It’s not a new election we need but a new and deeper democracy.

Simon Reid-Henry

Wednesday, 06 November 2019

The article was originally published on Simon Reid-Henry’s personal website.

As another Winter of Discontent looms, progressives must look to build a more hopeful political spring. That’s why I’ve joined the Up to Us campaign as one of its founding supporters. You can read more about the campaign, which features in today’s Guardian, here. For what it’s about, and why it’s important, read on… 

It is (just over) four decades since the so-called “winter of discontent” brought about a sea change in British politics. During the long, cold winter of 1978/79, bin collectors, lorry drivers and gravediggers went on strike, Keynesianism and the British government alike collapsed, and a new era of neoliberalism was ushered in on the back of the first of four Tory elections.

As the cold bites once again, the winter of 2019 looks set to be another watershed moment for this country. And for not dissimilar reasons. The same sense of exhaustion governs the public mood. Politicians seem as distant now as they did back in 1979. Trust in government is at its lowest possible ebb, and the country has once again stumbled into an election designed not to canvas the public’s opinion but to do for Parliament the job it was already elected to do.

True, there are fewer strikes this time around. But only because unionisation rates in Britain have fallen so low. The high unemployment that marked the late 1970s and early-mid 1980s has today been replaced by poorly remunerated ‘flexible’ labour and work providing unpaid care for others; runaway inflation has ceded to a persistently low inflationary regime and a slack economy that drags along in its wake. 

In 2019 it isn’t the rubbish that is going uncollected or the dead unburied, as in 1979. This time it’s an epidemic of rough sleepers on the streets and more than 300,000 Brits (that’s 1 in every 200 of us) living homeless. It is life expectancy that is falling for the first time in decades (just as the pension age needs raising). It is schools being forced to adopt a four and half day week.  It is the collapse of the once impregnable NHS (with half a million patients recently forced to ‘swap’ GPs as a result of mass closures); it is a funding crisis in local government.

It is several thousand civil servants seconded to deal with the “will we, won’t we” of Brexit while basic government duties go undone. It is surging inequality right across the land. Today, we can be grateful, there is no oil spike and no energy crisis to speak of, as there was in 1979. Instead we have a more serious, long-term crisis of our entire carbon economy. If anything, the problems we face today are larger in other words. And yet political rhetoric slumps rather than soars. “I can’t think of a nicer Christmas present, basically” muses John McDonnell – as if to himself – of the prospects of Labour winning the first winter election in a century. So much for firing up the base.

In 1979 it was the unions that were blamed for all the chaos. Today, after years spent abdicating their duty to govern, many of these problems can be lain at the door of the major political parties themselves. 

The Tory government takes first honours here. It has neglected responsible leadership in favour of infighting and beery-breathed debate (this to the extent that its male MPs feel they may pinion female protestors by the neck, or recline, like rakish lions, upon the parliamentary leather). Meanwhile, female MPs – like former Conservative Heidi Allen – are forced to resign their positions amidst a darkened political debate, subject to credible threats of violence from a public emboldened by a reckless political class. 

As the country careens, via this election, towards an ever more probable Brexit, our troubles show no sign of abating. Each week Brexit drains £600 million from the Treasury while public services, and the wages of those who provide them, are slashed to compensate. The British public sector is stretched to the point of collapse this winter, as local services are swallowed by an £8 billion funding gap; the cost of living keeps on rising, mostly for the poor; confidence in the future drains away.

Resentment about this is rife, as it is about the many other injustices of life in Britain today. One in five women report having experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Yet rape crisis centres themselves confront a crisis of funding. Hate crimes are on the increase. Yet the government has no domestic agenda to speak of that addresses any of this. In place of serious policy our leaders trade in stereotypes and majoritarian abuse. Even the Prime Minister has openly compared women wearing the Burka to letter boxes.

But so too has Jeremy Corbyn failed to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party. And for all Labour’s rhetoric of “transformation” it has not done enough yet to challenge the government on the crisis in social care that our (ageing) society faces. It has not done enough to address the housing crisis that our (underpaid) youth confront. None of the major parties are engaging with the real challenges of the moment, in fact, because none of them is able to lift their gaze beyond the electoral arithmetic of the unstoppable Brexian farce. The Lib Dems, it is true, offer clarity on Brexit and a soup kitchen for career politicians who have lost their own party’s whip. But that is all they seem to offer.

Brexit is the most serious issue we have faced as a nation for years, yet from the Tiggers to the “meaningful votes” it has mostly been treated in parliament as a parlour game. Yes, we do all want to be done with it. But not on the terms of a last-minute election called by a government more concerned with the views of an internal party cabal, the European Research Group, than it is with the views of citizens up and down the country. 

One Nation indeed.

Across the board Parliament has repeatedly fiddled while the country’s commons have been ripped up and prepared for new enclosure. It has allowed the institutions of democracy to decay. Already this spring the constitution was coming under strain as the government failed for the umpteenth time to find a way for us to leave the European Union. In the autumn a near constitutional crisis was precipitated when the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament itself in his wild attempt to ‘get Brexit done’. 

Meanwhile devolved government has been suspended in Northern Ireland for more than two years and the Good Friday agreement is in jeopardy; Wales is in limbo because Westminster is in gridlock; and the likelihood of a Scottish secession from the Union grows stronger with every week. It is “not inconceivable” says Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, that her party could form a government in this election. That may be true enough. But no less likely, I would suggest, is that by the time this winter is over there may be no ‘greater’ Britain to speak of anymore.

This is the national landscape we inhabit as we embark upon this, our second,Winter of Discontent. Looking upon the British scene today Mr and Mrs Andrews would likely not be amused. Frankly neither are we. In 1979 Labour’s James Callaghan sealed both his own and the country’s fate when he returned to the cold of Britain from a meeting in sunny Guadeloupe and declared ‘No chaos here!’ Within months Labour was out, Thatcher was in, and it was 18 years in the wilderness for progressives in this country. 

The nation is too divided upon itself this time around to hope that a snap election will enable a similar changing of the guard. But we might yet use this election to send all the politicians a message. It is not just new leaders we require at this point, it is a new and better democracy. And there are plenty of proposals around as to how we might go about building it. 

One of the most effective places we could start is with a new national campaign for a Citizens Convention giving real people the chance to make sure the matters they think important are listened to. This is the hope – and the concrete aspiration – of the Up To Us campaign, which seeks to make such a convention a reality.

Up to Us launches today as an effort to inject a little hope into British political discourse. As the campaign makes clear, there are ways of enhancing the people’s voice without turning to populism. Isn’t it time we started using them. If we want to turn yet another winter of discontent into a more hopeful political spring, then we need to think beyond this winter election to the much bigger question of how we bring our democracy fully into the twenty-first century.  

So head on over to the campaign site and join me in making this once-in-a-generation opportunity really happen.

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