Business Comment: Terry Murden
Election 2015: Power to the people
The contest itself was inconclusive and the post-match analysis suggested that there is still all to play for.
Each of the participants in Thursday’s televised debate claimed victory, but the truth is that no General Election has been so difficult to call.
It’s not that the parties are lacking in ideas or fire in their bellies. They have simply found themselves both the cause and effect of the fragmentation of British politics which itself will reshape the nation.
The see-saw two-party domination of the 20th century has ended and we are now in a new era driven by citizen empowerment that has rejected the old hierarchies and ruling elites. It is a truer form of democracy built on a belief that local and self-control is not only desirable but possible.
In the run up to most elections it is usually clear from some time out who is likely to lose, and why.
It may have been a suicidal set of anti-enterprise policies (Michael Foot in the 1980s), or a tired administration that was in government, but not in power (John Major in 1997). Traditionally, of course, the parties were divided along left-right principles, broadly defined as the working classes and the ruling classes, and in the good times it was the right that tended to win, while the left was more successful in times of economic downturn.
It would be naive to suggest there are no longer divisions between the haves and have-nots , but the emergence of a bigger middle class means more of us share similar lifestyles, standards of living and aspirations. Divisions are now built around other factors: geography, human rights, the environment.
The breakdown of the old divisions has been emerging for thirty years or so. The Social Democratic Party, formed by an alliance of right wing Labour MPs and left leaning Liberals, came too early for it to build any traction, and for one main reason: it pre-dated the collapse of trade union power. Margaret Thatcher fired the gunshot that killed it after securing victory of the coal miners in 1985, but it was her unlikely acolyte Tony Blair whose New Labour severed the link with the hard left by banishing the outdated Clause Four aligning Labour to communist-style state control.
Blairism ushered in a fresh consensus in politics. It unashamedly stole ideas from Thatcher’s Tories because the left had lost the ideological battle and without doing so Labour would have remained out of power for another 20 years. Blair’s three-term victory was secured by convincing the party’s hard core supporters (some would say disingenuously) that New Labour did not mean they had been entirely abandoned.
Since then the old political debates between the state and capitalism (issues such as privatisation have slipped down the agenda) have given way to the pursuit of democratic ideals. Hence, the much prevalent arguments over the constitution, local power and individual rights.
They have even usurped the old campaign winner – the economy. No longer does it overwhelmingly determine who will win an election. Despite the food banks and the squeeze generally felt by the population, the cost of living is not the issue it was when Harold Wilson was famously securing victories with his slogan “the pound in your pocket”.
The battles with big business have moved from industrial relations issues over pay and working conditions to consumer rights, the environment and corporate social responsibility. ‘Us and Them’ has given way to a more collaborative working environment. Modern workplaces tend to be smaller and, in many cases, the domain of employee-owned or micro businesses. A survey earlier this year revealed that half of businesses in Scotland are now run from the home: the ultimate cottage industry.
This has empowered tens of thousands of individuals who no longer answer to the “boss” or the “union rep”. More and more people are only anxious to please their “clients”. It marks a shift in the economic plates that coincides with the growth of consumerism and, in more recent years, power through technology, in particular, the rise of smartphones and other devices that have literally put power in the hands of the individual.
Is all of this a final realisation of Conservative-style individualism? Or does it, in a strange sort of way, create a form of socialism – by giving workers control over the means of production in a way that Karl Marx could only have dreamed about?
For the political parties the changes in the relationship between worker and workplace pose huge questions about how they devise policy and how they draw distinctions between themselves and their rivals. The extension of choice through the rise of social media networks, the rapid growth of self-employment and co-ownership, has given all of us greater control over everything from pension pots to how we shop.
In this new environment, politicians need to realise they are broadly arguing for the same thing and ask how they make themselves relevant. Even the constitutional debate does not divide them as much as some would have us believe. Devo Max or Indy Lite, it’s much the same. There was never going to be full independence even if the SNP had won September’s referendum by a landslide.
In simple terms, it would have been too expensive to set up all the levers of state, military, and so on, and even the hardline nationalists know that. Independence is also a process, and one that even if it was achieved would always involve some form of dependency, whether it is on Nato, the EU, the International Monetary Fund or the World Health Authority. There is always somebody ready to tell us what to do.
It is a rare politician who takes society on a different course, and history tells us that it can lead to devastating consequences. Of those with benign ambitions, and who made it to Number Ten, only Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher (whose transformative work was completed by Blair) were true 20th century revolutionaries who changed Britain. Interestingly, they were political polar opposites, one ushering in widespread state control, the other rolling it back.
So what should we make of the current crop of political leaders?
It is because Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are barely distinguishable in policy terms that voters turn off. It is also why they are attracted to more extremist views, to UKIP and even the BNP. Blandness creates an ideological vacuum and there are plenty of opportunists willing to fill it.
Irrespective of the merits of the SNP and independence, Nicola Sturgeon has shown she has the capability to at least make her mark. She embodies some of Lady Thatcher’s resilience and passion, a sort of ‘Irn Lady’, and has adopted a vision of sorts which she has defined as a ‘fairness and equality’ agenda. It borrows from the left but is not so much socialist as ‘communalist’ and meritocratic. It seeks to ensure everyone, whatever their background and circumstances, gets a chance to succeed, and that communities, as well as individuals, share the benefits of wealth creation, good health and education.
It is a powerful and compelling argument against, it has to be said, the somewhat knee-jerk support for nurses and anti-fracking protestors presented by Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy. He has had little time to lift Labour’s flagging support, but this sort of populism smacks of cynical desperation rather than any properly thought out plan.
However, the more likely reason why Ms Sturgeon may leave a lasting legacy is because serendipity has contrived to hand her an opportunity to play a part in who runs Westminster. Her stars are uniquely aligned so that on 8 May she may find herself driving one country, while having a hand on the wheel of the other.
Of course, this is more about power than vision. This is not a criticism of Ms Sturgeon’s personal manifesto. On the contrary, it is a recognition of the control she wields because her status, and therefore her policies, is underpinned by the changes in society outlined above ie. growing enthusiasm among the electorate for democratic freedoms and choices for all.
This is not being achieved by throwing off our economic chains, as Marx suggested, but by loosening the political grip of distant and unsympathetic rulers. In such a climate, even such enormous policy issues such as fiscal autonomy and the price of oil become secondary to the ideal of creating a more ‘inclusive society’.
As such, it gives her an important point of distinction and is why Ms Sturgeon has her opponents on the ropes.
This is an update of a commentary that was first published on 15 February 2015.