculous, and are part of the general malaise, the roots of the crisis are more deeply-seated than this.
Our politics has become tribal, dominated by parties who are in turn dominated by leaders who are principally interested in portraying an image of party unity in the media. The top-down chain of command brings to mind the old Spitting Image gag with Mrs Thatcher ordering dinner with her cabinet. After commanding her meaty first course the waiter asks ‘and the vegetables?’. She replies: ‘they’ll have the same as me’.
Things really should have moved on in the twenty years since then. We need to understand that debate, discussion and free argument produce better government than the present stifling climate of collective responsibility. Yet deliberation is frequently seen as tantamount to dithering – witness the way President Obama was criticised for holding a series of meetings over a few months to decide whether or not America should send more troops to Afghanistan. Surely a commander in chief giving proper thought to a decision of this magnitude is a good thing.
Furthermore, despite some advances over the last twelve years, the House of Commons is still the creature of the executive. A key function of the MP is to scrutinise the legislation and actions of government, yet this seems to have been crowded out in recent years by MPs’ public representations of constituents’ personal cases, media appearances, and filling in the expense claim forms. We are still far from where we should be on the question of the Commons holding the government to account.
Improvements in decision-making and greater scrutiny are certainly necessary conditions, but they will not on their own deliver a revitalised social democracy. Evidence-based policy was an early Blair mantr,a but that is now all but forgotten. It is regrettable that the left have been so timid in making the case for decisive action on climate change, though it is overwhelmingly supported by experts in the scientific community. Climate change deniers are on a par with those who insist that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, yet they have had frightening amounts of airtime of late. Similarly, in support of our defining principle of equality there is substantial and robust evidence that more equal societies have large social policy benefits. Denmark has the highest taxed people in the world, but has recently come out in an international comparison as being home of the happiest people.
Social democrats should take heart. The challenges that we face in rebuilding trust in the strength of our solutions is great, but our answers are right. We can theorise all we like, but away from the seminar rooms and blogosphere it is the realpolitik of ballots cast at the next election which will decide the direction that this country goes in. Having said this, there should not be a complete disconnect between these two domains. After the financial crisis that saw the economy collapse after years of untrammelled growth based on an asset bubble that was ultimately a mirage, a sobering dose of realism is now necessary. We need to start with the relationship between those seeking election and those who elect them. Then we need to toil remorselessly against the siren voices on the right who over the last thirty years have brought the world economy low.
Debates should move on: Powellite rhetoric on immigration misses the point that managing multiculturalism in the twenty-first century is the situation we need to deal with now. Markets need to serve people, not demand bailouts; poverty is an evil not an incentive; and more equal societies that are environmentally sustainable benefit all of their citizens, not just the few. Our arguments are right. We need to present the evidence authentically, truthfully and repeatedly until we prevail. Thirteen years ago – plagiarising the Euro 96 football anthem – Tony Blair memorably declared to the autumn party conference that ‘Labour’s Coming Home’. The time has come for politics now to come home.