In plunging our democracy into turmoil, de-aligning political parties, polarising divisions in our society and creating a constitutional crisis of popular sovereignty versus parliamentary sovereignty, Brexit has been a crippling distraction for the past three years. Ultimately, Brexit has stopped us from dealing with the root causes of Brexit.
To make things more complex, this impasse is being resolved through a general election which is unlikely to confirm the ‘will of the people’. Unfortunately, viewing this political impasse solely through the prism of Brexit is a mistake. To me, it was not surprising that a ‘take back control’ narrative was such a powerful message for disenfranchised communities across the country. With the wings of this generation being clipped by locking people out of employment, an inability to get on the housing ladder, an underfunded education system, a mental health crisis with young people, the accumulation of debt and loss of agency for working people, cuts to a strained NHS and an economy rigged in favour of the financial elite, it’s no surprise that people’s anger with poor wages and low living standards drove them to ‘take back control’. However, the wrong people are being blamed. It’s not immigrants or people struggling on benefits that have caused this economic disparity and inequality, which is what this nationalist movement wants you to believe. Rather, the austerity policy of cuts to public services is to blame, and underpinning austerity is a neoliberal economic model that has exposed a perverted underbelly of our capitalist society.
Sorting out our relationship with the EU will be important in terms of access to the European markets, but I believe there is a much greater issue at hand with the neoliberal model of politics that has been running our country for decades. This has brought us to yet another crisis point in capitalism where there is inertia in investment, leading to low productivity and wage stagnation. This only highlights the income, wealth and regional inequality across the UK.
If we look through history, this is not something new. Gramsci highlights the periodic collapse of the economic model where there is a point of crisis between the death of the old and the birth of the new. Inevitably, we are yet again at a crossroads before the birth of something new. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 led to two decades of ongoing crisis and a devastating crescendo into World War Two. After this, the welfare state and trade unions formed a new social democracy form of capitalism where productivity was high, unemployment was low and worker conditions and wages improved. This model broke down again in the 1970s which gave rise to neoliberalism, an economic model that promotes a free market economy based on competition, a smaller state, deregulation and lower taxes in order to release the powers of the free market from its cage, the state.
Therefore, Thatcher introduced a property driven market, lowered taxes and limited trade union power. After deregulating the banks and removing restrictions on capital mobility, people were able to freely move their money all around the world in an interconnected free market global economy. This new model took power away from people who live off work, and towards people who live off capital. In other words, shifting power from workers towards owners.
I have two fundamental issues with this transfer of power. Firstly, this creates the capacity for large transnational corporations to monopolise industries. This completely contradicts the purist forms of Friedman libertarian capitalism where competition drives the best products and services for the customer. The paradoxical nature of monopolies driven by capitalism undermines the very premise of competition and creates new unaccountable power in the form of corporations and individuals that wield the economy in favour of those that own most of the wealth. They are problematic to regulate considering these corporations operate in many different countries and economic spaces. In this regard, Labour’s programme to re-nationalise essential industries should not be feared because state ownership provides accountability to the people, not to the profit driven monopolies that exploit us. This also highlights the vital need to protect the NHS at all costs from the threat of privatisation and profiteering off our medical services.
My second issue with this finance led growth form of capitalism is that it devalues the most important jobs in society (doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants, police and fire services, armed forces) and rewards jobs based on contribution to the market economy, not the social value it offers society. As Tony Benn rightly comments, we live in a society that knows the price of everything but the true value of nothing. This is also underpinned by the hypocritical justification of neoliberalism with the rhetoric of ‘meritocracy’. That you get what you deserve or work for. In this way, if you are in poverty then it is your own responsibility because you haven’t worked hard enough. However, that is like telling someone to tie up their shoelaces without giving them a shoe. I find this problematic when you have some hard-working people living in poverty whilst those already possessing wealth are being rewarded for the simple fact of possessing capital already, especially when this wealth is often inherited. Therefore, it is clear this economic model protects the accumulation of capital but does not properly reward talent and hard work, thus preventing social mobility.
