These are disappointing and troubling times. The mood in Britain now, contrasts starkly with the optimism of 1997. And the gloom of the international situation belies the dream of, reductions in defence spending and a new world order, that swept the world in 1989/90 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The disillusionment with the Blair government is deeper than the normal disappointment that comes with the swing of the political pendulum. Large numbers of life long Labour Party members have left the party and much of the moral and intellectual core of Labour’s support has been withdrawn. Obviously Iraq has played a major part in this but the causes of the disillusionment go much wider.
Since the beginning of New Labour’s second term in office in 2001, there has been a cumulating stream of policies that contradict traditional Labour values and are the cause of growing disenchantment. Following Iraq came the imposition of top-up fees for university students in breach of a manifesto commitment and without a discussion of alternatives such as a graduate tax. In addition, the benefits of the welcome increase in public expenditure in health, education and elsewhere has been undermined by centralised and highly bureaucratic target setting, the constant stream of new initiatives, endless re-organisation and now privatisation. There has also been a raft of criminal justice and asylum Bills which increasingly expand the prison population, display a growing cruelty to asylum seekers but fail to grapple with the underlying problems of crime or asylum. The continuing erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law and the imposition of compulsory identity cards, show a deep disrespect for the best of our traditions and institutions. And the scaremongering approach to the so-called “war on terror” is increasing rather than reducing the threat of terrorism. Beyond the errors of policy there is a problem with the style of the Government, the addiction to spin and sound bites has led to a widespread view that they do not tell the truth. And there is an arrogance that surrounds the cult of the leader that leaves people feeling that the Government listens to no one. The headline grabbing, tabloid teasing, ill thought out and unprincipled way in which policy is bounced out of No 10, through the media, without proper consultation or thinking through of the consequences of each new initiative, displays an incompetence in public administration that is causing growing frustration.
This does not mean of course that some good things have not been achieved by the Government – most notable from policy commitments put in place in opposition – such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, the minimum wage and the tax credits that have improved the incomes of some of our poorest families and poorest pensioners. (Though even here there is a problem because tax credits create immediate benefits but stoke up long term problems particularly in relation to pensions.) There have also been historic improvements in equality for gay people. The establishment of the Department for International Development has led to a fuller consideration of developmental issues. And increased public expenditure for our investment starved public services has been welcome although its benefits undermined by the constant re- organisation. The commitment to eliminate child poverty is highly ambitious and deeply welcome but, the commitments that have been made to reduce poverty mask an abandonment of Labour’s long standing commitment to the reduction of inequality. This was spelt out during the 2001 election campaign when Tony Blair refused to answer Jeremy Paxman’s question about whether it was acceptable for the gap between the rich and the poor to get wider. His response was, in essence, that what mattered was the situation of the poorest, not the rising income of those at the top. The issue for Blair was poverty, not inequality. This is a significant departure. A deeply unequal society with some special help for the poor, is a very different aspiration from a commitment to the reduction of inequality and has strong societal consequences as I will show.
Clearly some of the forces at work which are making our society unhappy and degraded are bigger than the sway of the current government. But after nine years of New Labour, the UK is an increasingly unequal and highly indebted society, infected with a culture of rudeness and criminality and a growing problem of alcohol and drug abuse, obesity and mental illness with many people working in stressful and unsatisfying jobs and having little time for friends and family. And in the face of the increased problems arising from alcohol abuse, it remains extraordinary that the government committed itself so strongly to liberalising licensing laws and what is more, encouraging the development of mega casinos as a means of promoting development in deprived areas!
