The Fault Line in the Broad Church

The title of this piece is somewhat of a mixed metaphor, but it does convey an immediate message which is that if you build spanning a geological fault then, no matter how imposing and useful the building, it is almost certain to collapse.

The term “broad church” is often used about the Labour Party, and other parties, to indicate that they draw support from a range of political opinions. The implication from the “broad” part is that the two extremes may be some considerable distance apart. Although this is usually represented as a virtue, it is, as is so often the case, a necessity. The vagaries of the First Past the Post voting system make it desirable, even necessary, to make parties as large as possible to ensure they reach the magic total which gives everything, leaving losers with nothing.

There is a clear implication that the broad range of opinion is in fact a continuous line. Many beliefs are shared and on those where opinions differ every possible compromise position between the two extremes are tenable and probably held by someone. In the Labour Party, and in many other similar organisations no doubt, this is not the case. Hidden under what looks like a solid continuous structure there is a discontinuity, an unbridgeable gap where no compromise is possible, which marks an irrevocable difference irrespective of how many points of agreement there may be. This fundamental disagreement concerns the nature of society; the relationship between individuals, the businesses that provide employment and objects for consumption, and the government.

On one side there is what is commonly referred to as the neoliberal consensus. This is a form of laissez faire capitalism which regards every sphere of human activity as a form of market; competition is healthy and always benefits consumer as well as producer. The role of government is to protect markets, promote competition and create new markets from any remaining public services. There can still be a considerable left-right split within this overall belief system; one obvious place being the nature and extent of a safety net for disadvantaged citizens and another being the extent of regulation on enterprises to avoid practices which blatantly and extremely over compensate some, typically those with wealth and power, at the expense of others. A Labour politician may therefore openly espouse policies such as tackling poverty, additional funding for the NHS and even rail renationalisation without compromising their basic belief in the system as it stands. This system is not simply a political position, it pervades society. The education system is designed around the need to provide “skills” to keep the businesses competing. The marginal utility theory of economics which underpins the system is the de facto standard taught to all budding economists, so every activity has to be measured in terms of its profit. The task of the media is less to inform and educate, more to promote the competing views of the businesses running them and, of course, to make a profit. Hence the “race to the bottom” to provide more and more hedonistic entertainment to entrap audiences and provide targets for the ever more sophisticated propaganda machine that is the advertising industry.

This type of society needs, and will create if necessary, a ruling elite, a close association between politicians, civil servants, business owners, bankers and media moguls. This necessity arises because the big benefit or failing of such a system, depending on your point of view, is that it is extremely effective at redistributing wealth from poor to rich, and from rich to very rich and from very rich to super rich. As a corollary it also concentrates wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. A recent Oxfam report shows that 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population. The top 1% own more than rest of us combined. A 2011 Forbes report shows how all the world’s businesses are controlled by just 147 companies, and that those can even be whittled down to just 4. Labour or other supposedly left-wing politicians who are not concerned with making fundamental, revolutionary changes to such a system have to be regarded as complicit in these consequences. The Blair Government may have made many laudable attempts to alleviate poverty and to fund education and the NHS, but they courted favours from the bankers and businesses, they collaborated with the media barons and they did nothing to change the underlying system. Keir Hardie proclaimed that socialists ‘made war on a system not a class’, so in that sense by maintaining the system they repudiated the essential nature of the party they represented. Many Labour politicians are doing the same thing now. They are taking support from businesses, banks and the media to fund their campaigns. Their policies may claim to be “left-wing” in many respects but they stay firmly on their side of the great divide. Their justification for doing this is because they see it as the easiest route to power. Unless they have power, they say, they can achieve nothing. Yet, as the experience of the last few years has shown so clearly, those relatively minor adjustments in funding services and provision for the disadvantaged can be swiftly swept away leaving us almost as though they never happened. In truth they do not want an end to rule by an elite, they want to become members of the elite themselves.

Those on other side of the divide see things differently. They look to new economic theories, ones that can more readily cope with the different business models needed as trade moves online. They see the vast and ever increasing gap between the few super rich at the top and the rest of us, let alone the poorest, as more than just something to tut about. They realise that a few more regulations and easily avoidable taxes are pointless. They realise that new accounting models are needed so that the true costs of products and services, including damage to the environment and just and fair provision for the workforce are taken into account. Despite the protestations of their opponents this is not a business unfriendly attitude; businesses and profit are the lifeblood of any system. This is a free market approach; businesses must be free to innovate and compete. It is the current system which encourages manipulation of the market to gain unfair advantage and which excludes important factors such as poverty and climate change that is not free. Competition is good, in the right place. This side sees some areas, particularly public services, as quite simply unsuitable for market competition. Private railways is a classic example. There is no railway system in the world that can provide a service without public subsidy; for most people there is no choice of which brand of train to catch; it is a completely artificial market designed purely to satisfy a dogmatic insistence on making everything into a market and an opportunity for profit. Education should be for the benefit of each individual, and by enabling them to fulfil their potential, society as a whole. It should not simply about training, providing skills for what is currently seen as the required needs of businesses. It must also be the route out of poverty and away from those environments that crush the human spirit and perpetuate poverty of spirit, as well as money, through the generations. Health and social care should not just be whatever can be afforded after all the incentives for industry have been given. It must truly aim to provide a decent quality of life for everyone. Research cannot be properly funded privately; such funding is always for a purpose, to achieve set goals, yet the best and ultimately the most useful research comes from open ended investigation by people free from such constraints. Politics should be accessible to all and everyone should have the largest say and the greatest opportunity to participate, that technology can provide. All these things should not be something done by governments taking taxes from reluctant people and even more reluctant businesses. The aim of business and all human endeavours should be, to increase the sum total of human happiness.

By the very nature of the form of society towards which those on this side strive, they will be considered as left-wing. Yet there remains much scope for variation. It is a different view of the world and it is perfectly acceptable to see that view as something to be achieved by small government providing nudges in the right direction as well as by massively interventionist ones. Because it requires a radical change in view, even though actual changes on the ground may be small, it is seen as dangerous. Because it means a diminution of power in for those at the very top, even though it still accepts the need for possibly very large differentials in wealth, it is vehemently opposed by the politicians and media they control. Because it shifts power to the people and seeks to achieve a greater degree of real democracy it is seen as dangerous by the ruling elite. The struggle for control of the Labour Party, and the quest to form the next UK government are just the latest, local parts of what is a world wide struggle that has been going on for almost as long as there have been human societies. From the slaves revolt in Rome through the many revolutions in France and America, and the (almost) end of colonialism, small steps have been taken, often to be later reversed. They have been small steps since the world, and this country in particular, are still ruled by an elite, but each victory counts and now the important one is to ensure that the Labour Party, or of they are now beyond salvation some other left-wing party, provides a genuine alternative and does not fall back into being a slightly more cuddly form of neoliberalism. There may be agreement on specific policies, but there can be no compromise over the fundamental socialist nature of the party and the society we are trying to create.

I know which side of the divide I am on, do you?






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