In so far as neoliberalism was the economic elite’s ideological reaction against social democracy, it has achieved its aims in full. After two generations of neoliberalism, we have recreated the absolute poverty, the gross inequality, the social immobility and the plutocratic domination of politics and society which existed a century ago.
I’ve just read a harrowing story about a five year old child in the UK who had not eaten for three days and was picking through bins for food, because his mother had had her Universal Credit payments delayed. That is the reality of the abyss we have reached. And it is never morally acceptable.
Such poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is a product of ideological, political choices. More than that, it is a product of a deep ethical malaise in those who govern us – those who nurse their offshore accounts and their corporate donors, while caring so little for the poor and for the common good.
We must start our first works over: create a country for all its people, in which everyone has a stake, where everyone is protected and can live in moderate comfort and dignity.
To achieve that, we have to break out of labels and tribes. In much of continental Europe the welfare state was not built by one party, but by pragmatic agreements between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in coalition. These people came from very different political ‘tribes’ and different ideological traditions, with different ultimate goals. Some were motivated primarily by Christian compassion, other by a fear that if nothing was done revolution would break out, others by hopes of advancing towards a utopia of scientific socialism – but they were able to work together to address pressing issues of poverty and inequality.
I’m not, never have been, and probably never would be, a member of the Labour Party. Labour is not my tribe. There is a lot about the Labour Party and its culture that just doesn’t sit well with me – its constitutional blindness, its unwillingness to understand Scotland’s unique position in the territorial politics of the UK, its indifference to civil liberties and parliamentary reform, and its willingess to embrace neo-imperalist wars as an instrument of foreign policy. But I would be very willing to work with Labour in a great crusade against the evils that William Beveridge (an old Liberal, by the way) identified in his 1942 report that laid the foundations for the Welfare State: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.
To rid the land of these evils again, we need to develop a platform of workable policies that could be agreed in principle across party lines, with commitment and support by Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Likewise, I am no friend of the Tories, but I still hope that there are some moderate, good-hearted Tories out there who feel the same revulsion that I do, and who are willing to accept that things have gone too far; and, if such moderate Tories exist, I’d be willing to work with them, too, and perhaps to secure their support for some of these policies.
In taking on this challenge, our aim should not be to achieve an ideological unanimity of position, but to develop five or six key policies that are acceptable, viable and workable. These would be embodied in five or six pieces of landmark legislation, the like of which has not been seen since the 1940s. Perhaps it could start with a new National Insurance Act.
A final point is that this is not merely a policy issue. It is at root a constitutional one, which goes to the core of the relationship between citizens and the state and the nature of our social contract. Although we have slain these evils once, they have come back. The Labour Government of 1945 introduced a new policy dispensation, but never sought to entrench this dispensation in a new constitutional order in which a strong sense of citizenship would underpin socio-economic rights. Legislative policy alone may kill these vampires, which suck the blood of the poor, but only a new constitutional order which enthrones the common good can drive a stake through them and prevent them rising like the undead to haunt the land again.