One of the most frustrating things about Northern Irish politics is how we often fall into the convenient idea (or cognitive trap) that we are somehow detached from what’s happening in the rest of the world.
There’s an interesting piece in the New Statesman which I think raises an important issue for politics everywhere. It focuses on UK Labour’s difficulties in reaching what it perceives to have been it former voters in the so called Red Wall seats.
But in fact it is about the business of power and whether as a political party Labour is mentally willing or prepared to take it on. In it, Richard Seymour (author of The Twittering Machine) notes:
While Conservatives slot seamlessly into the circulation of power, as the historian Perry Anderson wrote in his famous 1964 essay on the “Origins of the Present Crisis”, Labour governments tend to occupy an “isolated, spot-lit enclave, surrounded on every side by hostile territory, unceasingly shelled by industry, press and orchestrated ‘public opinion’”.
He goes on…
Labour’s challenge is to understand the limited power it once exercised, and how that was destroyed… to understand how Labour’s material ability to assist and organise working-class people has been destroyed, and how the ascendancy of its professional cadres of Spads and party managers accelerated its decline.
And, finally, it is to understand how power might be built. It is useless trying to empathise with Hartlepool voters’ “patriotism” without grasping that the same processes that demolished labourism in such constituencies have also left those voters powerless, and increasingly contemptuous of a Labour Party that approaches them now with quasi-zoological bafflement.
Brexit was a futile pseudo-rebellion, but it was also probably the first time in decades that those voters felt that their vote made the slightest difference. What is more, the Tories delivered it and immediately started talking about investment.
That’s power, not euphemised “values”.
At times, politics in NI has only seemed to be about values rather than the business of using what powers Stormont grants to put those values into action. And there is always a convenient other to blame for not delivering anything at all.
But on the wider plane of politics, Covid has revealed that the all but the fittest shall die myth that has dominated economic thinking in the west for two generations comes with a cost unacceptable to the majority western democracies.
And yet something was already changing before Covid. Membership organisations, whether for small business owners or tradition unions report huge increases in their rolls. In fact union membership is in its fourth year of growth.
Pragmatic Tories may have seen this shift before UK Labour. The 34 year old Tory Mayor of Teeside (since 2017) brought Teeside airport back into public ownership since it was sold to a private group in 2003 (under Labour).
Elsewhere, Uber has recognised the GMB union…
…the GMB will have access to drivers’ meeting hubs to help and support them. It will also be able to represent drivers if they lose access to the Uber app, and it will meet quarterly with management to discuss driver issues and concerns.
Drivers will not become members automatically but will be able to sign up to take part in collective bargaining.
Pretty modest stuff given Uber is yet another would be digital monopoly vying for global domination. But perhaps also an indication that the direction is a shift from what sociologists Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett call “I to Us“.
In the US, the first non Baby Boomer President since George Bush Sr, has initiated a huge redistributive stimulus which faced very little in the way of opposition because Biden has abandoned the Democrats bipartisan approach to legislation.
In the south, the grand coalition led by Micheál Martin, has embarked on the biggest state spend in house building in generations along with health and transport infrastructure, regardless of the fact it is necessarily based on borrowing.
The great fear that has keep government state spending policy under tight control has been losing control over inflation but the whole issue of debt sustainability is being radically rethought under the strain of the Covid shock.
The literalist interpretation of debt management in something like the German model of the debt brake (which was adopted throughout the Eurozone under the Fiscal Compact of 2013) is being quietly done away with.
In the US, Biden’s ambition is much greater than Johnson’s pragmatic (nay, clientielist) grip on power. Rather it is to shift the balance between capital and labour, such that he says that “employers have to compete for workers.”
The problem he’s addressing is that (according to a recent paper from the Rand Corporation) that those in the US with incomes below the 90th percentile have lost a sizeable share of economic power over four decades (from 67 % to 50%).
So where does this leave us in Northern Ireland, drowning as we are in culture talk of border polls, emasculated Irish Language Acts and last stands against the protocol by the party partly responsible for bringing into being
Well, the last presser into my inbox before finishing this piece might be a clue. It’s from the SDLP’s Mark Durkan and it points out that Universal Credit housing costs are falling short for 88% of private tenants. He writes of everyone:
“Almost 32,000 claimants are impacted by these shortfalls which are very significant – with some households out of pocket to the tune of £139 per month.”
Such outcomes have become more commonplace over the last 4o years in an era when everything from health reform and peace building can come from finding savings, doing more with less or paying for it by selling assets and leasing them back.
That belongs to a world in which 1% of richest segment of the richest nation in the world gets to keep 22% of its wealth (compared with 9% in 1975), and one which will only change if the way the White House looks at wealth changes.
Putnam and Garrett come to the conclusion that the if you take the 20 century as a game of two halves, the first part saw not just rapid economic growth, but a massive increase in the way the new wealth created was distributed.
Throughout the book they note over and over again that this was achieved not by one of the two great parties but by a process of convergence on the idea that equality and better wealth distribution went hand in hand.
The last forty have seen huge divergences and the slow revelation (as can be seen in the Rand paper) that “trickle down” economics turned out to be a massive form of “vacuuming up” of wealth. Culture war politics has filled the gap.
This principle of convergence around equality is (rather than a legalistic means of “breaking the bastards”) might be one around which a new consensus emerges (and not just on the basis that without one the NI peace process will tank).
As the political philosopher Danielle Allen recently put it equality should not be a political weapon as it has often been used in Northern Ireland, but…
…the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.
Picking a fight with relative (not just absolute) poverty and low standards in education by building better social and economic infrastructure will yield a better return on the Belfast Agreement than continuing with our sterile culture war
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty