Our Institutions No Longer Serve This New Era. The Public Understand, Why Haven't We?

This is a moment of profound change when the collapse of neo-liberalism and the age of anger it has engendered has not yet given way to something new. What is certain is that change is coming.
Ben Pruchnie via Getty Images

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Lisa Nandy on Wednesday 5 September at the Compass21st-Century Power: the state, citizens and civil society’ event in London

A little over two years ago during the referendum, a Nissan worker in Sunderland told me he knew Brexit might cost him his job but he was going to vote for it anyway. Since the referendum people like him have been called stupid, irrational, and even racist. But for him it was all about power.

‘Take back control’ caught the mood in towns like his and mine like no other slogan in my lifetime. The EU vividly symbolised remote, unaccountable power. The referendum was the best mechanism in decades to voice frustration with the status quo. It became a tug-of-war between those who do and don’t have agency over their own lives. The clearest divisions were geographical (cities voted to remain, nearby towns to leave) and educational - a degree the best predictor of how you would vote. Steadily and increasingly there are now ‘two Englands’ that sit unhappily side by side.

Everywhere I went the sentiment was the same. Sunderland, Boston, Kings Lynn and Bolton, people were watching the things that matter most disappear, the power to shape their own lives denied daily.

The roots are found in choices made decades ago. In 2005 Tony Blair said:

“The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

But what of those unable to change? Those towns, where a third of adults don’t have any skills or qualifications at all, got the warehouses and delivery companies while well-paid, white-collar jobs went to the cities. And over time it replaced our rich but declining industrial history with a faceless, globalisation in which McDonalds is of more ‘value’ than the working men’s club, a call centre more ‘use’ than a library.

This was a future staked out on ground alien to millions, indifferent to those people and places without the means to follow. Little surprise, then, that Labour lost millions of votes across its heartlands. We mislaid our historic mission, closed off people’s choices. The sole choice that remained; adapt or be swept aside by progress. We expanded higher education to support the aspiration of young people to go to university. The choice on offer: stay in your home town with a poor job or move away for the chance of a good one. For many it was life-changing. But in the process families were separated, close communities undone and as grandparents age, this fracture becomes more pressing.

The whole population was ageing but, as more and more young people left, the effect in towns was more acute. The Manchester I was born into in 1979 was older than the surrounding towns. Four decades later, Wigan, Bolton and Bury are older and ageing still. The loss of good jobs has cost communities their spending power and the scars are visible. These are still good places to live with strong, ambitious communities who step up in times of difficulty. But too often they are rewarded with boarded up high streets and the loss of those pubs, youth clubs and libraries. Public transport, commissioned miles away on the basis of passenger numbers, has become unviable. Bus services have been decimated. In too many places it has ripped the beating heart out of the community. No wonder the sharp increase in loneliness. No wonder the anger.

All of it can be traced back to the decline of industry in our towns and the decision by successive governments to use cities as the engines of growth in the hope that the benefits would trickle out. They didn’t. And think about the jobs that are left in those towns. Increasingly low-paid, insecure, denying time with family and security. These minimum wage, “flexible” hours jobs do not give purpose or dignity. They offer no prospect of promotion or skills development. When was it decided people would “merely grind for a bare living, instead of strive”, as Bobby Kennedy said, “for the good life”?

The EU Referendum should have made us alive to this reality: many people have lost control and agency over their lives. We should have learnt it in the Scottish Referendum and the dramatic rise of UKIP. Or in the years of declining turnout that we said was apathy because we couldn’t hear that roar, as George Eliot said, “that lies on the other side of silence”. We haemorrhaged working class votes between 2005 and 2018 culminating in an election that, turned class politics on its head but after 13 years of warnings, still didn’t see it. We slowly stripped people of the power to change their own lives, and when they said we weren’t listening they were right. We still aren’t.

For all the division, this is the one thing that unites us. Across towns and cities, working and middle classes, young and old there is growing rejection of a system where decisions are taken hundreds of miles away by people with no skin in the game, with almost complete indifference for lives and communities. In recent months decisions taken in Whitehall have brought the North of England to a standstill, cancelling and redirecting train networks at the stroke of a pen. These decisions, based on distant ‘value for money’ assessments, dictate whether you can keep your apprenticeship, see your grandchildren or get home on time to read your children a bedtime story. But the value of those things doesn’t count.

