The election of ideology

In a surprisingly mute opening week of campaigning, ideological differences are being teased out between the two main parties — and their alternatives. With the polls too close to call, the first explicitly ideological election in a generation is still all to play for

With the dissolving of Parliament on Monday last week, the 2015 General Election began in earnest. But with neither major party making any gains in the polls at all, what did we learn from the first week of campaigning?

Letters loved and lost

With an economy returning to growth and an inexplicable inability for Labour to make the case that banks and not social security “mess” was to blame for the financial crisis, it was hardly surprising that the Conservatives focused on the economy. Somehow the Tories retain their veneer of economic credibility, and they pushed it hard in the first seven days of campaigning.

Conservatives courting new demographics

Cameron set the agenda early by focusing on job creation figures and growth of GDP, castigating the “chaos” of a future Miliband government and painting his own party as the harbingers of trickle-down prosperity. Indeed, The Conservatives delivered the defining swipe of the first week, publishing a supporting statement from 103 “captains of industry” — business leaders largely drawn from the party’s own donors and honours lists — claiming that Labour would “put the recovery at risk”, thus setting the terms of the debate.

Labour were surely expecting such tactics, but nonetheless their own campaign launch was completely overshadowed, with their “Business Manifesto” of Monday receiving scant coverage. Labour’s response of a supporting letter signed by over 100 working people was canny, in that it rightly characterised the business leaders’ as self-interested beneficiaries of an undermined and insecure labour market.

As the week progressed Labour seemed to find its voice, moving conversations beyond wealth creation and the benevolence of elite business, and onto the quality and quantity of paid employment. It’s interesting to see Labour take these issues head on rather than avoid them. On the one hand, being reactive and defensive cedes momentum and the framing of the argument to your opponent. Yet on the other hand, Labour will never win a majority without taking to task the idea that’s what is good for a tiny minority of corporate empire moguls is usually not what is good for the rest of us.

It’s the economy, stupid!
Look at all those employment positions made by the wealth creators!

Growth is up and unemployment is down. David Cameron is entitled to reference such blunt indicators, but the majority of new employment has been seen in self-employment, where 80% of workers live in poverty. Income tax receipts are also down, suggesting that while there may be more people in (self)employment, they’re not even earning enough to pay tax. Some recovery that is.

But what of growth? The UK has been one of the fastest growing G7 countries, again a fact lauded by the Conservatives. But what type of growth are we experiencing? Is it really good for families and businesses?

Quite the opposite in fact. Analysis from Positive Money research Frank van Lerven shows that in fact it is foreign investors looting the gains of the UK recovery, whilst British workers continue to languish on falling levels of pay.

Looking at GDP per head — that is, the gains people have made personally from rises in economic activity — we can see that people were 2.2% better off in 2014 than in 2013 (though still 1.2% below pre-crisis levels). However, not all income generated in Britain will be payable to British residents, because the capital used to produce these gains often comes from foreign hands. Accounting for this difference by using the Net National Disposable Income metric shows that in fact British gains on economic activity have remained basically flat since Q1 2012, and remain 5.1% below pre-crisis levels.

Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?

In other words, it is foreign speculators, asset hoarders and investors that have reaped the rewards of recovery for the last 3 years, not the British people. With median levels of pay also being at their lowest level since 2002/3, it’s clear that this recovery in jobs and growth is benefitting an internationalised class of investor capitalists at the expense of working people in the UK.

Who’s recovery?

This throws up two important points. The first is that UKIP may have a point after all — our labour actually is being undermined by foreigners. But it is not powerless European migrant labourers who should be blamed, who actually bring a net £20 billion into the British economy. Instead, it is powerful international capitalists that are exploiting the government’s enthusiasm for asset stripping and privatisation, and who are leeching off our falling wages and insecure zero-hours labour market.

The left could do a lot worse than recognising this issue and taking it on. Because while UKIP may have identified a genuine problem, their vilification of the free movement of people is the wrong solution. It is the free movement of capital that is undermining the lives, jobs and securities of working British people, a point that only Bennett of the Green Party seemed willing to make during Thursday’s leaders debate.

The second point about who benefits from these types of increases in employment and growth figures is broader though, because it strikes deeply into the heart of what kind of a society do we want to live in.

