Much to win, much to learn

Iain McWhirter looks at the media and policy response to the economic crisis and argues that while there may be some bias, this simply means the left must raise its game.

Why does it always take mayhem before the media takes notice? The student demonstration on 10/11/10, which was overwhelmingly peaceful and good humoured, marked a significant shift in political attitudes towards the government’s deficit reduction programme. Suddenly, there is an opposition again. The 50,000 who turned up in the November sunshine weren’t marching just to protect their future from debt – most of them won’t have to pay £9,000 fees anyway because they have already begun their courses. They were challenging the Coalition government’s assault on the public sphere. It is a measure of just how far the UK media – with a few notable exceptions like the Sunday Herald- has appeared to close down debate on alternatives to the dismantling of the welfare state, that it took this show of strength on the streets to get the argument underway. Really, since the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007, there has been very little questioning of fiscal orthodoxy. We have been told that the only legitimate response to the banking crash is the slash social spending, throw hundreds of thousands out of work, and continue to pay banker ludicrous bonuses. But there are alternatives.

Back in the 1970s, during a comparable financial crisis, there was genuine debate about how to make capitalism work for people rather than purely for profit. Ideas like establishing a national investment bank were not dismissed as leftist fantasy. We had – shock! – prices and incomes policies. Nationalisation was still regarded as a legitimate option for maintaining industrial activity. There were commissions established in to pay comparability and of course taxation was seen as a legitimate way of redistribution wealth and ensuring economic fairness. Not any more.

When the Labour government nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland and half the financial sector in 2008 it was seen as simply an unfortunate necessity. It was assumed that normal corporate banking would be resumed as soon as possible. No one even considered using the state-owned banks to achieve social objectives. There is a very strong argument that banks which are too big to fail are too big to remain private. If they depend on public money to survive, they should be seen as part of the state and used to ensure that finance goes to productive activities and not speculation. But this argument barely got off the ground. All we have today are banker’s solutions. A one trillion pound public bail-out of the financial sector which has failed to get the real economy going again and has simply enriched the very people who were responsible for the financial crash in the first place. This is wrong. You don’t’ have to be a card carrying Marxist to see that there is a moral deficiency at the heart of the Coalition government’s and Labour’s entire approach to the crisis. Moral hazard is too small a phrase. It is simply an outrage that the bankers have had their mouths stuffed with gold while public services are slashed.

This is not entirely down to media bias. It has more to do with the way that public debate has been colonised by special interest groups, lobbyists and think tanks who rarely present alternatives to the received wisdom of the City of London and Whitehall. From the Institute of Directors to allegedly left-leaning bodies like Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research, there is a presumption that the economic argument is over. That liberal capitalism, financial capitalism, is the only game in town. This ideological narrow-mindedness is partly down to the way that these organisations are funded and operate. Mostly think tanks depend on corporate money to run their activities. Moreover, they solicit for private money by offering access to decision-makers, to politicians and in particular ministers. Ministers are fully aware of this, as the former health secretary, Patricia Hewitt revealed during the Channel 4 ‘sting’ operation before the last general election. Hewitt told her prospective future private client, that the best way to get up close to ministers is to fund seminars and conferences run by organisations like Demos. This is a two-way street in which politicians converge with private interests to express a received view of how ‘real’ politics functions.

But it’s not just a great right wing conspiracy. The Left has often been its own worst enemy. Its failure to get its message across to the public in a language they can understand has been lamentable, and isn’t just down to media bias. A paranoia about, especially, the Murdoch press has led many on the left to have nothing to do with the media at all. Others on the left clearly believe that it is more important to fight each other than to address the common enemy. Nor has the left fully recovered from the intellectual crisis left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many on the Marxist left believed that something would be salvageable from the communist experiment. In the event, we discovered that the state bureaucracy was even worse than the Right had said it was. Corruption, inefficiency, authoritarianism, environmental degradation, brutal suppression of dissent – it will be a long time before anyone can seriously propose a communist solution to society’s ills.

But just because communism failed doesn’t mean that its polar opposite – financial capitalism – has won anything more than a temporary victory. The ruinous financial policies required by the banks, and implemented by the Coalition government, are generating a great deal of unspoken dissent – and not just within the state bureaucracies. Small businesses have been radicalised in a way I can scarcely remember by their experience of the usurious lending policies of the banks. A million workers in the private sector have had to go part time, and lose a large part of their income, in order to keep their jobs. The pension industry has been exposed to many millions of ordinary families as an iniquitous kleptocracy unfit to look after their financial security. Across society, there is now a very broad coalition forming against banker capitalism.

Little of it is expressed because of the difficulty in getting fair hearing. People have forgotten how to express dissent – the vocabulary isn’t there. But the students are showing the way with their witty and intelligent campaign against the privatisation of higher education. They will help find the voice of the many people who have been radicalised by the financial crisis, but don’t quite realise it yet. There is a possibility that we may even be seeing a social democratic version of the Tea Party movement in America. That too was also borne out of discontent at the rescue of Wall Street, but has unfortunately been channelled into the Right. Britain is different. We are not so susceptible to religious fundamentalism, quasi racialism and ultra-right wing individualism. It is up to the trades unions and the left now to seek new ways of formulating and infiltrating alternative ideas into public debate. The party starts here.