This election must be about more than Brexit. We must radically tackle these inequalities and provide the foundation for everyone to become all they are capable of becoming. To use a former Labour Prime Minister’s slogan 'education, education, education' must be a key priority. Education has been slashed by £7 billion since 2011 which puts schools in a position of having to fight against a lack of textbooks, lack of facilities, lack of teaching assistants and teachers having to think outside the box to give young people a good education. As a teacher, I see inspirational young people every day, but the government are failing by not providing our young people with the resources to fulfil their potential, which usually means those students who need specialist support don’t receive it.
When I was a student at an ‘outstanding’ state comprehensive school we debated against Eton, played rugby against Wellington, played football against Bradfield College and our grades outperformed private schools in the area. With countless leadership programmes and entrepreneurial workshops available, this demonstrates what can be achieved when state schools have the funding support they need. Ultimately, if you truly believe in a meritocracy, then equality in the access to outstanding education must be paramount.
Politics is about choices. You can spend your money on corporate welfare by giving tax breaks to the billionaire class in the false hope that their wealth will trickle down. Alternatively, you can invest into a progressive education system and a properly funded national health service that provides the foundation for a creative and entrepreneurial economy with flourishing small businesses and people able to pursue the careers they want on a living wage. In turn this will put more money in the pockets of ordinary people and raise living standards. Democratic socialism is not about the government restricting people’s liberty, but rather socialism prevents wealth being taken by a few people at the top of the financial stratification.
In this way, there is clearly a need for the restoration of the welfare state that supports people to access the economy, education, public services and healthcare. However, the debate over the size of the state is a false dichotomy. Even through neoliberalism proposes a smaller state, the contradiction is that the governments within neoliberal systems do have a role to impose markets in places where they previously did not exist. For example, the introduction of the academy system in education, tuition fees for university and the privatisation of the charity sector under a 'third way' approach are examples of the government imposing new economic markets in previously publicly owned economic spaces. Therefore, the debate should not necessarily be about the size of the state but rather the role of the state.
In renewing our economic model, I would go one step further by suggesting the ‘Preston model’ could provide the UK with a new economic framework. Their ‘community wealth building’ project emphasises the role local authorities can play in creating stable regional ecosystems by essentially allocating more of their spend budgets to local suppliers and producers, recruiting from the workforce on their doorsteps and nurturing local businesses and community organisations. The council gave a £600,000 printing contract to a company in Preston and a £1.6 million council food budget was awarded to multiple farmers in the region. This cooperative economy could be the way forward in preventing large corporations from monopolising industries, allowing local authorities to have greater control over working conditions and offering a living wage because they are accountable to the people. This will also create a multitude of community jobs that will help with deprivation in communities across the country. This should be the role of a government in a regulated, accountable economy that recognises the social value of jobs, not just of profit.
So as I come to finish this article, yes, we are at a point of crisis, but what comes next is up to us. In a vision of collectivism, I believe there is a far nobler prospect of freedom to be won than that which neoliberalism preaches, but only if we seek it here and now. We must return to the belief that the subjugation of one, in whatever form, is in fact indicative of the oppression of all. The current political and social landscape is politically engineered by will, which means the way things are, are not the way things have to be. We can renew our commitment to the practices of mutual aid, fellowship and reconvene our democracy in empowering people to become all they are capable of becoming. It is not about the outdated slogans and dogmas of a present that is already dying, nor is it about the illusion of security. As a generation, we should embrace both the excitement and danger that comes with even the most peaceful progress. It is now time for us to shape the society we want to live in, because we did not come here to fear the future, we came here to change it.
James is a Teacher of Politics and History in West Berkshire and also sits on a national Youth Advisory Panel for Spirit of 2012. He is an active Labour activist as Vice Chair of Newbury Labour Party. In addition to achieving a first class honours degree from the University of Bath in BA Sport and Social Sciences, James has also had experience working for London 2012, Join In UK and as a trainee reporter with BBC Sport and BBC Berkshire.