The Conservatives claim that increases in GDP and employment show that their plan is working, but working for whom? Cameron and his cabinet clearly believe that the key to widespread prosperity lies in liberalising market forces from the top, so that wealth will trickle down. But trickle-down economics has been categorically proven not to work, producing gross inequality and acting as a means of wealth extraction rather than wealth redistribution.

Spreading the wealth the only way he knows how

Ultimately, the Conservatives “long-term economic plan” is to continue this process, carving up the British state and selling it to the highest bidder for the benefit of “captains of industry”. And with polling consistently showing the two major parties tied neck and neck, it is becoming increasingly incumbent on Labour to show in what way they are offering anything different.

Ideology in the eye of the beholder

All the better. After two decades of accusations that there is no difference between the them and the Tories, Miliband’s Labour is finally emerging from the shadow of Blair. Indeed, Miliband’s three key messages from his Paxman interview were reducing inequality, increasing high quality jobs and pay, and moving away from New Labour. Further commitments to strengthening workers rights and the security of labour show that Labour really are moving back to their roots of protecting the interests of workers and in redistributing wealth — a key, explicitly ideological differentiator from the Tories over what sort of a society we want to live in.

Labour have been woeful at setting the political agenda so far, but only because they have spent so much time and energy fighting this ideological battle from within. Miliband has been dragging Labour to the left for the last five years, fighting New Labour’s Blairite remains and re-orienting the party’s priorities at the expense of proactive campaigning in the public sphere. As described to me by a Labour activist and TSSA employee, “Miliband himself is a social democrat, and a huge departure from the past. This new intake of MPs in winnable and marginal seats, are massively more left wing than in years and years, and that hasn’t happened by chance — but through sheer bloody hard work from some of us in the movement.”

Whilst failing to set the agenda in the public sphere, Labour have interestingly pursued a successful social media strategy that owes much to their expensively acquired American strategist Matthew McGregor. Whether this approach reaps the same benefits as it did for Obama’s re-election campaign remains to be seen.

A two horse race?

Miliband and Cameron alike are right in arguing that no matter the result of the election, one of them will be Prime Minister this May. So does this make the role of the smaller parties obsolete?

Quite the opposite. With the election too close to call, any number of smaller parties may hold the balance of power in constituting functioning government. Indeed, it’s arguable that Miliband and Labour’s move to the left is at least in part in response to the growth of progressive voices even further to Labour’s left, predominantly in the rise of support for the Green Party and the SNP. It follows then that continued support for such parties will deepen and advance this process.

I advocate that at this election you should vote for whatever party most adheres to your values, rather than voting tactically in an attempt to elect the least-bad Prime Minister. If Labour’s move to the left has convinced you that they are a political vehicle able and willing to enact positive, progressive social change, then they should win your vote.

On the other hand, voting for parties that are even more progressive than Labour not only strengthens the showing of demand for more left wing politics in Britain, but also strengthens those parties’ positions in the seemingly inevitable coalition negotiations.

To fight from within or fight from without? That is the question.

As identified by Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London, whenever social change has been achieved the Labour party has been in support of that change. Whether or not it is sufficient, it has always necessary to get Labour on side for social change to be enacted in this country.

Clearly Miliband is making the argument for progressive values from within the party, but making that argument from without is also a valid and necessary strategy. And in this election, it is the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru who are making that argument — and in doing so are having some success in pulling Labour to the left.

No one has been making that case more successfully than the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who was roundly praised for her performance at the leaders’ debate, and who has demonstrated to the Green Party the benefits of having a media-savvy leader who is confident and adept at public speaking.

Sturgeon set out a clear alternative vision, not just for Scotland but for Britain too, in which failed austerity is brought to an end, and the interests of people, planet and society are placed before the interests of profit and predatory capital. That the anti-austerity bloc has put up such a united front is extremely encouraging, with failed smears merely going to show how threatened the establishment feels at this dismantling of consensus.

All to play for

In every election campaign there is a defining moment that changes the direction and shape of the result. We did not witness such a moment in the election’s opening week. But what we have witnessed is a sharpening in what differentiates the political parties of Britain, with the consensus around austerity finally beginning to crumble.

Fundamentally, we have seen the re-introduction of ideology into British politics at this election. And for those most emasculated by an ideological consensus that prioritised the interests of barons and big businesses over workers and their wages, that can only be a good thing.

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