Friday, 30 January 2009

Politics for Ordinary People - Part I

The current wild-cat strikes in support of a strike by British workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire who are concerned about foreign workers being shipped in for construction work at the site, is evidence of a growing sense of bewilderment amongst ordinary, working people, about the kind of world which our political elites have ushered in over the last few decades.

When economic conditions deteriorate and people start losing their jobs or merely losing their sense of job security, people naturally focus more closely on how and in whose interests our economy is operating. During the boom years, standards of living apparently rose for all in work. Fuelled by the wave of cheap credit, and equity, released from over-inflated properties, people were lulled into what has turned out to have been a false sense of security.

There were various tenets of the package we were sold by the Establishment (by that I mean the Government, big business, the media):

1) Globalisation is a good thing which increases our standard of living through creating greater efficiency in the world economy and providing a market for our goods
2) The decline of our manufacturing base is nothing to be worried about, because what counts in the “globalised” world is high-skilled, knowledge-based jobs and industries
3) Huge increases in house prices are sustainable and the spending that is based on this is a good thing as it keeps our economy buoyant
4) Economic growth must be the over-riding aim of economic activity
5) Large scale immigration is a good thing because British businesses need the skills and energy immigrant workers bring, and at the bottom end of the scale, immigrants are prepared to do jobs that British workers refuse to do.

Each of these is now questionable.

Let’s take the first of these: globalisation. Increasingly, ordinary working people might question whether it is a good thing for people in Indonesia or China to do the jobs which they have hitherto been doing - manufacturing goods, or providing services for British consumers. Consumers too, will perhaps increasingly ask themselves whether it is ultimately in their interests to be demanding ever lower prices for goods, if it means that the jobs created by their purchasing are almost entirely going to be based, and therefore of benefit, to people in foreign countries. The recession is forcing people to reassess their lives and attribute value to different things. Much of which is actually a good thing. Increasingly, people are focussing more on their sense of community, rather than their sense of the individual. People are returning to tending allotments, to volunteering for their children’s clubs after work. Just as people increasingly wish to buy food produced in their own country, they might well start to apply this principle to other goods. For why is it only farming which elicits this sense of patriotism, as if other working people ought not have a right to be able to work to produce the very things which their compatriots need.

I will address point 2) in a later blog. These are very much early thoughts on the subject. I am well aware of the danger that protectionism poses to the global economy. However, I am also aware that it is the responsibility of governments, and businesses and bankers around the world, to show ordinary people just how the system they wish to protect and reinforce is of benefit to ordinary people. The Establishment has after all for so long harangued people from the left about the wonders of globalisation and unfettered, lightly regulated international capitalism and the dangers posed when governments seek to bend markets to the benefit of ordinary people.

I leave you with this thought: what is it that ordinary people actually want? I firmly believe that our political economy must be re-ordered following the recent calamity brought upon us by the world of international high finance and our collective submission to the myth of credit-driven economic growth. I wonder if we are actually that much better off after a decade of so-called economic growth. Our economy certainly grew. But did our strength as communities grow? Did the strength of families grow? Did our sense of security on the streets grow with a comparable speed? The challenge is surely to ensure that economic growth strengthens much more than the bottom line of companies’ balance sheets.

If in pursuing consumerism to its logical extent we ended up with the unenviable record as the country with the highest levels of personal debt – was it worth it? If after a decade of rising house prices we are left with negative equity, repossessions, and very limited house building, was the increase in the value of properties really worth it? Was the Government’s tolerance of the housing bubble, at the expense of lower income people, but in favour of middle class swing voters, really worth it in the long run? Is the fact that in supposedly prosperous 2009, two salaries are necessary for most families with children to just about keep their heads above water a good thing? Are the long hours that British workers endure such a good thing? We were always told that they meant that our economy was more flexible than those of our European and other competitors. But that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it now, when we read that those very same competitors have much larger industrial bases, and are therefore being far less exposed to a downturn caused by failures in the financial sector.

Perhaps our political elites have lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Even now, in the midst of the storm, it is apparent that Government and opposition parties look to big business and bankers for answers about a way out of the crisis. Sadly, the Prime Minister has not convened a High Level Working Group on Revitalising Communities. The Government doesn’t seem to be going out of his way to listen to the concerns of those ordinary people whose lives are being blighted, whose viable businesses wrecked and whose sense of optimism dashed by the recklessness of financiers around the world, yet it certainly is employing bankers and City grandees in ever larger numbers to advise on the way forward. The way forward, is very clearly not to return to the path trodden before.

The tragedy is that were the Government to listen to ordinary people more, what they might hear is that they wish them well in trying to overcome recent difficulties, and they have very good ideas about the kind of political economy and society we should be seeking to forge, once this current recession is over. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the future is better then the recent past.