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A Broken System Cannot Carry on Forever

30/01/2015 16:51 GMT | Updated 01/04/2015 10:59 BST

Greece has elected Europe's first far-left government of modern times. Spain looks set to put in power a party which didn't exist five years ago. Labour is about to be wiped out in Scotland, the place of its birth. The Tories are terrified that Ukip will do the same to them in their own heartland.

Are these all just local disturbances, or different symptoms of the same crisis?

Clearly there are massive differences between Scotland and Southern England; never mind Greece. But it's worth recalling that back in 2010, Greece was very much part of public discussion in the UK. It was the supposed breakdown of civilisation in Greece that was regularly evoked by those commentators who argued that a Con-Dem coalition, committed to austerity, was the only way to save Britain from a similar fate. We were clearly being told then that the Greek crisis was also our crisis. So is it still?

In many ways it is. The fundamental question at stake in the Greek election, and in the Scottish referendum, and in the rise of Ukip is actually exactly the same: who governs a country? Is it the people who live in it, or a government chosen by them, or is it an international elite of financial interests and the institutions which serve them?

There is a mass of evidence that since the 1970s, the opportunities for citizens collectively to influence the course of government policy on any scale - from parish councils to the EU - have significantly reduced. In the UK, most of Thatcher's initial supporters thought they were voting for an end to multiculturalism, the restoration of the 'traditional' family, and the preservation of Britain's imperial greatness. What they got was privatisation, inequality, and the deregulation of the financial sector. Most people who voted for Blair in 1997 thought they were voting for a return to a modernised version of post-war social democracy. What they got was more privatisation, inequality, and deregulation of the financial sector. Today, it seems, you can have any policy you like, as long as it's the one that suits the hedge funds.

But how and why has this happened? In the 1950s, political parties counted their memberships in the hundreds of thousands and almost everybody voted. More to the point, they voted because they broadly expected that governments would actually do more or less what they wanted them to do. So how have we come to this, half a century later?

The Britain of the 1950s was a very different place to the Britain of today. Lifestyles and values were similar across huge swathes of the population. Large numbers of people saw the same films at the weekend and listened to the same programmes on the radio. Deference and conformism were the cultural norms. In a culture like that, it makes sense to imagine that society can be divided into a couple of large blocs, which can then be represented by parties of the Right and Left respectively, and that joining and voting for those parties will enable the people to be effectively represented.

But in a culture as complex and diverse as our own, how could this possibly remain an effective system of representation? How would the diversity of values and opinions to be found in contemporary Britain possibly be expressed by a political system designed for a so much simpler and more homogenous culture?

But that is the system we are stuck with. It cannot represent us effectively, and so our political institutions end up being captured by those with the most money to spend. And the rest of us borrow from them to pay for a nice holiday.

Because what else do you do once you realise that, whether you're a conservative, a liberal, a socialist or a green - whatever you want, you can't vote for it? What most people have done for the past 30 years is to withdraw from any kind of political participation and cheer themselves up with shopping and leisure. That's why it's so desperately important to governments o make sure that we don't stop spending, however unsustainable our personal debts and our re-mortgaging arrangement may become.

What some others do is to turn to ugly, populist parties of the Right. What they've done in Greece, and look to be in the process of doing in Scotland and in Spain, is to join movements campaigning for a radical reform of political institutions, and the creative invention of new ones, that could make governments properly accountable to their publics once again.

Could this happen here, even in England? The historical and continuing obstacles to it are huge. But what is clear is that the discontents being expressed by publics in all of these contexts are exactly the same. Even here, as the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta should remind us, a broken system cannot carry on forever.

Any such change here will require the co-operation and creative dynamism of a wide range of voices, groups and individuals. What Syriza in Greece, the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland and Podemos in Spain all have in common is this range of constituent elements. They include radical leftists, trade unionists, social democratic, greens, liberals, NGOs, community groups, and many who have come into politics for the first time or very recently (even, in some cases, democratic conservatives) The Change: How? conference on February 8th in London will be unprecedented in bringing together in this country just such a range of voices committed to real systemic change from across the political and cultural spectrum. Whether or not it leads to anything will be up to us, but we already know from Greece, as Owen Jones put it recently, that this is what he politics of hope looks like.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London