17th August 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
Crash, Recession, Austerity, Blame… and more Blame!
In the final scene of the movie “The Big Short”, the leading characters turn to each other and one says, “Who will get the blame for this?” to which the reply is, “The poor and immigrants as usual.” The “this” is the economic crash of 2008.
In the UK politicians took the blame initially with Gordon Brown paying the price and losing the 2010 general election. He had not seen coming what nobody else had seen either and was accused of not regulating the banks effectively, although nobody was calling for that, least of all Cameron’s Tory opposition. Brown had a plan for dealing with the downturn but the Tories described it as inadequate and criticised him for not balancing the national books nearly quickly enough. Brown and his Chancellor, Darling, must be quietly chuckling to themselves as the Tories, after 6 years of trying, have yet to reach the targets set by Brown and Darling which the Tories thought too timid. The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has for all purposes kicked balancing the books into the long grass following the Brexit vote. The slings and arrows of politics!
If we go back to 2010 the incoming Chancellor, George Osborne, was quick to characterise the blameworthy poor. He painted a picture of the hardworking family man setting off to work in all weathers while his benefit-dependent neighbour snored on with curtains drawn. So any early morning window with curtains still closed was a hiding place for the lazy, workshy and benefit-dependent. Of course, everybody knew one of these people or, at least, knew somebody who knew somebody else who lived next door to such a person. The media helped the characterisation take hold in the popular imagination by helpfully offering us Benefit Street TV programmes.
The reality was that the economic crash that began in the US banks and spread worldwide had the effect of reducing the UK government tax take and as the economy shrank who better to blame than those most in receipt of services funded from the tax take – the poor, those most dependent on publicly funded services and those who worked in that sector? So benefits were reduced, libraries closed, Sure Start centres closed, rural bus services cut, elderly personal care cut… and the list goes on. All this justified on the back of ‘no more feather-bedding the unworthy’.
After 6 years the books are still unbalanced despite all the cuts and service reductions. Blaming the poor has not worked. Having spent so much effort on pinning the blame, politicians and those who subscribed to their world view with a vote, were not just about to hold up their hands and say we got all this wrong and we need to think again. It was time to blame the other group… immigrants… and the EU referendum provided a perfect opportunity.
The invective of 2010 that was turned on the poor and public servants was now targeted on immigrants. The country was being flooded with them, they are living off benefits, they are taking our jobs (it seemed possible to do both!), they were responsible for NHS queues and the shortage of school places, they depressed wages… and the list goes on. As with the previous attack on the poor, little of this was evidence-based but was more about creating and capturing a public mood. The UK voted to leave the EU (well England and Wales did) and the key reason for doing so was to gain control of immigration.
I am pretty sure that controlling immigration (whatever that may mean) will not address the various grievances that some voters carried into the EU referendum, but expectation is high. I really dislike those vox pop interviews that TV news programmes are full of, but they do, to some extent, hold a finger to the national pulse. Two recent ones I recall vividly. The first was a woman in Stoke-on-Trent who saw leaving the EU as an opportunity to start again and we should get on with it. The second was with a man in Thanet who, with a trace of anger in his voice, wanted departure from the EU sped up so we could do something about the immigrants. Hopes are high that doing something about immigrants (what is not quite clear) will lead to better times (again not defined).
If attacking the poor did not resolve the challenges of 2010 and doing likewise with immigrants does not solve the challenges of 2016, what happens next?
The omens are not good. We have seen the rise of Trump in the USA using rhetoric focused on grooming a sense of grievance amongst voters. Muslims and immigrants once again a target but this time laced with a return to the politics of isolation. Nigel Farage is promising us a new career as the spreader of discontent amongst EU capital with the aim of breaking up the organisation. Australia has seen the rise of One Nation which promises trade protection and banning Muslim immigration. In addition One Nation want discrimination laws changed as they claim they limit free speech.
So it looks like the hunt for somebody to blame will now be focused on Muslims, global free trade and human rights.
This is all very depressing for those on the centre left. But there is a ray of hope from what is an unlikely quarter – the United States. The Democratic Party conference was by and large a joy to watch. There was no blaming and apologising for any aspect of the Party’s progressive agenda. The talk was of working together, tolerance and acceptance. The Democrats firmly set their gaze against isolationism, racial intolerance and attempts to divide society. Progressives across the world must be hoping for a Hillary Clinton victory in November with the expectation that she will be a leader of progressive politics and that other progressive leaders will rally behind her and carry the progressive cause in their own countries.
In the UK the Labour Party is best positioned to be a beacon against intolerance, isolationalism, racism and those who seek to divide society for political gain. It should be possible to address voters’ concerns about immigration, welfare and lack of opportunity within a progressive agenda.
It is urgent business for the Labour Party to come to terms with the UK of 2016, including the Brexit vote, and get down to business with developing a progressive response.
Perhaps Hillary could send over that chap David as he has the experience and skills to reinvigorate a truly progressive Labour Party.