Thursday night’s Question Time from Inverness saw Johann Lamont once again trot out the line that the independence referendum doesn’t offer Scotland its only realistic chance of escaping Tory government for the forseeable future. Once again, the Labour quasi-leader insisted (56m 50s) that the choice between independence and the Tories was a false one, and that her party provided a genuine ideological alternative to the right-wing neoliberal philosophy which has dominated UK politics since 1979.
Unfortunately, that’s a lie. And the really troubling thing about it is that it means NOBODY is speaking for the majority of the British population, which almost certainly means that no mainstream political party is interested in representing your views. Which, you might think, is a pretty odd way to be running a supposed democracy.
Because if you fall into any of the categories below, you have no UK party to vote for who will act in your interest (none that has a realistic chance of obtaining any power under FPTP, anyway – sorry, Greens). Neither Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems are even promising to do anything for you, never mind actually intending to.
Even if you live in one of the 20% of Westminster constituencies where there’s a remote chance of the seat changing hands at any given election, your vote is a hollow pantomime if any of the statements below applies to you.
1. “I’M A TENANT”
You’d never know it from reading newspapers or watching TV, but millions of adults in Britain DON’T own their own homes. Around a third of the population – 20 million people – lives in rented accommodation, and their chances of ever joining the ranks of owner-occupiers get more and more distant with every passing month.
Even in the midst of an economic crisis, house prices grew by over 10% between 2009 and 2010, despite the average wage rise during the recession being close to zero. Since Labour came to power in 1997, when Gordon Brown promised “I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the future”, the ratio of the average house price to the average wage has almost doubled (and in many areas, far more than that).
If you don’t already own a home, the chances that you ever will are vanishing, at an ever-quickening pace. Meanwhile, those who do have enjoyed a windfall of hundreds of pounds a month during the recession as interest rates have been slashed to 0%. Buy-to-let landlords also enjoy generous tax breaks and crank rents ever higher, even at times when house prices fall. At the same time the government chases eagerly behind them, with a policy of steadily increasing social-housing rents in real terms until they match the runaway private sector.
All of this builds a bigger and ever more insurmountable barrier in front of those who don’t already own their homes, not least because tenants have to spend so much of their income on rent that their chance of saving up some cash for a now-vast deposit becomes an impossible pipe-dream.
Consciously, deliberately and vigorously, successive Tory and Labour rulers have engaged in an aggressive programme of separating society into haves and have-nots, defined by property ownership, with the intention of making the division permanent. With the government’s full approval, home-owners are pulling the housing ladder up behind them, and the huge unearned profits they make from simply sitting in their houses are funded by levying crippling rents on everyone else who arrived too late for the gold-rush of the 1990s.
The current economic crisis was almost entirely caused by this policy. Desperately trying to get onto the housing ladder before it disappeared out of reach forever drove millions of people into the so-called “sub-prime” mortgage market, which was the cause of the catastrophic banking crash, which in turn has reinforced the economic apartheid still further. (By handing home-owners more free money, as noted above, and penalising the poor with job losses and below-inflation wage rises.)
It’s absolutely clear that in the interests of both “fairness” and the rebuilding of the economy on solid and sustainable ground, house prices have to fall, and fall substantially. But there are, of course, no votes in slashing house prices – or at least, none in the marginal Middle England constituencies which are the only ones that are actually fought for in our crooked, broken electoral system.
So Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems all pursue policies of frantically propping up the lethally-inflated property market rather than building social housing (every one of Labour’s three administrations from 1997-2010 shamefully delivered far less new social housing, and more private homes, than the Conservative government that preceded them) leaving us with the democratic choice between making the situation worse, a lot worse, or MUCH worse. Place your X beside one of the options below, voter.
TORIES: right to buy, little/no new social housing, prop up house prices
LABOUR: right to buy, little/no new social housing, prop up house prices
LIB DEMS: right to buy, little/no new social housing, prop up house prices
2. “I’M A STUDENT”
Every UK party is committed to tuition fees of at least £6000 a year. That includes the one whose MPs without exception pledged in writing before the 2010 election to vote against any increase from the previous figure of £3000 (but then voted to treble it the minute they got into power), and of course the party that introduced tuition fees in the first place, and then trebled them, after promising not to.
If you believe in the fundamental principle of education according to the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, no electable UK political party represents your views. Your options are to vote for crippling tuition fees or even more crippling tuition fees. That’s the modern reality of democratic choice, Westminster style.
TORIES: £9,000 tuition fees, likely to increase
LABOUR: £6,000 tuition fees, likely to increase
LIB DEMS: £9,000 tuition fees, likely to increase
3. “I’M UNEMPLOYED/POOR/ILL/DISABLED”
The current bewilderingly vicious assault on the sick and vulnerable being mounted by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition must surely rank as one of the most evil acts ever perpetrated by a British government against its own people. When even the Daily Mail is horrified at the scale and brutality of the attacks on the weakest in society, it’s surely beyond rational debate that the policy is wrong.
