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Synthesis/Regeneration 50   (Fall 2009)

British Politics and the Present Crisis

by Mike Davies

Britain faces the same grave and inter-related crises as the USA and the "western" world in general. As in the USA, the major British political parties offer no solution.

We face a "technical" crisis in the way our economy has been run. This kind of crisis was familiar to Marx and other economic writers 150 years ago and has been happening ever since. Capitalists and their governments pursue profit at the expense of stability and the economy ceases to function properly. The current credit crunch crisis is an unusually serious consequence of the unusually blatant means adopted by finance capitalists to get very rich very quickly.

More seriously we face the resource crisis long predicted by environmentalists - indeed, predictable by anyone who could count. Fossil fuel energy supplies have peaked while worldwide demand continues to rise. There is a severe shortage of staple foods, partly because of the effects of global warming, partly as a consequence of diversion for bio-fuels, and increasingly because of the vulnerability of our intensive agriculture to rising energy prices.

Most seriously of all, global warming is already creating short-term chaos - floods, drought, storms - and in the longer term will literally transform the face of the globe. It will change hugely both our planet and the way we live on that planet.

Britain's big parties

Britain has three electorally credible parties:

These parties have differing histories and traditions. The Conservative Party was the old landowners' party and remains solidly right wing. The Labor Party, just over a hundred years old, was created with trade union support as a party of the working man (sic) and used to include socialists. The Liberal Democrats, although having links to the old Whig Party, have for most of the last century been a smaller and opportunist third party.

All of the three parties are right-wing neo-liberals. In government for the last dozen years, New Labor has relentlessly pursued Conservative policies, doing things that even the notorious Mrs. Thatcher dared not attempt. When in power locally, the Lib Dems have been even further to the right than New Labor.

...as manufacturing has gone overseas, the British economy has become totally dependent on...financial services.

British multi-party democracy has become a charade. While the media are full of stories about which party is on the rise and which in trouble, the truth is that which party is in government makes not the slightest difference. Given Britain's "first past the post" electoral system that strongly favors established parties, the choice that British voters are offered at elections is no choice at all.

Responses to the crises

Finance and services have been a substantial part of the British economy for two hundred years. Even when Britain proclaimed itself "the workshop of the world," much of its prosperity came from banking, shipping and overseas investment. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, as manufacturing has gone overseas, the British economy has become totally dependent on the City of London and its provision of financial services. That makes Britain hugely vulnerable to "technical" capitalist crises.

The position on real resources is worse. Successive governments, Conservative and Labor, have treated our oil and gas reserves as money to burn. Rather than conserve our energy resources, or use them and invest the proceeds for the future, British oil and gas has been used up as fast as we could get them out of the ground. The proceeds have been used to finance current expenditure, including unemployment support. Now that Britain has little left and is dependent on energy imports, none of the big parties has any energy policy beyond playing with irrelevancies like tax rates - and going nuclear!

Food is the other key resource. Britain now imports over half what it eats. People are being hit by price rise after price rise, which will only get worse. Yet all the major parties back the (rigged) capitalist global market that has always failed to deliver for the poor in developing countries and is now increasingly failing the poor in Britain.

The policies of the three parties on the environment, especially on global warming, are the same - lots of rhetoric and no action. Gordon Brown, like Blair before him, makes a speech committing to cutting greenhouse gases every week. The Conservative Party appoints environmental advisers and its leader cycles to Parliament - with his car following 10 yards behind!

Britain now imports over half what it eats.

Meanwhile British emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise. The Labor government favors road transport over rail, and air over road, even seeking a dramatic expansion of London's Heathrow airport - classic Conservative policies. Britain seeks to sabotage EU initiatives on climate change. A new wave of deadly nuclear power stations is their "green" answer to energy shortages.

