The future, viewed from 2016

Politics is always cynical, and it always involves calculations. From that point of view, democracy is arguably worse than other forms of government because electoral calculations precede government. Cynicism is not forced upon government only by the pressure of events, although that happens too.  

In last week’s cynical, satirical blog (The future, viewed from 1996), I attempted to suggest two things. First, that the underclass of the long-term unemployed, the destitute, the physically and mentally incapacitated, had been cut adrift from the rest of society. Second, that any political party could afford to ignore this underclass, as long as it dealt with it in an apparently sensitive way, because its votes were no longer needed to secure victory at a general election.

This was probably intended at the time (I can’t remember now) as a kick at New Labour, although it was equally a kick at the Tories. By the mid-1990s, the realisation had sunk in among key figures on the left (Peter Mandelson, David Owen, Tony Blair and Philip Gould in particular) that if Labour relied solely on the votes of blue collar workers, the dispossessed and the committed Left, the party would never win an outright majority again. That constituency was now too small.

So New Labour was born and set out to woo middle-class voters with a modern, sanitised, vaguely progressive, but unalarming, programme. As we now know, that resulted in three overwhelming election victories and, when the wheels finally came off, the Conservatives picked up the baton and, first in coalition and now alone, have governed in a way that is not dissimilar.

In the meantime, the underclass has become even further alienated from society. Not all of my satirical predictions have come to pass, but enough of them have to confirm the thrust of the argument.

This, of course, is what the battle now raging in the Labour Party is about. The 83% of Labour MPs who have expressed no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership do not consider themselves Blairites. Hardly any of them would admit to that. However, they are entirely Blairite in their political calculation: that, for the Labour Party to achieve anything, it has first to be elected and, in order to be elected, it needs to attract middle-class voters and not make them rush for the smelling salts.

Corbyn and his supporters reject the cynicism and reject the very idea of calculation. In one sense, this is utterly refreshing. But is it also, as Labour MPs believe, futile and self-destructive? In terms of electoral success: almost certainly. In terms of the wider political debate: not necessarily.

As many people have remarked, Corbyn’s take-over of the Labour Party, the success of Bernie Sanders in the American primaries, the even greater success of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote, all suggest a revolt against the political establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. What is driving these forces, and what are the chances of a substantial political sea change in consequence?

One thing above all has changed since 1996, and it is not that the dispossessed underclass has become significantly more numerous (at least in Britain and America) or that society has suddenly acquired a greater philanthropic interest in it. It is that many other members of society fear that they are gradually joining the underclass themselves, that they too are being cut adrift from a world of prosperity.

Britain’s GDP, while it has risen by 7% since 2008, has increased by only 0.3% on a per capita basis. In America, median annual income is, in real terms, nearly 2% lower than it was in January 2008. As perceived by most people, both economies are at best treading water, as is their personal prosperity, as are their hopes for the future.

This was not the deal. The deal was that everyone would gradually become better off, more rapidly at some times than at others, with the occasional temporary stall, but better off over time. This is what the second half of the 20th century managed to deliver. It is what the 21st century is now failing to deliver. Yet it is the deal on which a consensual democracy is based.

Anyone who doubts the immense power of this factor, and what it portends, should watch Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All (available on Netflix). A former professor at Harvard, Reich served in several American administrations and was Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. After watching the film, no further explanation for the success of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or the Brexit ‘Vote Leave’ campaign should be required.

I am not an economist (‘and,’ as Willie Whitelaw once observed, ‘I thank the good Lord for that’), so it is beyond me to explain why prosperity has stalled and what should be done about it. The obvious explanation is globalisation, but that covers a multitude of sins, some real and some imagined. And it may go wider and deeper than that. (Perhaps too little work has been done on the effect of the explosion of personal credit since the early 1970s.)

What seems certain is that globalisation will get the blame. There is understandable resentment at the extortionate earnings of financiers, senior company executives, lawyers and others, despite the probable fact that – were their salaries to be divvied up amongst the rest of us – we would each be only a few quid better off. And there will be growing calls for protectionism (there already are), despite the fact that all historical evidence suggests that free trade is the greatest guarantor of prosperity and that protectionism diminishes it.

We will, in short, be approaching that most dangerous of situations in a democracy, where populist clamour results in real problems being met with the wrong solutions.

Whatever one’s politics, one can make a strong case for saying that it was the tension and conflict between two competing ideologies (the free market and socialism) that made possible most of the gains of the last century. And that it has been the collapse of socialism, and hence a lack of tension and conflict in the system, that has produced the lethargy by which we have sleep-walked into our present becalming.

By 1996, the underclass had been cut adrift from the rest. Now, in 2016, the middle class has been cut adrift from the elite. This is not a situation that democracies will be able to withstand for much longer without fundamental change.