Yet one of the main reasons the coalition has been able to push the reforms forward so quickly is that all the groundwork had already been done by Labour. The humiliating “Work Capability Assessment” medical tests that have seen the terminally-ill and people unable to walk deemed “fit for work” were introduced by Gordon Brown in 2008. Atos Healthcare – the French company paid hundreds of millions to administer the tests despite a record of gross incompetence – were first contracted by Labour, making the party’s manufactured outrage at Atos’ profits all the more hypocritical.
Similarly, Labour’s protests at recent “workfare” schemes forcing the unemployed to work for commercial companies for free ring a little hollow given that it was Labour which pioneered the concept when it was in power. Indeed, the party doesn’t even have the decency to be ashamed of its abandonment of the vulnerable, instead angrily protesting that it isn’t “some sort of charity“.
But it’s not just the unemployed and the sick who are now demonised and persecuted by all three parties. Even the working poor can now expect to be hammered to the tune of hundreds of pounds a month, forcing many into unemployment because the withdrawal of Working Tax Credits and the Housing Benefit cap (on top of numerous other wide-ranging cuts to housing payments) mean it’s no longer possible to survive on their wages, particularly as inflation continues to outstrip wage rises, leaving millions of already-struggling working people growing steadily worse off every year. (Having already suffered due to Labour’s abolition of the 10p tax rate.)
Yet once again, the supposed party of the working class offers no alternative beyond tweaking the coalition’s policies at the edges. All of the fundamental principles are conceded – or, indeed, were proposed by Labour first – leaving voters no legitimate democratic way to resist. (Or even protest, except from inside a “kettle”.)
TORIES: housing benefit caps, workfare, force disabled into job market
LABOUR: housing benefit caps, workfare, force disabled into job market
LIB DEMS: housing benefit caps, workfare, force disabled into job market
4. “I’M ANTI-WAR”
The UK went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the largest public protests in the nation’s (perhaps the world’s) history, massively flawed intelligence, extremely doubtful legal justification and the blindingly obvious fact that it would make the country more likely to be targeted by terrorist attacks.
Over a decade and hundreds of British deaths later, the UK public still doesn’t really understand why we’re fighting or what we can hope to achieve, think the war is unwinnable, and wants our soldiers brought home. More than three-quarters of the electorate wants UK armed forces out of Afghanistan immediately, regardless of whether “victory” has been achieved or not.
(The troops themselves don’t get a say in the matter.)
Yet all three main parties maintain policies of continuing the war indefinitely – even when the person we’re trying to keep in power threatened to join the Taliban – wasting more lives and billions of pounds we can’t afford, for no appreciable benefit other than to justify the further destruction of our civil liberties in order to combat a danger that only exists in the first place because we went to war. Pick your favourite, citizen.
TORIES: indefinite Afghan presence, aggressive interventionism
LABOUR: indefinite Afghan presence, aggressive interventionism
LIB DEMS: indefinite Afghan presence, aggressive interventionism
5. “I’M ANTI-NUCLEAR”
The Cold War is over. There is, quite simply, no military threat to the United Kingdom on the face of the planet. Yet all three of our main political parties want to spend tens of billions of pounds on new nuclear weapons. Most of the electorate is strongly opposed to this policy, whether it comprises the like-for-like replacement of Trident (Labour and the Tories) or the Lib Dems’ mysterious unnamed possible alternative.
Of course, a vocal minority demands the retention of a nuclear “deterrent” – despite the fact that it didn’t deter Saddam Hussein, or even deter Argentina from invading British sovereign soil – on the grounds that “we don’t know what might happen in the future”.
And of course, they’re right – we don’t know what might happen in the future. China, despite the fact that it’s basically going to own the West within a generation anyway by purely economic means, might for some unfathomable reason decide to send the People’s Liberation Army to invade the UK (thereby obliterating one of its own biggest export markets as well as unquestionably starting a world war whether Britain was nuclear-armed or not).
By the same token, Earth might be menaced by 900-MILE HIGH GIANT SPACE DINOSAURS!!! The Large Hadron Collider might achieve sentience and decide to atomise the entire planet in the search for the Higgs Boson. The new breed of Daleks might finally work out that if they just shoot The Doctor straight away the first moment they see him, he won’t be able to stop them destroying the entire non-Dalek universe. We just don’t know.
So why aren’t we spending countless billions of pounds on those threats too? They’re no more ridiculous than the idea of China invading, and equally likely to result in the total obliteration of mankind.
(In fact, if in Cameron’s deranged fantasy world China did ever want to attack the UK, its huge physical size and enormous population could easily absorb the detonation of the UK’s entire operational nuclear arsenal on its territory and barely register a scratch. If the Chinese REALLY wanted to invade – and remember, this is a nation happy to murder thousands (or millions) of its own citizens when it feels like it – the single UK nuclear submarine that’s on patrol at any given time isn’t going to stop it. Indeed, they’d simply sink the sub as the act that started the war.)