Look at the plan to create a million new homes and jobs for the highly-skilled along an Oxford-Cambridge corridor. It will double the size of Oxford, fuel climate change and air pollution and the decision, to be made without debate in Parliament or the Cabinet, has probably already been taken. At some stage they will consult. But as George Monbiot rightly says:

“Where democracy counts most it is nowhere to be seen…by the time we are asked for our opinion, there will be little left to discuss but the colour of the road signs”.

This is a life that increasingly lacks agency, dignity and security. No wonder people told us two years ago to sit up and listen. “It was no abstract question for us”, said Nye Bevan, recalling his days as a South Wales miner. “The circumstances of our lives made it a burning, luminous mark of interrogation”. The only question that mattered was “where was power and which the road to it?”.

Too often, the brutal truth is, there isn’t one. The powerlessness felt by the public is the condition of modern politics. Most elected representatives, even much of the Cabinet, operate at a level where major decisions aren’t even discussed. Westminster is full, as Jon Cruddas is fond of saying, of people “pulling levers with no strings attached”. Corporate lobbyists, civic groups and charities clamour for our attention but real decisions take place elsewhere, completely undisturbed by this stalemate.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was in a chemist in a former pit village in Wigan campaigning for the pharmacy grant, slashed by the coalition, to be restored. A man came in to get some flu drugs. The pharmacist couldn’t do it. “Will restoring the grant help?”, I asked. “Actually”, he said, “the problem is that there’s a shortage of flu drugs and the same company, Walgreens (one of only a handful licensed to distribute drugs in the UK), owns Boots.” So on a bitterly cold day, a man in his 80s had to get two buses into town to get the prescription and there was nothing I could do about it. Who decided the system would hand so much power to a corporation based in America, accountable only to its shareholders?

This is why so many sense the system is rigged. That top tier - unified, self-selecting and unaccountable - is anchored in institutions that preserve and sustain them, the tax breaks, privacy laws, and closed social worlds that enable them to recruit in their own image. They move seamlessly between corporations, politics, the media, education, healthcare, civil society, justice and the military. Think George Osborne, stepping from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Editor of one of the most influential papers in the country; a revolving door that feels so far from unusual that he was unable to understand why it should matter that he still, nominally, represented the people of Tatton in Parliament.

This is the Power Elite described by C. Wright Mills 50 years ago, exerting total control through the absence of competing centres of power pulling in different directions. To hold power in one of those arenas automatically hands you power in the others. It is felt by those who lack power as tyranny and they may well be right. “The nation which will not adopt an equilibrium of power, must adopt a despotism. There is no other alternative” said John Adams. Like all the founding fathers he knew that balance is central to a democratic system. But the means to hold power in check is missing. In what sense is it then a democracy?

While much of the media fixates on those at the bottom – so-called “benefit cheats” and asylum seekers – and scrutinises the middle tier of politics, real power goes unchallenged. Think of the rarity of Carole Cadwalladr, exposing the money power behind the EU referendum, while most of the media has concentrated on the circular arguments that take place in Parliament, where the ability to influence the negotiations, or even access information about them, is scandalously limited.

Hope lies in those intermediary institutions in civil society that should provide a bridge between the people and politics but increasingly they are small, scattered and powerless, or colossal, global institutions headed by former executives, government advisors and civil servants, as much part of the power elite as business and funded by it too.

And what of the enlightened and informed public? The day of the EU referendum I was approached by a woman in Wigan town centre who wanted to ask me some questions about the NHS pledge. She clearly didn’t believe it, but then she clearly didn’t believe me either. “I don’t really trust any of you”, she said in the end, “so I think I’ll just go with my heart”. She was not stupid. She knew we, collectively, were withholding the means to make an informed choice and wasn’t prepared to stand it. In an age of mass information and communication, asking people to participate in democracy, without the tools to do it is deeply unfair, and moreover it’s fatal to our politics. Because “socialists do not believe we are a herd to be fed or watered” as Attlee reminded us. “For this reason socialism is a more exacting creed than its alternatives. It requires constant and active participation”.

