No ideas?

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What is the place of ideology in modern politics? There was a time when the colour of a tie marked out the political tribe to which someone belonged. A flash of red, blue or yellow on the doorstep, and you knew not just who’d come calling, but what their broad political programme would be.

But in the post-modern (or post-post-modern) world, we can be tempted to think that the notion of ideology is soooo twentieth century, a shibboleth that politics, and certainly society at large, has long abandoned. I regularly hear media commentary and pub banter which implies that all of the mainstream political parties are essentially the same. So is this true?

There’s certainly been a narrowing of the political spectrum over the last twenty years, in mainstream politics at least. The narrowing has been partly about presentation (i.e. spin), but it has mostly been ideological, reflected in the range of policies that are on the menu. To greater or lesser degree, the hegemony of unfettered, free-market capitalism is accepted as the norm – the paradigm which reflects the real world as it is. Imagining a world – and therefore, policies – not dominated by the hegemony of the free-market is increasingly difficult to do in British politics.

Yet ideology is important – what you believe forms how you see the world, and how you consequently act. Often the ultimate insult in party politics is to decry a particular policy as being driven by ‘ideological reasons’. It’s spoken as if most politicians remove their ideological beliefs like a shabby raincoat as they walk into the Chamber. But we don’t need less ideology in politics, we need more.

In politics what can be more important than our beliefs? Our ideas of what matters, of how the world actually works and how it could and should work? Not much. And of course, the reality is that ideology (although narrower in spectrum than it used to be) is as important as ever to our political process. Indeed, I would argue that it’s the lack of outspoken, straightforward ideological debate that has been turning the electorate off politics for the last couple of decades.

I also detect a growing understanding that our beliefs about how the world should be do matter. In particular, there’s a dawning – perhaps resurgent – belief that society doesn’t exist to serve the market, but the market to serve society.

These are not new arguments. They don’t require the fanfare of a punchy research paper put out by a leading think tank. For every recent book like Michael Sandel’s seminal What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, there’s a The State We’re In by Will Hutton – a book now almost twenty years old.

Thus when we see the coalition government portraying a policy decision as being about the good management of the economy, and not a matter of their political ideology being implemented, it has the effect of compounding many of their mistakes.

The Conservative Party has historically claimed to be the party of the free market. The tale they tell is that they’re trying to allow the market economy to work within its utilitarian, causal rules, with only light-touch adjustments that will benefit the country as a whole. Of course, this is an ideology!

And what happens when this ideological approach disproves itself? In the privatisation of the Royal Mail we’ve seen an ideological decision which overruled or ignored the market norms. Even as the Government made the decision to privatise, they knew that they were planning to sell a profitable company; at the end of the 2012/13 fiscal year the Royal Mail posted a pre-tax profit of £324 million.

In the last few weeks we’ve learned that the sale itself was rushed through using an under-valued share price of £3.30 per share. This has proven to be embarrassing to the Government for two reasons. Firstly, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills dramatically under-estimated the level of interest in the market for the sale; for every shopper who successfully bought shares in Royal Mail, there were twenty-four who missed out. This was a calamitous miscalculation. Secondly, the miscalculation was exacerbated by the fact that share values increased by a dramatic 38% to 455p on their first day of trading, meaning taxpayers had lost out on at least £750m in the sale. By 1st April 2014, the Royal Mail share price had risen by 70% against the original price, emphasising further the profits that the country has missed out on.

In the same way, the Government’s urgency to sell its shares in Lloyds Banking Group or Royal Bank of Scotland, with their share prices only slowly recovering, seems to belie a desire on the part of the Conservative and Liberal coalition to get these institutions off UK Plc’s books. But why the urgency? Why not wait until the much-lauded economic recovery has gone further, market confidence has increased and the share-value was higher? The answer is that it’s the ideology which is the deciding factor. The Conservative Party simply can’t abide any kind of a return – no matter how temporary – to state-owned commercial institutions.

The same ideology is at play in the recently-proposed re-privatisation of the East Coast mainline. But when we review the economic case for this decision, it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. For six years and more I have travelled that line. At the end, it was a shambles under the GNER franchise. It was a shambles under the National Express franchise from the start. But under East Coast (owned by the State, of course), the service has improved. More importantly for the purpose of this discussion, it’s a business which is actually making a profit (£209 million last year). And yet, the Government wants to re-privatise it. Because their ideology protests that it’s never desirable for the State to offer paid-for services to society, such as major transport links, even when that service is better than the private commercial alternatives and the business makes a profit.

The problem with British politics is not really a lack of ideology. What’s missing is honesty. Our politicians have too often suppressed their beliefs about the way the world should be in their view. They’ve masked these beliefs with the pretence that they are simply neutral technocrats, managing the economy according to rules set by conditions in the world ‘out there’.

This is the worst of all possibilities: politicians downplaying their ideology, whilst making decisions that contradict their ideology, all in the name of their ideology. Our political discourse deserves better than this – we need an open and honest argument on the basis of competing ideologies about the way that Britain should be run.

The debate can’t come soon enough.

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2 thoughts on “No ideas?

  1. I would contend that there is not an absence ideology, but rather a predominance of one particular ideology: neoliberalism, and the philosophy that it instils into everyday life. The eminent political philosopher Roberto Unger has labelled the current ideological environment the ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’ – a dispiritingly accurate analysis.

    The neoliberalism brought about in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States was not solely brought about through sheer political conviction and support. Rather, economic globalisation contributed significantly to the rise of neoliberalism, owing to the paucity of governmental globalisation with democratic foundations. Globalisation is hugely beneficial, but without being accompanied by commensurate governmental globalisation with democratic foundations, economic globalisation becomes mostly unchecked by global society.

    The European Union, as a supranational union, acts as the vanguard in governmental globalisation, but it itself has much further to travel along the path of deeper European integration. Other international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, and the United Nation’s myriad forums and agencies are important and valuable, yet they lack both the strength and democratic foundations that are urgently needed on the regional and global levels.

    The vibrancy and value of ideology can be rekindled, but only once we embrace and actively pursue governmental globalisation with democratic foundations to move past the nation state, both regionally and globally. It is simply untenable for around two hundred nation states to independently pursue the change they desire in a world of economic globalisation. Fundamentally, we must work together to build a better world.

    1. Thanks for your comments Chris. I agree with most of what you say. I wasn’t trying to say in the blog that there is actually no ideology within British politics. Indeed, as you say, there is plenty of ideology in the form of neo-liberalism – the predominant ideology of our time. My main point is that this has become so mainstream, so normative, that it is rarely really. questioned or critiqued in public life.

      As such, the Conservative Party in particular can get away with portraying an image of themselves that they are simply managing the economy and society with a light touch, within the bounds of what is or would be possible for any political party.

      In reality though, they are actually outworking their ideology. We need the Labour Party in particular to call this out and to offer credible ideological alternatives.

      And we need a political discourse which openly, honestly and unashamedly encourages discussion and debate around competing ideologies.

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