Fortunately we live in a democracy, and therefore can simply elect a government that doesn’t want to hurl incomprehensibly vast sums of our money down a pointless nuclear black hole when there are about a million more pressing things to spend it on. What’s that? Oh, right. Sorry. Our mistake.
TORIES: retain and replace Trident
LABOUR: retain and replace Trident
LIB DEMS: retain and replace Trident
6. “I BELIEVE IN MORE EQUABLE DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH”
International research shows beyond any reasonable doubt that all the happiest, healthiest countries on Earth are the ones where income inequality is lowest. Due to the inherent selfishness of human nature, the only practical way to significantly lower economic inequality is through relatively high taxation aimed primarily at delivering top-grade public services that improve the quality of life for all, not just the rich.
(In a nutshell, this is the basic premise of socialism. It’s not about somehow trying to make everyone equally rich/poor, which is communism.)
Accordingly, 85% of British voters want the wealth gap between the rich and poor to get smaller, not wider – not out of petty selfish envy, but simply because it ultimately makes everyone in the country happier. 13 years of “Labour” government, and 18 years of Tory government before it, have achieved the exact opposite.
So since we live in a democracy and have freedom of choice, at least one of the main parties must presumably be standing on a high-tax, redistributive policy platform, so that the electorate can vote them into power in order to put this extensively-proven successful socio-economic model into practice, yes?
TORIES: no redistributive tax policies, increasing wealth gap
LABOUR: no redistributive tax policies, increasing wealth gap
LIB DEM: no redistributive tax policies, increasing wealth gap
7. “I HATE FOREIGNERS”
TORIES: restrict and reduce immigration
LABOUR: restrict and reduce immigration
LIB DEM: restrict and reduce immigration
8. “I DON’T LIKE BEING POWERLESS”
Tragically, there’s nothing UK voters can do about any of this. Our current electoral system has brought about the situation where every party has triangulated its position to appeal to the tiny percentage of voters who actually have any power, and who happen to mostly populate the right-wing, authoritarian end of the spectrum.
If our electoral system actually represented in any sort of proportional way the wishes of the people who go out and vote, there’d be no need for all the parties to pander to the same tiny minority, because everyone’s vote would count for something. (At present, more than half of all General Election votes are pointless and worthless.) Parties could stand for what they – and much of the public – actually believes in. But our twisted, broken system of democracy ensures that it can’t happen, so people are forced to make a meaningless choice between lizards.
If you like things the way they are, that’s fine. You can vote for the status quo, and just pray that you never fall through one of the cracks into the dark, desperate, land that is the hidden underworld of poverty in modern Britain. Because once you’re in there, the odds against ever getting back out are stacked higher than you can imagine, and growing more so every day as the Tories continue Labour’s policy of dumping a million sick and disabled people into the dole queues.
On the other hand, if you’d like your voice to be heard, and you’re lucky enough to live in Scotland, you do have another option. It’s a bit drastic, but it’ll give you the chance to elect a party that’s committed to building social housing (while also ending the right to buy that started and sustained the disastrous property “boom” as Labour and the Tories both try to preserve it), to removing nuclear weapons, to getting and keeping Scottish troops out of imperial wars, to angering the BNP (rather than pandering to them) by adopting a positive attitude on immigration, and to reducing the burden of taxation on ordinary people rather than just millionaires.
When Johann Lamont says that all of these things can be achieved within the UK, the simple truth is that in every conceivable political sense she’s lying. Labour supports keeping and upgrading Trident, supports the Tories’ savage austerity cuts (quibbling only slightly over their timescale), took the country to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, backs £6000 tuition fees, bitterly opposed the SNP’s council tax freeze (except for a brief moment of cynical electoral opportunism that backfired horribly), and began the welfare “reforms” that the coalition are enthusiastically continuing.
It’s for this reason that most socialist organisations support Scottish independence, and why so many of Labour and the trade union movement’s left-wing old guard in Scotland (Jimmy Reid, Dennis Canavan, Tommy Brennan) have converted to the nationalist cause as the only effective possibility of opposition to Tory values.
(Modern-day Labour activists – in thrall to Blairite neoliberalism and the electoral success it appeared to produce, despite all the heavy lifting having been done by John Smith – still cling defiantly to the word “socialism” but, as we’ve seen above, have long since abandoned all of its actual principles.)
Despite Lamont’s strident claims to the contrary, there is simply no UK alternative to centre-right neoliberalism, and nor will there be for a generation or more. (The amount of time it took to turn Labour round from the traditional left-wing party of Michael Foot to the unrecognisable one made in the image of Tony Blair, and the minimum amount of time it would take to change it back again – assuming there was a will to do such a thing, which there currently isn’t the slightest sign of.)
That ideology has been the dominant force in British politics since 1979, and the orthodox consensus since 1997. When we’ve reached the point where the leader of the Labour Party can mockingly deride the very idea that he might be “Red” without being chased from the conference hall by an angry mob, believing that social democracy can be delivered through Westminster is simply a delusional, wishful fantasy.
In autumn 2014, Scotland alone will still have the opportunity to make that choice.