The reality is that the opportunity created by the size of the majority and the level of expectation of change in 1997 was as great as that of 1945, and has been largely squandered. And given the constant New Labour claims that no previous Labour government has achieved as much as they, it is worth reminding ourselves that in six short years the 1945 government brought the country to full employment and a welfare state that cared for all from the cradle to the grave, including the establishment of a National Health Service that was the envy of the world. It nationalised coal and the railways in order to promote investment in decaying industries that were crucial to the public interest. It also carried forward the independence of India and thus began the dismantling of the British Empire and helped to build the United Nations and the new post war order. No government is perfect and it ended tired and divided but when it lost power in 1951, it won more votes than had brought it to power in 1945. And Tory governments from 1951 to 1983 did not dare to dismantle the post war settlement that Labour had put in place. The voting figures are notable. Labour came to power with almost 12 million votes (11.97) and 48% (47.7) of the electorate in 1945 and lost in 1951 with almost 14 million (13.95) votes and 49% (48.8) of the total, famously losing to a Tory government with a smaller vote.
In fact, New Labour and Tony Blair’s claim that he has reached parts of the electorate that Labour has never reached before is simply false. New Labour won 13.5 (13.52) million votes or 43% of the electorate in 1997; less than 11 million (10.73) or 41% (40.7) in 2001 and 9.5 (9.54) million or just over 35% (35.2) in 2005 (this compares interestingly with Labour’s massive failure in 1983 when it received 8.46 million votes). The explanation of Blair’s electoral success is the rise of the third party vote and the way in which this produces distorted representation in the House of Commons. New Labour has not won significantly more votes than previous Labour governments.
Thus the conclusion has to be that New Labour is a major disappointment. Despite the benign economic inheritance that contrasts very strongly with the difficulties with which the Wilson and Callaghan governments had to grapple, we have to conclude that there is a nastiness of style, a centralisation of control, a lack of concern for inequality and a support for extremist US foreign policy that makes New Labour more the creature of the hegemony of the Thatcher era than the creators of a new settlement.
It is also notable that when people seek to resist privatisation of their schools, cruelty to asylum seekers, the undermining of civil liberties or an immoral foreign policy, the left’s capacity to organise and resist is weakened because it is a supposedly Labour government that is bringing forward these policies. And thus the Labour Party which is the creation of 100 years of struggle by British people to create a more just society and more equitable international order has been weakened and undermined at the hands of the New Labour project.
However, deep as the failings are we need to be clear that it is not just in the UK that there is a growing disenchantment with politics. Right across the OECD countries, the turnout in elections is falling; there is a growing disbelief in politics and a sense that there is little difference between parties of the right and left. There is also a growth of inequality worldwide. One part of the explanation is the impact of globalisation and realisation that old left wing nostrums do not work in the face of the intensification of global competition. Thus we need new thinking and renewal of political debate. But this is almost impossible in the face of a deep dumbing down of politics, as the 24 hours media leads to agenda setting through media management. It is notable that increasingly figures with media appeal rather than strong moral or intellectual ability rise to the fore. And thus we get leaders like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and George Bush. And it is remarkable that the concentration of power in the White House and overweening influence of Karl Rove mirrors the concentration in No 10 and the influence of Alistair Campbell, yet the underlying political systems are very different. A Clement Atlee or Winston Churchill would almost certainly fail to rise to the top in modern politics, dominated as it is by a voracious media. It is also significant that just as the country is increasingly anxious to rid itself of Tony Blair, the leader of the Conservative Party is reinventing himself as a Blair mark 2 with lots of attractive spin, slick presentation, talk of social justice and care for the environment. Clearly these are the values the polling indicates that British people hold dear and thus, as with Blair, we get warm words, but in practice strong support for US foreign policy, economic growth at any price and Thatcherite reform in public services. As the noise and tribal clashes in the House of Commons get ever louder, the difference between the parties continues to narrow. Blair wants to be seen to be tough on law and order and asylum. Cameron wants to be seen to care for the poor and ethnic minorities, but in practice there is increasingly little to choose between them.
It could be argued that this narrowing of political difference arises from a genuine reduction of ideological alternatives as argued by Francis Fukuyama in his “End of History” thesis. The fall of the Soviet Union had he suggested led to victory for liberal democracy and capitalism. If this was correct, then it would be logical that the future would be a contest for slicker presentation and more effective management.
