10 February, 2011 — The Return of the Public
In May of this year the Coalition will hold a referendum to decide on a new voting system. The British have never been much concerned about voting reform, for good and bad reasons. There are good reasons not to care much about what is currently on offer. The alternative vote has already been dismissed by the current Deputy Prime Minister as ‘a miserable little compromise‘. But the turnout in May is likely to be even lower than normal because most people have other things on their mind. They are more concerned about the Coalition government’s plans for the National Health Service, and about the effort to ‘rebalance’ the economy to the satisfaction of bondholders and private investors. The government’s policies, hastily improvised though they are, have highly significant constitutional implications. Yet Cameron and Clegg have no kind of mandate for them.
The growth model adopted by Labour in 1997 has broken down. The decision to give the banks a free hand to manage the economy ended in collapse in 2007-8. Only a massive public bailout has rescued the financial sector from the consequences of its own folly. And the price has been paid by the working majority. The Governor of the Bank of England tells us that ‘in 2011 real wages are likely to be no higher than they were in 2005‘. In the General Election last year both the main parties declined to speak seriously and honestly about the problems facing the country. There were muffled noises about the need for austerity, but the voters might have been forgiven for thinking that the major issue was the rate at which to cut the deficit, or whether Brown was a bit of a weirdo. The fact that the City-oriented political economy created by the Conservatives in 1979 and endorsed by the Labour Party in 1997 had shaken itself to pieces did not feature prominently in the televised debates. Financialization has been tried. It has failed. The political classes and the responsible media are doing their best to ignore the fact.
Now that the election is out the way the Conservatives are insisting that the state must be shrunk – because we can no longer afford it. And they have a point – we can’t sustain the current levels of private opulence and excess without diverting more of the national wealth away from programs that benefit the working majority. The rich did well in the good times. They must now do well in the bad times, according to our rulers. If we give them sufficient amounts of public money they will eventually cheer up and start investing and creating jobs. That, at any rate, is the theory. But it is a theory that should really be put to the British people in an election.
There is, after all, another way of dealing with the rich. Given that UK corporations are holding 5% of GDP in cash at the moment, there isn’t any lack of capital out there. But those who control it don’t want to invest it because they can’t see any profitable opportunities in the UK at the moment. In which case we need to take some of the money they can’t use to create a better climate for private investment through public investment in education and infrastructure. ‘Leave it to the markets’ means leaving politicians to do what their financial backers want. But disappointing the City is the only way out of recession I can see, even if it does hold the prospect of a more general transformation.
So we need a national debate about the economy and for that we need a general election.
Along with the questions about alternative voting systems and constituency size and whatever other burning issues our rulers can come up with, I propose we call for another question in the referendum – ‘Do you want to have an election on July 4th of this year?’
It is one more, modest item in the May referendum. Advocates of voting reform will thereby be assured of a higher turnout, and the rest of us will be able to decide whether we want to continue down the road to disaster mapped out by the Coalition.
If the campaign for a meaningful question in the May referendum succeeds, we can mobilize the majority who don’t want the Coalition to secure an election in the summer. We will then have two months after May in which to talk seriously about the options available to us, and to find candidates who will act in the interests of the majority of people. The three ruling parties in this country have all had a hand in creating the current shambles. A national debate will do them all good. Let them come to the libraries and talk to us in person, about the wonders of deregulated finance and the need to give the City its heart’s desire. Let’s have a discussion about whether we want to be a social democratic country or a sordid refuge for crooks and their ill-gotten gains – let the advocates of the Offshore Empire make their case, for once, in the open.
If the Coalition refuse to use the referendum as an opportunity to begin a debate about the country’s future, then we spoil our ballots by writing ‘I choose neither of the above. I choose democracy’. With a proper campaign coordinated by the unions and the emerging new left we can garner more spoilt ballots than votes for and against voting reform – an argument about seating arrangements on a sinking ship if ever there was one.
Then, when the campaign against the Coalition’s austerity agenda begins in earnest in the summer it will not be a matter of a handful of union bosses ‘holding the country to ransom’ in the time-honoured formula.
The resistance to the Coalition will be understood for what it is – a desperate attempt to stop a robbery in progress.