The gap between the political narrative and life as experienced by the average voter is widening dramatically. The United Kingdom faces serious economic, environmental and social crises that will deepen without shifts in policy. Yet there is little sense of impending doom among the country’s politicians.
A decade of upheaval has produced not radical change, but a renewal of a failed consensus. This suits the Conservative party, which, after 13 years in power, offers the dead weight of bankrupt intellectual habits. However, Labour’s U-turn over one of its rare transformational policies, to spend £28bn a year from day one of being in office on green investment, leaves it looking pusillanimous and complacent about its poll lead.
Significantly, there is now a shared understanding, whatever the differences between political parties, that austerity is acceptable and budget deficits unthinkable. Given that this risks condemning the country to a low‑growth, carbon-intensive economy with stagnating wages, one must hope that this is a strained compromise that only holds for so long.
The UK is not a failed state, but it is failing. And others can see that is the case. People furious about the pollution of their rivers and coasts voted with their feet in many parts of the country in May’s local elections. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, warned in April that new laws curtailing peaceful protest were “incompatible” with the country’s international obligations.
The UK once prided itself on its democratic stability. However, our model is badly broken. Other nations have elections in which politicians seek the top job by being at odds with an old orthodoxy so that they can preside over a new one. By contrast, Britain now changes its prime ministers without elections. Edward Heath was the last UK prime minister who was voted into that position only after their party won a general election, remained as party leader for the whole time in office and then left at a general election. That was five decades ago.
The economy is teetering on the brink of recession, inflation remains stubbornly high and pay strikes are disrupting railways, schools and even hospitals. Most countries that fall apart do so because they are unable to take advantage of their people’s potential. Britain is travelling down that road. Its “extractive” economic institutions openly operate for the benefit of elites at the expense of voters. So large is the chasm between the haves and the have-nots that the richest 50 families in the UK, it was revealed this week, have more wealth than the 33 million people found in the bottom half of the UK population.
Our closest neighbours do things differently and often better – with a more interventionist state. About two-thirds of people in Vienna, the capital consistently voted the best place to live, reside in social housing – a secure tenure abjured in Britain. Finland has for decades provided every schoolchild with a warm, healthy lunch, a precondition for happy learning that the British state is too miserly to fund. France’s government is building four gigafactories for electric vehicle batteries while the UK can’t manage one.
The priorities of the City, and Treasury worries about investor confidence, should yield substantially to the unnecessary suffering and insecurity far too many people face. Labour ought to be making the case that it will “borrow to invest” – and challenge the Treasury view that Britain gets a poor economic return on public investment. Rishi Sunak hasn’t made any impact on a floundering economy. With democracy in retreat across the globe, just muddling along from one disaster to another won’t do. The status quo is far more dangerous than the new ideas to replace it.