Editor in Chief of Naked Politics
The last few weeks have felt like years. There’s been an uncomfortable amount of new information to digest. Politician’s positions have changed at a quick-fire pace. Our political system is crumbling, reassembling and re-shaping at an overwhelming speed. Peel away the veneer of Machiavellian drama, daily resignations, backstabbing and reconciling, and an unavoidable truth lies beneath. Britain is a country of two halves: one with hope, optimism and opportunity, and the other without.
“A peasants revolt” is a somewhat crude, but painfully accurate description of the EU referendum result. Much of the 52% are at the bottom, living with perpetual wage stagnation, have little in the way of job opportunities, are dealing with a huge shortage of affordable housing, whilst simultaneously suffering huge cuts in state investment. Similarly, the hope of going to university to better yourself, or your children is financially harder than ever after the trebling of tuition fees and the abolition of the grants system for even the poorest prospective students. Most economic opportunities are concentrated in the south, particularly London, leaving the old industrial cities behind.
This was then uncomfortably juxtaposed against cuts to corporation tax, tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals in society and a largely ineffectual commitment to tackle “aggressive tax avoidance”. Even our own Prime Minister was found to have benefitted financially from an offshore family business in Panama and incredibly lax inheritance tax laws. Almost nothing has been done to counter fundamental regulatory issues in the banking and finance sector. A few crumbs were thrown to the peasants, such as the raising of the tax threshold and a “National Living Wage” (which it turns out wasn’t one). But overall, for the last six years, the Conservative consensus has been that those at the bottom will have to pay the heaviest price for the failures of those at the top, thinly cushioned with the lie that we were supposedly “all in this together”. Those who dared to criticise the status quo of austerity were decried as irresponsible and economically stupid at the time, yet the consequences of the government’s ideological decisions are now inescapable. The chickens have come home to roost.
Hard economic times make fertile ground for prejudice and irrationality to ensue. This is further cultivated by the Murdoch press, an institution so scarily influential and powerful, that the concept that we live in anything more substantial than a cosmetic democracy seems at best, grossly naïve. It’s well documented of course, through several credible studies that overall EU migrants have not caused a suppression of wages, or made getting a job more difficult for British people, but that the 2008 recession certainly has. There’s little to suggest that immigrants are somehow the enemy of working people when you look at the facts. But when your newspaper, (and frankly, most others) are telling you in a simplistic, overly sensationalist manner every single day that immigrants are the source of your problems, that the squeeze on government resources is due to a barrage of immigrants, what else are you supposed to think? Most ordinary people are too busy struggling to exist, to take a closer look and see the reality.
I suppose the outcome of this referendum neatly sums up the world we now live in: a post-fact political landscape where truths and evidence are now an empty currency. We’re all living with the Trump-effect, a re-discovery that in times of economic desperation, brazen lies work better than reality and rationality, if said with enough passion. Politicians like Farage and Johnson can easily package and sell you these false ideas, because the media implicitly tells you the same thing everyday anyway. The seeds of hate have already been sown, long before this referendum happened.
Perhaps this is something Theresa May has clocked, someone with the gall to complain about how we “don’t have an economy that works for everyone” whilst doing everything possible not to be held accountable for the very policies which have helped to create this situation we now find ourselves in. All of a sudden, she now fancies implementing policies to get worker’s representation on company boards and curbing excessive CEOs pay, a covert admission that the last government got a lot of things wrong. She doesn’t want to be the Prime Minister for “just the privileged few” yet she voted against banking reforms; a compulsory jobs guarantee; voted for VAT to rise consistently; voted against reducing energy bills; voted against building 100,000 new affordable homes; voted against creating more jobs for young people out of banker’s bonuses, and most gallingly of all voted against legislation to reduce tax avoidance and evasion a mere three months ago.
Working people do not deserve to be condemned for this result, however tempting as a more privileged middle class remainer it would be for me to do so. They’ve watched their communities suffer the most thanks to a failed system, one rigged in favour of those with the most. In a horrible twist of irony, it is highly likely that in the long term, Breixt will have a negative effect on our economy and the first people to feel the effects of a dropping currency and a lack of investment in this country will be those at the bottom. This was a protest vote on a massive scale. Many working people blame migrants for diminishing their opportunities in life, but what they have really done is protest against an entire economic system, making it clear that the neo-liberal status quo is no longer acceptable. Sure, capitalism needs a certain level of inequality to work, but too much and the system ceases to be productive, or indeed fair. It is evident that the widening levels of inequality in our society are not sustainable
So, if there’s one glimmer of hope in this pit of darkness, it’s that income inequality is no longer something politicians can easily side step, as some sort of irrelevant populist issue of the “loony left”. There has been not a single utterance from the government of “austerity” or the word “deficit”, terms that defined Cameron’s premiership. Will this government really change things? Probably not. Equality of opportunity has not historically been the Conservatives’ forte; it will be down to a more progressive government to seize the moment and make real policy changes that are beyond superficial. But the political paradigm has now shifted irreversibly, and a new economic consensus is beckoning, one in favour of recognising the plight of the “have-nots” and that equality of opportunity is not a burden, but crucial for a successful economy and a harmonious society. And that can only be a good thing.