Make politics smaller
Last month was my son’s birthday. In years gone by, he’s always received Toys R Us vouchers from generous relatives, which has meant an hour or two in store, carefully choosing the best use of the tokens.
I remember doing similar when I was young; the excitement of going into a huge toy shop, the colours, the lights, the experience. So it made me slightly sad to realise that this year, there won’t be a Toys R Us trip. The big box store in town is closed. Geoffrey has gone.
The internet may not be the main reason for Toys R Us’s demise; a heavy debt burden left the company with limited scope to invest. But it certainly didn’t help, and it is part of a trend. The lower cost and greater convenience of online shopping is having a deleterious effect on Britain’s high streets. If you are young, technologically savvy, and growing up in a small town, the internet can be a massive boon; allowing you access to all sorts of things you could never find locally. But what it gives with one hand it can take away with the other. Local businesses and the elderly are particularly hard hit by banks closing branches in smaller towns, as greater take-up of online banking renders small branches commercially unviable.
British politics has generally tended to come down on the side of the tangible; cost and convenience prioritised over protecting and supporting local communities. The market will decide and progress will carry the day, and if that means small town high streets are deserted, so be it. If you’re on the right side of the technological divide, this is fine; if you’re not, you might find yourself left behind, more inconvenienced.
And yet, although there is limited engagement with issues such as Britain’s high streets and towns (with the honourable exception of Lisa Nandy), it feels like politics is stuck in sepia tones at least in part because of this, because of traditional industries and bustling high streets fading away, replaced by insecure jobs and online or out of town shopping. How we can balance the undoubted gains arising from globalisation with helping local communities thrive is possibly one of the big questions underpinning much of our politics for some time, yet still unaddressed.
One suggestion which surfaces from time to time is protectionism; a folly which would make all of us poorer and certainly result in job losses overall once other countries began to retaliate. Another common liberal-left response is to dismiss nostalgia politics as a hankering for polio and asbestos; things weren’t so good back in the day. Nobody is nostalgic for infectious diseases or mesothelioma, of course, but even if you regard a desire for good jobs, busy town centres, and beautiful public places as nostalgia for a time that is largely imaginary, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good things to aim for in any case. In fact, these are things that social democrats should want to encourage.
A solution to the problem could come from a program of regional and sectoral investment, supporting our industries and our communities from the bottom up, not (as with protectionism) from the top down. If we want things to be made in Britain, we should invest in that; not by taking away the competition but by helping our companies be the best. Could high streets benefit from targeted reductions in business rates, or commercial rental caps? Best practice can be shared across local councils (Southampton being an excellent example of how much can be achieved in the face of significant cut-backs).
Politics currently feels too big, the discourse now dominated by ideologues who care more for the Big Ideas than the lived reality of British citizens; the UK as buccaneering trading nation, or an ambition to nationalise everything first and ask questions later, or some sort of weird sci-fi communism.
It would be nice if politics could find more time to speak for people’s real lives. To the appalling working conditions at firms like Amazon. To the desire for people to be able to take pride in their neighbourhoods. To the impact of bank closures in small towns, or the accessibility of health services, or how to foster a sense of community spirit.
Maybe the visionaries, the people with the Big Ideas, could take the time to explain how their over-arching theories will help people in their ordinary lives. Because without that, they’ve got nothing.
Politics could do with narrowing its horizons, to putting the “mundane”, the everyday, at the forefront of its thinking. Politics could stand to be a bit smaller.