Philip Whiteley's Blog

April 20, 2010

Ideology still matters

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:59 am

None of the analysis in the UK election of the decline of the two ‘main’ parties, Labour and Conservative, has mentioned ideology. Yet they are based largely, if indirectly, on the beliefs of socialism and neo-liberalism, respectively, which are pretty close to being extinct as viable philosophies.

It’s now clear that New Labour did not bother forging a new ideology, and simply ended up as a bizarre hybrid of the two: increasing employee rights and public spending, while letting the investment banks pretty much run the global economy in the belief that ‘the markets are always right’.

Most people seem to have forgotten that state socialism as a system perished in autumn 1989, while neo-liberalism died on 15 September 2008. The day of the collapse of Lehman Brothers made it clear that the banking system run on Thatcherite lines could only be saved by state intervention – something the ideology asserted ought to have been both unnecessary and impossible.

Does this matter to how people vote? OK, I know that not many people in marginal seats are thinking: ‘Mmm, I do worry that the ideas of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School have too heavily influenced Tory policy’, but ideology does affect actions. George Osborne has been less sure-footed than Vince Cable in the past 18 months not because he lacks personal qualities, but because his beliefs have been challenged by events. People pick this up.

Many voters will also be vaguely aware that the demutualisation of building societies, which ended so catastrophically, was also a Thatcherite idea. This does affect the Conservatives’ confidence, in contrast with the petrol-fuelled energy of their 1979 campaign, when it looked like Friedman had the answers.

The Conservatives’ Big Idea is the concept of the Big Society – but in policy detail it means such concepts as parents taking over failing schools and elected police commissioners. It looks more like a continuation of the relentless reorganisations we’ve experienced in the public sector since the 1988 Education Act and the ‘internal market’ reforms of the NHS in 1990. They would require very high levels of local leadership skills to make them work. Failing to address this makes Cameron and his colleagues look inexperienced: young opposition politicians these days have never actually run anything.

There is a new ideology to be created, based around an understanding of the close inter-dependence of the public and private sector; the importance of leadership qualities, and an understanding that economics doesn’t consist of ‘markets’, or even money, but of human behaviour. Sadly, no political party explicitly aims in this direction, but perhaps Cable and Nick Clegg have instinctively picked up some of these themes.

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