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Making it another 1945

Ed Miliband and a bacon sandwichSteve Richards (David Cameron will lose the battle of ideas if he keeps firing 1979’s bullets) is right to say in The Guardian (and Ed Miliband obviously agrees with him) that next year’s election will not, and should not, be decided by personality politics.  So what is it that will determine the voters’ preferences?

It would be nice to think, as Richards argues, that the election will be about ideas.  But policy ideas, until and unless they are successfully proved in practice, make little impact on voters increasingly cynical about promises.

What might matter, however, is something even less tangible.  The evidence suggests that every now and again, for no apparent reason, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, can change.  It may be that we are at just such a juncture – and not before time.

We have now given an extended trial to the values espoused by the proponents of the “free” market and the aggressive pursuit of individual self-interest.  It is becoming increasingly clear that those values are not those of our great humane and liberal tradition; they are instead those of “dog eat dog”, “devil take the hindmost”, “look after number one”, “winner takes all” and any other of those phrases that have been traditionally used to describe with contempt and distaste the sentiments of selfishness and greed.

It is, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates, always the case that powerful people, given the chance (and nothing is better guaranteed to offer that chance than the unrestrained market), to grab what they can, and then to entrench and protect their advantage, so that they can extend it still further.

We may now have reached the point, however, when the question is increasingly being asked – why do the rest of us allow that to happen?  Wasn’t that supposed to be the role of democracy, to ensure that the political power of elected governments would ensure that the virtues of inclusivity, social cohesion, and equal rights, would offset the otherwise overwhelming power of those who would dominate the marketplace?

It may be that, just as in 1945 (another crucial turning-point), the forthcoming election will be about values, rather than personalities, or even policies.  And the good news is that the values that we have been in danger of losing have not disappeared; they are still present in the hearts and minds of most citizens.  Most people in Britain will affirm, if asked, their continued support for fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others.  Those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of free-market propaganda, but the 2015 election may see them again rise to the surface.

Most voters do not think about politics or economics in any systematic way.  It is only a small minority, whatever their position on the spectrum of political views, that has developed a fully coherent set of beliefs and principles.  The majority are perfectly capable of holding in their minds quite contradictory notions and allegiances.  What matters, what determines the way they will vote, is which of those contradictory values is closest to the surface, or in other words has the greatest salience, at any particular time.

Over more than three decades, those who have hijacked our democracy have discovered the means by which they can raise the salience in the popular mind of values that suit their interests.  They have become expert at “tweaking” particular issues – outrage at social security “scroungers”, perhaps, or concern about the supposed threat to jobs or housing posed by immigrants, or fear of an allegedly threatened tax increase.  They have learned to practise what the Australians have called “dog whistle” politics – the appeal to sentiments which they dare not encourage openly and which voters would be ashamed to admit to but which will nevertheless decide voting intentions.

The control exercised by the powerful through their ownership of most media outlets gives them a great advantage in such efforts.  But they are also able to exploit a natural human predilection which means that the values of self-interest and self-preservation, at least in the heat of any particular moment, will often take precedence over more socially aware and responsible attitudes.  The default position for most people – especially in hard times – will quite naturally give a high priority to looking after the interests of their own nearest and dearest.

But experience is a great teacher.  When decline and social disjunction are seared over decades into the national consciousness, when hope and confidence are at a low ebb, and when the outlook is more of the same, it is not surprising that the guiding principles of the last three decades might be called into question.  It is then that hearts rather than minds help to frame the compelling argument that we would all be better and stronger if we could all rely on the same degree of help and support as we are ready to offer to our own closest family and friends.

In 1945, the British people rejected a great war hero in favour of one of the least charismatic leaders in our history.  Clement Attlee won a landslide victory and went on to head the most successful and effective reforming government of modern times.  Ed Miliband may know – and intuitively feel – more than we think.

Image Credit: Adapted from a photo by Christian Guthier CC BY 2.0

6 Comments

  1. This is a hopeful,optimistic and hopefully realistic approach to our political future. The challenge is to sell it to a cynical and disillusioned UK electorate.
    One way to publicize it is to buy the Guardian T shirt which bears Attlee’s portrait and is captioned “what would Clement do?”. Ill be wearing it at Conference please join me.

  2. Robert says:

    Seeing as Cameron Clegg and Miliband are a personality-less, none of them have anything which can be called Personalities, Jesus Miliband has hired Cohen to show him what Empathy is, if this bloke does not know what the hell empathy is we are in for one hell of an election.

    Labour policies are look vote for me because well look at what the other lot are offering, OK they are offering the same as us, but I’m nicer.
    it’s just not enough.

    Now then does it matter that I look funny eating a sandwich well yes actually it does if you looked like that at a banquet or on some official duty.

    But actually what are labour policies mostly it’s Austerity and cap on wages and freedom for the richest in society while slamming down on those that need what they are entitled to by law benefits and welfare.

    Labour state this is not old labour or New labour, but really what it is of course is a simple one this is not labour any more.

    It lost it’s way the Unions tried to get Miliband elected and he was and what is he a leader who has nothing to offer.

    free school we will keep them trains they will stay private, electricity and gas nationalization not a hope in hell.

    What about the living wage no not yet we are not ready for it maybe in five or six years time we will do what the Tories are doing rises the min wage, what about Austerity ah yes we have to do that no more tax and spent, well what the the hell is labour for them.

    I will be sitting at home come election because I cannot for the life of me vote Tory or Tory Lite.

  3. David Melvin says:

    As Ken Loach says it should be the “Spirit of ’45”, by the sound of with Progress in almost total control of Labour party policy it will be the ” Spirit of ’97”, Blairism never really went away.

    1. Robert says:

      I suspect if labour looked more to 1945 then we might have a better chance of getting this country growing again, sadly Labour these days what we have is a Progressive right wing lot of weak Kneed Tories.

      1. Thanks Robert, As part of the research foro my book on New Labour I studied the record of Attlee Governments and found that not only did they establish the NHS and welfare state but a massive provision of social rented housing , employment protection for people with disabilities, public ownership of coal, steel and railways- the list goes on. Compared with all this New Labour did very little , They did provide numbers of new schools and hospitals but these were purchased through the Private Finance Initiative at extortionate rates of interest as compared with what the cost of direct public borrowing would have been. Also many of the health services, which got new buildings, e.g,diagnostic and treatment centres were privatised as were the academy schools in effect.

  4. swatantra says:

    The fact is that the British Public were fed up to the back teeth with the Conservatives leading them into another long and sould destroying war that they’d have voted for any other Party Leader, non-charismatic or not. Many of the Beveridge type liberal type policies were actually developed by the Wartime Coaltion Parties, thinking ahead to the future. And State control was paramount for all countries victors and defeated, to get them back on their feet. So if you think of the recovery in those terms, 1945 was no big deal. There is a bit of an unhealthy myth been built up about 1945, and it needs to be corrected.

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