There are times these days when it feels like you’re living in two different countries at the same time. In one people are marching in protest against cuts to government spending that will destroy jobs and devastate communities, in the other people are willing to sleep on the pavement all night to be the first in line to buy the next generation iPad. Truly these are strange times indeed.
The march took place in London yesterday and was organised by the Trades Union Council (TUC), in the words of Dave Prentis of UNISON it was going to be ‘an absolutely incredible demonstration of ordinary working people saying this coalition has got to stop cutting jobs and public services.’
These sentiments were echoed a day earlier by Labour leader Ed Milliband who said the ‘voices of the mainstream majority’ would be making themselves heard through what was billed as a ‘march for the alternative.’
Things didn’t quite turn out as planned, the TUC march was an exemplary display of dignified, reasoned protest; unfortunately it was hijacked along with much of the media coverage by witless anarchists for whom breaking the windows of a branch of Starbucks counts as a legitimate political comment. There was also the small fact that between the sound of breaking glass and that of righteous indignation nobody seemed clear about just what the alternative they were marching for might look like.
For Len Mc Cluskey of UNITE it means ‘economic growth through tax fairness, so for example, if the government were brave enough it could tackle the tax avoidance that robs the British tax payer of £25 billion a year.’
A fair point to make and an even better place to start sorting out our economic woes than closing libraries and old folks homes, the line about our ‘all being in this together’ might have worn so thin you could read the small print on a mobile phone contract through it, but the truth remains that if the government got the likes of Vodaphone to pay the tax they owe the cuts wouldn’t need to be so deep or so divisive.
The trouble with tax though is that neither this government nor its Labour predecessor has been honest about it, for New Labour it was something to be raised by stealth and for the Tories it is just plain wicked. Neither side had the guts to admit that even though tycoons, trades people and the rest of us might have to pay a little more up front a fair tax system is the best, probably the only in fact, way of creating a fair society.
Quite how you sell that concept in a culture where the tedious Madonna tribute act that is Lady Gaga has nine million followers on Twitter and sensible people are willing to queue all night to buy an iPad that is a little better than the one they’ve already got is another matter. As one of the people waiting in Oxford Street told the BBC’s Newsbeat programme ‘without marketing nothing is going to sell.’ Quite so, the iPad has brilliant marketing behind it; sadly the idea of paying a little more to live in a society that is fairer and safer for all doesn’t.
What it has behind it is a trade’s union movement that is still largely taken for granted by the Labour Party. Labour leader Ed Milliband makes all the right noises, on Friday he talked about the government practicing the sort of ‘politics of division’ that were a feature of the Thatcher years and the need to defend ‘common bonds’ such as those established through the NHS and Sure Start.
The party’s next manifesto would, he pledged, be ‘as good as the ideas that come from the public.’ Before your all rush to the barricades it might be worth noting that these brave words were spoken at a truly cringe worthy ‘policy forum’ at which ‘handpicked’ members of the public mouthed pre-scripted questions to which Milliband gave long winded non-answers.
The whole tacky performance complete with celebrity supporters on hand to help proceedings along and its general air of patronising blandness suggested that the shallow spin of the Blair years is alive and well with a dash of Milliband’s own awkward earnestness thrown in to leaven the lump. Baron Frankenstein might have been proud of the resulting monster, but anyone who cares about there being a voice in British politics for ordinary working people would have despaired as they recognised it as yet another attempt by the party to find a way of not talking about something they have been conditioned to think of as wicked and dangerous.
What they are trying so hard not to talk about is socialism. Not as an impenetrable theory, but as a living, breathing alternative to an economic model that sees that market as being our only hope. A means of creating a new political settlement that responds to the ideas of fairness that are intrinsic to the British character.
They might be dangerously wrong on the economic front but David Cameron’s Tories have got one thing right; they have realised that in times like this the centre no longer holds. When the going gets tough a party or a government has to stand by its core principles to survive, which is why George Osborne’s budget this week took them back to their roots as the party of capital.
The old Blairite methods of keeping the city sweet and triangulating like fury to win over floating voters no longer work. To survive let alone prosper Labour has to start talking about the alternative to leaving everything to the whims of the market, not in two years time once it has finished rooting around in its navel for fluff; but now and with more fire and urgency than it showed at Friday’s sorry policy event.
If he can’t do so Ed Milliband’s tenure as leader will be a short and unhappy one, the Blairites will take back control, the spin machine will be cranked up to full power again and the party that used to speak for the people will be condemned to perpetual opposition.