Operation Manifesto: Eliminating the Negatives

April 12, 2010

On the day that New Labour has released its fourth election manifesto, I hope you all feel suitably underwhelmed. Watch the little video that the party has prepared for the occasion (and feel a leeetle patronised because of it) and read the column inches devoted to parsing Brown’s words and the gumpf put out to accompany it. But don’t be fooled, not that you would be. Sensible people.

The central problem of this election is the crisis of capitalism. This manifesto doesn’t recognise that capitalism is in crisis, and is about to engulf millions of British people in a spasm of social decay, shattered dreams and yes, premature death and suffering. As the BBC notes, is “the manifesto is very much accentuating the positive – tax credits here, higher wages there – and eliminating the negative.” The same goes for the party’s newest (1940s wartime style) propaganda poster:

Looking serenely into a rural sunset (or sunrise? We can’t be sure) we are being offered a “future fair for all” although public sector workers will be granted a “living wage” while private sector employees struggle on at the minimum, if they are employed at all.

Another negative firmly excluded from this fairness mantra (and it is nothing more than a yogic incantation), is the unfortunate reality that New Labour has presided over a widening of the inequality gap in Britain, helping to produce a society in which men are still paid 21 percent more than similarly qualified women, and the top 10 percent of families own 100 times as much wealth as the bottom ten percent.

The evidence for this emerged earlier in the year from the findings of the government’s own National Equality Panel. As an example of how such inequalities have become entrenched, and are worsening, the panel’s chair Dr John Hills of the LSE, told the BBC that “Things that allow you to buy a house in the catchment area of a good school or allow you to help your children get on the housing ladder.” It’s hardly surprising, but timely, for the Guardian to report today that “England’s top comprehensives are more socially exclusive than the country’s remaining grammars because schools are letting middle-class parents play the system.”

As researchers at the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham found, “the problem was letting parents choose which school they wanted their children to attend, which inevitably led to the “best” schools being oversubscribed.” Creating a sort of market in education, in which parent choice supposedly drives higher standards actually, and unsurprisingly, allows more pushy, well educated, and wealthy parents to game the system – often going as far as moving deliberately to be near a suitable school.

As Fiona Millar argues, this is not a criticism of comprehensive schools at all, but it is a symptom of New Labour’s elitist governance style and ideological core. The party has simply abdicated a political role in the reduction of inequalities – the core of a Labour Party worthy of the name, allowing class stratification to totally colonize the education system. We should know all of this by now, I admit, but it bears repeating.

What also bears repeating is that the Tories have no alternative means of making society more equal and, hence, more “fair.”

But back to the major point. This is a crisis of capitalism, a crisis which has emerged from an already highly unequal social and economic system and can only make such divisions more acute. We are all squabbling over crumbs, while Sir Stuart Rose (a close friend of Mandelson, he tells us) and his cohort fight with luxury organic baguettes.

Until we work out a way of converting the capital commanded by the wealthiest into a form that is socially useful, this kind of squalid politics will continue, but nobody is suggesting that we begin to do this. Admittedly, such arguments are old fashioned, kitsch, avowedly socialist, of course, and hence anathema to international capital markets and good old liberals alike. But that doesn’t make them any less vital for that.

Until they are admitted into the public discourse, it seems to me that we will continue along our autistic way, accentuating the (ever diminishing) positives and, in an oddly Stalinistic fashion, “eliminating the negatives.” The trouble is, there will be several million angry “negatives” in short order when either party is elected and begin their cutbacks.

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