Think about the word, ‘change’. Chew over it for a moment. Is the unknown, the scary, and the weird, to be avoided? Or is it a break from a tired old model, with any consequence better than none? This is the debate in which Britain finds itself miserably embedded. One side is desperately rowing back to the Blighty of its childhood, and the other side is baying for the sort of change that Marx wanted when he lived in this country. As for the centre? In political space, no one can hear moderates scream.
The main thing to note is that the direction of travel is backwards. When the idea factories within political parties run out of steam – and when the young, bespectacled grads that turn the cogs within them have run out of academic idols – this is what happens. We find our political landscape spitting out repackaged remedies that were debunked decades ago.
Of course, one can never kill an idea, and even when debunked in the mainstream, a quiet few fanatics will still debate dead policies over a few pints. Before the financial crisis, this minority was typically of a small number on the backbenches, or in underground obscurity. Now that the crash has disrupted employment and livelihoods, with wages in 2018 still lower overall than before 2008, these left-field views are back in the mainstream. They are not new, by any means, but they are reinvigorated. Novelty and momentum are, in politics, interchangeable.
It is this case of mistaken identity that has seen moderate politics in Britain up-ended in favour of fringe groups and politics at the margin. The hard left has all but consumed the Labour Party, and the cultural conservatives have staged a palace coup among the Conservatives. The buzzword is ‘fringe’ – but the radical, uncompromising policies that term would normally infer are now very much on the ballot.
Where did the centre lose its way? For most, the political message of the middle ground was an alarming coalescence between red and blue – more an ugly brown colour. As recently as 2015, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband might have taken a great deal of criticism from those on the far left and right of the main two parties, but, all things considered, was not a great deal further away from their ideals than former Tory PM David Cameron. The two moderate leaders advocated a market economy, strong public services and a relatively similar commitment to the role of defence policy. Their campaign messages, ‘Better plan for a better future’, and ‘Britain living within its means’, are typically vacuous. They commit to no particular agenda beyond something vaguely positive, or something vaguely responsible. Vagueness itself had become the problem, and it was not just a British concern.
So, out of the blocks stormed the demagogues: Farage and Corbyn, Le Pen and Mélenchon, Gauland and Kippe. In the UK, France, Germany and much of the Mediterranean, the mainstream began struggling to stay afloat because its messages were, and still are, repetitive. The mainstream line on the economy is that markets work – the free exchange of economic needs and wants ensures that everyone gets what they are looking for. The line on social organisation is that immigration costs less than it brings in. Liberal values are championed; capitalist economic order is sanctified. But people are not buying it – they have begun to ask why Europe’s main political parties are so attached to these values, and this cynicism feeds the waxing suggestion that this system need be overturned. This movement is very much a popular one, and it is a godsend for those at the political periphery. The only way that the biggest parties have been able to stop their voter base eroding away before their eyes has been, with a grimace, to pull on the clothes of those on the outer reaches of their respective political wings.
In doing so, they hope to tread water. The Labour Party may not yet have the numbers to back up its rhetoric of being the main vehicle for change in the UK, but it is capturing the political dialogue of the nation and has ruthlessly thrown under the bus those who will not get with the programme. It is unambiguous; change is needed, and it will come in a full and unflinching assault on finance, on profit-makers and on authority outside of the Labour front bench. Voters know exactly what the party intends at home if it wins, and its methods are, for the most part, not their chief concern. Not even a major anti-Semitism crisis, nor a series of political own-goals by Jeremy Corbyn, has broken his stride.
As for the current government, their solution to the looming threat of political obscurity is to go back to their comfort zone. The usual response to a sense of political malaise has often been to reshape government in the interests of the country but, with the current iteration of the Conservative Party, the country is being reshaped in the interests of this government. Brexit, the apogee of political upheaval, is being pushed forward with no clear plan, and no idea of what the end goal practically ought to be. Whilst there can be many ideals, the most recent being the political resurgence of the Commonwealth, politics is the art of the possible. In the rosy view of the past that many British politicians seem to have, Britain’s former colonies would not hesitate to help out their former colonial masters – yet the Herculean amount of goodwill required for that is rapidly evaporating in the wake of bungled and predatory Home Office behaviour towards long-settled Commonwealth settlers. It seems clear that no party can be trusted to manage change in the UK.
This leaves people very much in the mire. With UK local elections coming up on 3 May, politicos on all sides must speak up for fresh ideas, instead of rebranded solutions based on ideology, and not facts. Whilst slogans and base narratives will always capture the interest of people all over the world, they will not improve their position. Hate will always breed hate, and if those on the ballot are fresh out of ideas, then those that make people feel, and not think, will take the reins of policymaking. After all, history is only made by moving forwards.