But it is simply impossible to accept that history has ended in a world beset by terrible poverty and inequality, with 1 in 5 of the world’s 6 billion people living with constant hunger, lack of clean water, health care or education and 2.4 billion living in deep poverty. In addition another 2-3 billion people will be born over the next 20-30 years, 90 per cent of them in the poorest countries. And humanity is urbanising fast, 50 per cent of people are now urban dwellers and this will rise to 65 per cent in 15 years’ time, most of them living in the massive slums of the new mega cities of the south. This I believe will lead to significant political change. The new urban poor with access to modern communications and knowledge of how people live in the OECD countries are unlikely to be content to continue to live in poverty as did their rural grandparents.
Beyond this we face the escalating turmoil, conflict and anger of the Middle East made worse by the declaration of a new war without end that surely justifies President Eisenhower’s warning, in his final address to the American people, of the malevolent influence of the military, industrial complex on American political life. It is clear that a just settlement is available in the Middle East involving a two state solution on the basis of international law for Israel and Palestine, a negotiated withdrawal from Iraq and the withdrawal of all WMD from the region. But again, despite warm words, there is no prospect of the President of the US, our own Prime Minister or, I fear, his likely successor, supporting such a policy and therefore the bitterness and bloodshed will continue for some time to come.
Beyond the quagmire in the Middle East, we face a terrible threat to the future arising from the consequences of global warming. There is no doubt that the poorest of the world will suffer most with Africa being hit by drought and desertification, and countries like Bangladesh, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean losing much of their territory to the sea. In addition, the drying out in the tropics will lead to a reduction in food production which is likely to seriously affect China and India. But it would be wrong to conclude that the wealthy countries will be immune from the devastation resulting from global warming or can buy their way out with a technological fix. Even the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) identifies climate change as a threat that vastly eclipses that of terrorism. A report commissioned by the head of the ONA, Andrew Marshall, and published in late 2003 concluded that climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters. The report’s authors argue that the risk of abrupt climate change should be “elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.”
Among the many consequences of this rise in sea levels are the effects on metropolitan areas. As most of the world’s large cities are positioned on coasts it could mean a large proportion of them would be lost to the sea. The gradual displacement of peoples from coastline and river delta areas could be in the hundreds of millions and the economic and social consequences would be enormous.
Thus we are forced to conclude that we live at a time of an enormous political challenge. And it is increasingly clear that the highly materialistic, competitive and unequal societies that are being created as a result of the intensifications of global competitiveness do not create contented or stable societies. In addition, the world faces great challenges in grappling with massive poverty and inequality, the turmoil in the Middle East and the existential threat posed by global warming. This is the challenge to the left. The global political elite are leading the world into a growing nightmare. People everywhere are aware of the risks and troubled by the situation. But there are as yet few movements, leaders and most importantly political ideas that can draw people together, and advocate a new settlement that will enable humanity to surmount the current challenge.
One of the most important issues to be addressed is the reduction of global poverty and the creation of a more equitable world order capable of reaching agreement to halt nuclear proliferation; to resolve the conflicts that have cost 10 million lives in the last 10 years; and to share the environmental resources of the world so that human civilisation is able to continue on this planet. The current model of development is that the poor countries should reshape themselves to be more like us, so that economic growth will enable them to live like us. And one of the great historical changes taking place in the world is that China and increasingly India are harnessing the forces of globalisation to do just that and in the process achieving the fastest reduction of poverty for the largest number of people that the world has ever seen. But they also show the limits to the economic growth the planet can bear. According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, who is one of the leading US environmental analysts, if growth in China continues at 8 per cent a year, by 2031 China’s income per head for its 1.45 billion people will be equal to that of the US today. He said:
China’s grain consumption will then be two thirds of the current grain consumption of the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 billion barrels a day – and the whole world is currently producing 84 billion barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more. If it consumes paper at the same rate that we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them.
Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world’s major environmental trends for 30 years then said:
The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is, it’s not going to work. And if it does not work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, or for the other three billion people in the developing countries. And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated world economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain. The bottom line of this analysis is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of a fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies.If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.
Richard Layard’s March 2003 Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures on Happiness point to complementary conclusions. His analysis in a cross section of countries, of those who are happy and satisfied with their life shows that once a country has over $15,000 per head, its level of happiness appears to be independent of its income per head. For poorer countries, however, there is a clear impact of income on happiness. When you are near the bread-line, income really does matter. But for countries above $15,000 per head, the relationship breaks down.
His analysis also points out that politics matters. As he says:
The most striking finding is the misery of Russia and South Africa, where oppression as well as poverty has degraded the human condition. At the height of Communism Russians were among the most miserable people on earth.
Layard also draws attention to the evidence of increased depression, alcoholism and crime in the richer countries and concludes that:
All the evidence suggests that clinical depression has increased since the Second World War.
He does not dwell on the growth of drug abuse, because this may be partly propelled by easier access to the countries which supply drugs. But he argues that alcohol addiction is a very meaningful indicator of unhappiness.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century alcohol consumption fell in many countries, despite economic growth, and it stayed roughly constant in the second quarter. Since then it has soared in every country except France, which still consumes more alcohol than anywhere else. Much of this drinking is unhealthy. In the US over a quarter of young white men say they have already experienced problems with alcohol. This compares with under 15% of older men (over 65) who say they have ever experienced such problems. The hardest evidence however is medical – deaths from cirrhosis of the liver are up since 1950 in every country except France.
And then there is crime – a similar story. In most advanced countries, crime fell in the years before the First World War, again despite economic growth. It was then stable between the Wars and most people thought that, if full employment could be achieved, crime would fall still lower. The opposite happened. In most countries except Japan, crime increased by a factor of around five between 1950 and 1980 – a truly astonishing increase. In Britain, a third of all young men have been convicted of a crime by the time they are 30. If there is this degree of alienation, it is not surprising that the overall happiness figures have failed to rise.
Thus Layard’s conclusion is that:
People in the West have got no happier in the last 50 years. They have become much richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer, and they are healthier. But they are no happier.
If we move on to examine Richard Wilkinson’s extremely important summary of the comparable measures of the scale of inequality on different societies, they demonstrate, he says, why, despite their extraordinary material success, modern societies are social failures. I will quote some of his important findings as summarised in his article in Renewal, Vol 14 No 1, 2006:
In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, the statistics show not only that community life is stronger and people are much more likely to trust each other; but also there is less violence – including substantially lower homicide rates – health is better and life expectancy several years longer, prison populations are smaller; birth rates among teenagers are lower, levels of educational attainment among school children tend to be higher; and there is more social mobility. In all cases, where income differences are narrower, outcomes are better.
That’s a lot to lay at the door of inequality, but all these relationships are statistically highly significant and cannot be dismissed as chance findings. Some have already been shown in large numbers of studies – there are over 170 looking at the tendency for health to be better in more equal societies and something like forty looking at the relationship between violence and inequality.
He goes on to argue:
The first thing to recognise is that we are dealing with the effects of relative, not absolute deprivation and poverty. Violence, poor health or school failure are not problems that can be solved by economic growth alone – by everyone getting richer without redistribution. Across the richest 25 or 30 countries there is no tendency whatsoever for health to be better among the most affluent rather than the least affluent countries. The same is also true of levels of violence, teenage pregnancy rates, literacy and maths scores among school children, and even obesity rates. We have reached a level of development beyond which further rises in absolute living standards no longer reduce social problems or add to wellbeing. However, within each country, these problems remain closely associated with income and any other indicator of socio-economic status. The implication is that what really matters about income is where you are in relation to others in your society – it is a matter of relative income or social status, not whether the population in one rich country is on average twice as rich as that of another. So, for example, the USA has the highest homicide rates, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest rates of imprisonment and comes about twenty- sixth in the international league table of life expectancy because it also has the biggest income differences. In contrast, countries like Japan, Sweden and Norway, although not as rich as the USA, all have smaller income differences and do well on all these measures. Even among the fifty states of the USA, those with smaller income differences perform as well as more egalitarian countries on most of these measures.