But nowhere is this to be seen. In the corporate world, smaller, family-run businesses have been swallowed up by big corporations with reach ‘over the whole surface of the globe’, handing to them economic sovereignty, just as Marx predicted. Take Walmart, the 25th biggest economy in the world; a handful board members wielding more power than the leaders of most nation states.

It’s this problem Michael Young described in Small Man, Big World, an emerging order where institutions are no longer small and scattered but concentrated and linked, and power is remote and unaccountable. This is the “privately incorporated economy” where decisions about how much we produce, what it costs, the shape of the labour market and life at work sit outside the political sphere altogether.

And so the state has lost its power to change this. The Attlee Government may have been able to control its national economy but decades later, finance and capital can do what the hell they like. It has also lost its purpose. “Money”, says Michael Walzer, “should be harmless”. But our failure, to set greater limits on what money can buy: university education, medical care, justice, political influence – means that today it does great harm, without consequence. And when the pursuit of wealth runs like a thread through health, education, social services, politics and society, Government no longer provides a framework in which contending pressures jockey for position; those interests are vested in it.

We are to blame. We rail at the individuals, the Fred Goodwins and Harvey Weinstein’s, but ignore the systemic nature of the problem. We ask how we can create a more diverse, elite group to make decisions on our behalf, but refuse to break open those spaces, to scatter and disperse power and restore it to those who rightfully own it.

This failure is what accounts I think for the basic irrelevance of modern politics. The Tory Party, once the party of Adam Smith, who argued passionately that for markets to be free and fair, monopolies must be avoided and power dispersed. What would he make of a modern Tory Party that defends the concentration of power and organisations that are too big to fail? Consider the Liberals, who don’t even appear to have considered the possibility that Brexit was a vote against the crushing nature of modern society that denies millions of people the right to make meaningful choices about the things that matter to them. This capacity to choose, as John Stuart Mill said, is what makes us human. But instead the present day Liberal Party sees the vote to leave as “driven by nostalgia” for a time when “passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink”.

And my own party, Labour, in recent decades devoted to a redistribution that took a small proportion of wealth from the top and handed it, with conditions, to those deemed worthy at the bottom, content to leave the existing power structures undisturbed. Now, we believe we can right this by building a state powerful enough to equal or outgun the power of the market. But this is a path alien to our traditions - of Hardie, Tawney, Cole, Bevan, Attlee and Young. A Party that began in mutual and burial societies and resisted state interference in the labour movement, through the Dockers Strike all the way to the 1970s. That sees power in a state that defends redistribution and power in markets that defend contracts but understands that organised society is the defender of reciprocity and relationships and must not be dominated or destroyed.

The belief that a remote, monolithic state can solve our problems flies in the face of the reality for those people who most feel the absence of power. Who really believes that the answer to the northern rail crisis is to hand a minister more power in Whitehall? Whitehall can’t see potential, it sees only problems. But take Barnsley, where pride in its mining past is palpable, now the home of warehousing companies like Asos. Contrast it with Silicon Valley where federal government has used tax incentives and clean energy regulations to create a world-leading hub for renewable energy. While their young people are designing the battery technology of the future, ours assemble solar panels. But why shouldn’t young people in Barnsley power us through the next century, just as their parents and grandparents powered us through the last? If power lay much closer to home, and we were given the tools to hold them to account, we could match the passion and ambition of the people who live there.

The last few years have taught me that progress is not inevitable. If you want it, you have to work for it every single day. The public have known this for some time that the reality of the present in no way matches the ambition and potential of the country, and there lies the hope. Our best hope remains each other.

That’s why the answer lies, not in imposing solutions, but negotiating the future. I have made the case today that this can only be done with real devolution of political power, restraint of capital, fundamental institutional reform and a reimagining of the values on which we build the future of the country. The lesson from 13 years of government is that a community energy project co-owned and run by hundreds of people survives while the Sure Start conceived in and funded from Whitehall does not.

This is a moment of profound change when the collapse of neo-liberalism and the age of anger it has engendered has not yet given way to something new. What is certain is that change is coming, and “the dogmas of a quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” as Abraham Lincoln put it in no lesser a moment of historical rupture. Our institutions no longer serve this new era and it is clear we cannot go on as we are. The public have understood this for some time. Why haven’t we?

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan