Crystal Palace Park in South London is a physical embodiment of the deeply conservative nature of Britain. The park sits on the border between the terminally Labour-held constituencies of inner London and the conservative seats of outer London. Nobody could look at the current state of the park and be satisfied. Since the actual Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, the Victorian pleasure garden lapsed into what now resembles an Olympic park from a Soviet state embedded within a derelict Medici garden. And yet, if anybody ever suggests any improvements they risk summoning a tidal wave of middle-class complaining. The cycle goes like this: A suggestion is made, a thousand trivial faults are found, the idea is scrapped. The park never changes and everybody gets what nobody wants.
Britain as a whole is similar. Interestingly, unlike America, the British can usually agree on what the biggest problems happen to be, but there are always enough reasons found not to implement any given solution. As a result, we spend years longer than we have to tolerating the tedious and predictable results of our collective inaction. Even those on the left often find themselves stuck in an endless cycle of fighting to conserve the post-war social contract. But they would dispute this, claiming that if the political system were fairer and less elite, then a progressive Britain could emerge. Now they have a chance to prove it.
Ed Miliband's Labour Party is the first in my lifetime to challenge the stale neo-liberal orthodoxy of our age. What follows is a brief and lazy, but accurate, ideological history of modern Britain. Firstly, Thatcher prioritised individualism by encouraging profiteering en masse. When Labour came to power, they also celebrated the new culture of profiteering but with the caveat that some the wealth generated should be used to help people. Then the profiteering caused a global financial crisis which lead to Cameron and Clegg coming to office and telling us that we could no longer afford to help people.
Now we have a candidate who wants to "put an end to the tired old idea that as long as we look after the rich and powerful we will all be OK." He is promising to abolish the corrupt House of Lords and replace them with elected officials. He is also keen on picking fights with landlords, media barons and energy companies. If you still think the two main parties are the same, you probably haven't been paying attention. Meanwhile, the City of London has been paying attention. They are also paying for millions of pounds worth of Tory advertising. Despite all this, hundreds of thousands of progressive-minded people will not even consider voting for the party the banks are so desperate to suppress.
As far as I can see, there are two reasons for this. The first is a reaction to Miliband, the Labour Party and their proximity to power. Miliband is a strange man with no discernable connection to the real world and the Labour Party spent thirteen years dressed as Margaret Thatcher. These accusations are true, but it was hardly a con. Prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, left-wing economics was lost in a theoretical wilderness and the British public were happy to return both Thatcher and Blair back to Downing Street with healthy majorities. It is also worth considering that any organisation as big as the Labour Party has to balance the desires of thousands of members and millions of constituents. Moreover, like any prominent political party anywhere in the world it is prone to disease.
The second progressive objection to Miliband is that he represents little more than austerity-lite. His disingenuous devotion to cutting the deficit amounts to a tacit endorsement of George Osborne's programme of small-government ideology disguised as technocratic pragmatism. Personally, I do not know if austerity is a cruel trick to protect the wealthy from the symptoms of the crisis they created but spending as much as we take in does not have to undermine the idea of the welfare state. As Miliband himself points out, the NHS was created just after the Second World War when Britain had more debt than at any time the country's history. The electorate may have little control over the global economy, but they can control the nation's priorities.
It may be that Britain is too stubbornly conservative by nature to implement most of Miliband's progressive agenda, in the same way that America was too sceptical to support most of Obama's most ambitious reforms. But the only way to test this is to try. If not, it is likely that Labour will revert to the centerism it adopted in the 1990's.
In this election and this climate, it seems as if the most subversive thing a person can do is to take a politician at his or her word. Many had their fingers burnt by Nick Clegg in 2010 but across the Atlantic millions are now enjoying health insurance they never had before because they gave a young congressman the benefit of the doubt in 2008. It is of course far easier to sit back and vote for a protest party (or worse, not vote at all) safe in the knowledge that you will never be made to regret it. Nobody knows that is going to happen in the next few weeks, never mind the next few years, but the only way to be sure that nothing positive will happen is to opt out.
The question is whether or not you think the risk of being labelled naive is worse than putting up with the status quo?