John Mills, owner of TV shopping channel JML and one of the Labour Party's biggest donors, laments how similar Labour's economic policies are to the Conservative party's; how 'boxed in' the Labour leader, David Miliband, has become. Mills' lament echoes much of the rest of society which, seeing little difference between the main political parties, has been deserting the ballot box in droves. But what Mills and many of us perhaps don't realise is that this phenomenon is entirely inevitable and is driven by forces far beyond the control of politicians.
What's more, it's happening not only in the UK but almost everywhere. Mainstream political parties in virtually all countries are struggling to differentiate themselves from one another, at least in terms of their economic policies. And the factor that's forcing them to become virtually indistinguishable is: globalisation.
Globalisation fundamentally changes the game for politics because, today, capital and corporations have the ability to move or site their operations, investments and tax liabilities in whatever country offers the highest financial return (or the lowest taxes). But here's the point: Because governments need to retain and attract investment and corporations to keep their economies healthy and unemployment low, they effectively have no choice but to follow a very narrow set of business- and market-friendly policies. In short, they must keep their national economies 'internationally competitive' and attractive to footloose corporations and global investors. Fail to do so, or try to deviate towards the Left, as French President Hollande attempted, and you'll quickly be forced to return to the fold.
The effect of this narrow, market-induced mono-culture is that our democracies have been reduced to mere pseudo-democracies. They've become little more than an electoral charade. While the mechanics of free and fair elections provide the illusion of democracy, the need for all parties, once in power, to follow a very narrow band of competitiveness-oriented policies means it no longer matters much who we vote for or whether we bother to vote at all. As Mr. Mills points out "With the economic policy structure that we have got at the moment there really isn't much room for the Labour Party to be very different from the Conservatives." Little wonder, then, few of us bother to vote, that young people have all but given up on politics, and that increasing numbers in the UK and elsewhere are being drawn to simplistic, far-right 'solutions'.
Given globalisation makes this situation inevitable, one wonders why Mills bothers to give his hard-earned money to the Labour Party at all? Perhaps he still believes politicians and national governments have the freedom to choose their policies. He apparently still believes that 'governments have the power', and that his money can make a significant difference to what they do. Like many, he's perhaps yet to realise that globalisation has already changed the game. It has already boxed all politicians in.
For we, citizens, there's nothing to be smug or complacent about. For if democracy is undermined, we are the ones who are really boxed in. But neither does this justify a wholesale retreat from politics and voting, (as comedian Russell Brand advocates). Rather, with the European elections imminent and the UK general election on the horizon, it requires of us that we expand our way of thinking to catch up with the new global realities that globalisation has brought about. That it requires new ways of using our national votes to influence the bigger, global picture.
The new global reality calls us, then, towards completely new forms of global politics that transcend and yet include nation-states and which offer the possibility of bringing global markets back under public control and accountability. This would create a new, global level of politics at which genuine democratic choices would be restored, both to national politicians and to ourselves. But what would this politics even look like, and how on earth could it be effective?
Hard though it may be to imagine, some promising models are already making progress and are gathering increasing interest and support. But arguably the most important thing would be for our thinking to first move to a level at which we even appreciate their potentially vital importance. A level at which we could see that developing, supporting, and being interested in them may just prove essential for our civilised survival.