Paradigm shifts

Bored on a Sunday evening in lockdown, so I thought I’d post some random musings on here.

I am sure this isn’t a particularly original thought, but I’m wondering if the key political divide of our times is disruptor vs disrupted.

If I may paint in broad brush strokes for a moment; the big winner, politically, of the last sixty years has been liberalism, and it has won in two different planes.

Market liberalism stepped in following the collapse of the post-war consensus in the 1970s, and has broadly been the backbone of economic policy since.

Social liberalism has similarly been successful over the last half-century; the country prior to Roy Jenkins’ social reforms was a very different one to today.

Both of these drive what business consultants might call disruption; an idea beloved of certain companies during the early part of the 2000s. Airbnb disrupted the hotel industry, Netflix disrupted the video rental sector, and so on.

Presumably we can say the same about liberalism. Market liberalism disrupts traditional industrial bases. Social liberalism disrupts traditional familial structures.

Now, there are some definite upsides here. Traditional industrial bases may have been inefficient, or of poor quality, unable to survive without restricted competition or being propped up financially; disruption benefits the consumer hugely. And it is undoubtedly positive that people who do not live as part of a nuclear family are now much freer and more accepted.

I personally am supportive of many of the changes liberalism has brought, particularly on the social side. I welcome the disruption.

But the problem for people like me is that this isn’t true of everyone. Many people feel disrupted, and they are increasingly able to flex their political muscle. Perhaps for a long time, the disrupted were effectively shut out of the political process, with the two main parties broadly moving towards both market and social liberal positions.

However you cannot suppress political movements forever, not when the undercurrents are so strong. Boris Johnson marched across Labour’s heartlands last year by appearing to be less market liberal (state intervention to “level up”) and less socially liberal (Brexit stands as a proxy here, which I think to a large extent reflects the divides I’m talking about). It’s currently underappreciated by the left, but Johnson is — at least rhetorically — burying Thatcherism. A “Brexity Hezza”, as he calls himself.

What I’ve been wondering about today is how the left might respond, find its own solutions to appeal to “disrupted” voters.

The solution to market liberalism seems straightforward enough; many on the left prefer a more interventionist economic policy anyway, although the left that has until very recently been in the ascendant simply answers every question with “nationalisation”, which is a solution from kneejerk ideology rather than a proper consideration of the most appropriate response in each scenario. Nationalisation is a backward looking answer; we need to think about the future.

How does the left deal with those disrupted by social liberalism though? As with rejecting nationalisation as a cure-all, the left should reject attempts to shift the social clock back to the 1950s. Life was a lot worse for a lot of people then and the gains made since are valuable and must stay.

So, what then? Can it be done? Communitarianism is something I have some sympathy for, but it’s a lot harder to get right than an economic platform. You can’t force community sentiment. The state can’t mandate a sense of belonging.

Perhaps there are some policies which may help; supporting local bus routes, more funding for parks and attractions in local areas, investing in high streets and community centres, and so forth. People want to be able to take pride in their area. Maybe it’s partly about a Labour party that looks comfortable in its own sense of Britishness, that isn’t afraid to say that we live in a great and beautiful country. That doesn’t make the mistake of seeing Britain solely through the lens of empire. A part of it might involve being more humble. There is a great arrogance from the Labour Party towards people it believes “belong” to it; summed up in Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet about how only Labour can be trusted to unlock the potential of BAME people.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is. But if the frontline of the new politics is going to be disruptor vs disrupted, it’s worth thinking about how to bridge that gap, which bits of disruptive liberalism to retain, and which to replace.

Granted, all of this may be rendered completely moot by the political effects of coronavirus, but my suspicion is that the underlying currents I’m talking about here have been political stress lines for around half a century, so I imagine they will endure.

Just thinking aloud, anyway.

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Rob Francis

I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.