Wilkinson goes on to show that inequality also breaks down trust and social co-operation:
The growing awareness of the importance of the social environment to health raised the question of whether the quality of social relations differed between more, and less, equal societies. When analysed, data from a number of different sources left no room for doubt: people in more unequal societies trust each other less, they are less likely to be involved in community life, and rates of violence are higher. All suggest that inequality damages the quality of social relations. Indeed, this must be one of the most important ways inequality affects the quality of life for all of us. In the most unequal of the fifty states of the USA, 35 or 40 per cent of the population feel that they cannot trust other people, compared with perhaps only 10 per cent in the more equal states. The international differences are at least as large. Measures of social capital and the extent to which people are involved in local community life also confirm the socially corrosive effects of inequality. Given the dysfunctional response to hurricane Katrina, it is interesting to note that New Orleans is among the most unequal cities in the USA.
So, there it is, this is the new challenge for the left. Modern post-industrial societies are increasingly unhappy and dysfunctional. Inequality is a major part of the explanation and increasing material wealth beyond $15,000 per head does not increase human happiness. The levels of inequality and poverty in the world are unjust and unstable, but the current model of development showing such spectacular success in China will lead to a completely unsustainable demand for natural resources that the planet is simply incapable of providing. On top of this, we have the consequences of global warming which are not being adequately addressed. Serious scholars tell us that if we fail to make major changes before 2030, human civilisation on this planet will be in danger within a period of 100 years. Some human beings may survive, but the civilisation in which we currently live could not.
This is an enormous challenge. At the present time, any cursory reading of the speeches of leading politicians or the Financial Times or any other quality newspaper, makes clear that the encouragement of economic growth is the purpose of politics. But this has to change. The left has always insisted that every single human being is of equal value and importance and that moral standards apply equally to all. Parts of the left have got distracted by models of economic organisation that were dysfunctional or a commitment to the spread of revolution for its own sake. But the purpose of the left is to create just societies and a just world order in which all can flourish, be respected and fulfilled.
The world now has sufficient knowledge, technological capacity and capital to eliminate poverty and provide for the needs of every single human being. My analysis of the present world situation is gloomy but my exasperation with the present cul-de-sac into which world leaders have put us is that, despite the enormity of the challenge, there is a new era waiting to be born where we at last face up to the fact that humanity is one people. We can then go on to share our knowledge, capital and technology. We are the first generation of human beings who are in a position to eliminate extreme poverty. This means large scale conflict must be ended and our forces used to prevent disorder and help people to achieve security so that they can build the structures of competent states capable of promoting human development.
And such states will be in a position to negotiate international agreements that could ensure that our environmental resources are used in a way that ensures that human life on our planet is sustainable. This will mean we will have to move to a higher level of civilisation where all people have the basics that they need and then we must develop a new way of living which gets beyond an obsession with the ownership of more and more material goods and economic growth for its own sake and we must learn to enjoy caring for each other, nature, literature, the arts, philosophy and the spirituality for which western people in particular are yearning as they find that material plenty does not provide meaning to their lives.
All of this may sound fanciful, but as Mrs Thatcher once said about less significant matters “there is no alternative”. We either look forward to mounting catastrophes that threaten our survival or we create a more equitable and sustainable world order. It is the left that has the values that can carry us through this monumental challenge. But to rise to the occasion we need to set aside soundbites, triangulation and celebrity politics and get back to a search for ideas and a moral way of working and organising that can help inspire people to come together to face the challenge that lies ahead.