The common thread, running across the parties and through the different crises, is simple. More capitalism, and more favorable treatment to allow capitalists to make more profits, will solve the crises caused by capitalism. The technical crisis is addressed by pouring hundreds of billions into the same failed financial institutions that generated the credit crisis. The energy crisis is to be solved by shoveling similar amounts into the pockets of the nuclear construction, mining and transport industries (leaving the next thousand generations to clean up the deadly legacy). We are to solve climate change by creating new stock exchanges to trade licences to pollute, so the rich can spew out greenhouse gases while the poor starve.

Alternative parties

For political alternatives one might look to the left, the green movement, or the red-greens.

To survive we need a democratic socialist society that plans production for need...

There is a sprinkling of left parties in Britain, none with a membership larger than 2,000. They include the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party (which always stands as some other front organization), the Socialist Party, and Respect Renewal. Their policies are variously socialist or populist. None give environmental issues any prominence in practice - although most or all would claim to. Between them they have just one Member of Parliament and a few dozen local councillors. Most British people have not heard of any of them!

The one purely environmental party is the Green Party. (Strictly speaking there is an England & Wales party and a Scottish party). It has around 7,000 members from all parts of the left-right spectrum. The Green Party has an extensive menu of environmental policies and fixes but, despite having a few left policies, is definitely not socialist. Indeed, it has, in a real sense, no political position at all, beyond a wish for things to be better environmentally. It has no Members of Parliament but a couple of seats in the so-called European Parliament. Most British people have heard of the Green Party, but know nothing about it except that it is green.

There is also a red-green party, the Alliance for Green Socialism, with a membership of only a few hundred. The AGS regards environmental issues and socialist issues as inextricably linked. It has no Members of Parliament and a single councillor. Most British people have not heard of it.

Britain does, of course, have one rising alternative to the major parties - the racist British National Party. It has a membership of around 10,000. The BNP appeals to racism, alienation and economic deprivation. Most of its growing electoral support comes from poorer voters disillusioned with the way New Labor has betrayed them. It has over fifty local councillors. Quite a lot of British people have heard of it but its policies are not well known.

The way forward

Under capitalism we are doomed. Probably not the planet, which is remarkably resilient, but certainly our civilization. Capitalism as a system depends on endless, unlimited growth. Capitalists rely on making a faster buck than their competitors. Both things are fatal to the environment.

To survive we need a democratic socialist society that plans production for need instead of devoting huge efforts to persuading us to desire ever more things we do not need. That is not to say that socialism automatically guarantees an environmentally sound society, but without socialism we have no hope of such a society.

The Conservative Party appoints environmental advisers and its leader cycles to Parliament - with his car following 10 yards behind!

As well as the inevitably destructive nature of capitalism, there is a psychological reason why we must have a fairer - and visibly fairer - society if we are to save ourselves. Put simply, some major changes to our lifestyles will be necessary. Some of these changes will be unpalatable to people used to a lifestyle based on cheap energy and cheap food. People will only accept such changes if they are seen to be fairly shared. The essence of capitalism is a grossly unfair distribution of wealth - and capitalists aim to extend this to a grossly unfair distribution of the consequences of global warming and resource shortages.

That is not to say that environmental socialism means a hair-shirt society. It would mean less stuff and more humanity - a rebalancing of life towards human values and away from the "values" of consumption. Currently a stunning proportion of western economies is devoted to marketing and advertising - in the USA one sixth of GDP! Taken as a whole, this is a massive, sustained effort to persuade us to buy, buy, buy and, further, to persuade us that the capitalist consumer society is what we want.

The falsehood that more and more material goodies will make us happy lies at the heart of our current society. Capitalist advertising aims to make us always, inescapably unhappy while promising us - utterly falsely - that we can purchase happiness.

We need a society based on people - individually and collectively - and on human values, not on production for profit.

Our challenging task is to create a successful political vehicle to achieve this.

Mike Davies is Chair of the Alliance for Green Socialism. He was in the Labor Party for 20 years and is a lifelong trade unionist.

[26 oct 09]

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