How much has really changed in 2010?
If, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics then a year must be as long as a lifetime. When I think about 2010, two major political events will stick in the memory; the General Election and the student protests. It is these two events that will, I believe, define 2010 in the history books.
5 days in May
This time a year ago, Labour was still in office although arguably it was in office but not really actually in government. Gordon Brown, who is having a much better end than beginning to 2010, was leading a government which was in a visible state of decay. This happens after a while to all governing parties; each has their time and their lifespan and when it comes to an end it does so with a certain degree of finality. You could even call this a ‘circle of life’. Labour’s essential problem was that in government it had allowed itself to become a dried out husk and was finally found wanting when it came to the test of the financial crash. In a narrow capitalistic sense it did the right thing in bailing out the banks but it did it with a timidity that has ensured the bailout has effectively been a waste of money. Consequentially, it has not ended the crisis; only abated it temporarily.
It swallowed the ‘debt crisis’ moral panic whole and this continues to weaken and disarm its ability to articulate genuinely radical solutions to problems that can no longer be solved in a narrow, capitalistic, sense. So it came to be that the early months of the year were somewhat like a waiting game politically; everything spun politically on the axis of the upcoming election.
When it came, the election was notable for the introduction of three televised debates between the leaders. Brown, naturally, fared badly; Cameron was far from reassuring and Nick Clegg was the star attraction. Liberal Democrat popularity peaked and Labour’s chaotic and badly managed (in terms of the ‘air war’ in any case) campaign was sent spinning around in a right tizzy. First, we courted the Lib Dems and the next day we condemned them. All of this added to the impression that Labour’s internal compass was very badly broken indeed and an unimpressed electorate unsurprisingly responded by kicking Labour out of office.
We partially owe not suffering more losses to a strong ‘ground war’ – heroic and brave campaigning efforts where Labour had MP’s mitigated the expected swing against the Party. Herein lies something of a lesson for 2011 and well beyond. However, we also owe it to the fact that our opposition was weak and unconvincing. David Cameron should have delivered his Party a landslide and more frank Conservatives will, I am sure, admit that. Nick Clegg failed to capitalise on his personal showing and in a not unexpected reversal rapidly developed the opposite of the Midas Touch – turning everything he touches to electoral poison.
Nothing about the now infamous ‘5 days in May’ is surprising least of all the fact that the Liberal Democrats did what they did. Gordon Brown incidentally acquitted himself with great dignity during this time and is now deservedly being rehabilitated as a serious politician with plenty of interest to say. Nick Clegg and his Party however acquitted themselves with the conspicuous lack of dignity, humility and anything else positive that is now their trade mark in government.
Losing the shine…
What has genuinely surprised me about this government is how quickly the shine has come off. Personally, I didn’t expect that to start to happen until at least the beginning of next year. However, it is already suffering negative opinion poll ratings and the Liberal Democrats are slightly less popular than several highly unpleasant diseases. What does amuse me is the proponents of the Coalition assuming they will have 5 years so can afford some unpopularity now. As we have seen towards the end of this year; people will not wait until they are allowed to vent at the ballot box, they are more than prepared to take matters into their own hands. So, the assumption of a full five-year term is a bold one indeed but more of that later.
Internationally, its hard to think of significant change. The conflicts in Afghanistan and between Israel and the Palestinians have rumbled on in familiar grooves. Neither looks particularly close to ending; no matter what politicians say. Iran has continued to be an issue and a situation which is filled with menace as are the tensions along the Korean Peninsula. Overall, the pattern of the slowly crumbling influence of what was the ‘Western’ world continues and there is nothing stable and solid in its place. In time, this will lead to serious faultiness becoming fissures in the international order and this both destructive and creative tension will create cracks which the cunning can exploit leading us, frankly, heaven knows where. This is aided and abetted by the continuation of the tragi-comedy of the ‘War on Terror’.
Australia hosted the most exciting electoral contest outside of our own with Julia Gillard’s Labor needing the support of the Greens and Independents to maintain a somewhat desperate grip on power. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has struggled in America to make the kind of impression he would like and that naturally resulted into the evaporation of the popular enthusiasm (and of the Democrats Congressional majorities) at the ballot box in the mid-terms . Having promised so much he will now have to settle for delivering considerably less. The dangers of building up a ‘movement for change’ like this which is heavily reliant on rhetorical flourish is a lesson Labour has to learn but its something that right now seems to have totally escaped Ed Miliband.
A New Era…
Ed’s election was supposed to usher in a new era for Labour but judged by that criteria it has been a spectacular failure. Rather than heal the wounds of the past it has exacerbated them. The Parliamentary Labour Party is annoyed it has a leader it patently does not want. Labour’s members are also becoming increasingly disenchanted too if this survey is anything to go by; while the trade unions are justifiably asking why they bothered supporting a candidate that can’t even be bothered to treat them with dignity and respect.
Ed has nobody but himself to blame for this; much like Obama, he ran a campaign strong on rhetoric but that has delivered a lot less than it promised. I regret supporting his campaign but of the available field there was not much better on offer. Had John McDonnell ran though I would have felt differently about that and my regret would have been two-fold, both voting for Ed and not supporting John. Labour is ending this year in a manner similar to how it ended last one and that is not a comforting thought. The Party is strong but the leadership is a problem and may well become an issue much sooner rather than later.
It’s not all doom and gloom though; there are plenty of positives to end the year with, both the election of Len McCluskey to the leadership of Unite and the emerging student movement. Len, unlike Ed, has shown he is not scared of being corralled by the media and will plainly speak as he sees. I think this will endear him to many more than his opponents, who obviously include Ed Miliband among their number, would like. He also has a good grasp of the importance of democracy to progressive politics, which is unquestionably a good thing.
The student movement may be quite for now but it will be back, that is for sure, and the real plus is that a whole generation is politically maturing in a climate where they are made keenly aware of the limitations of our emaciated democracy. Also, they are clearly not afraid to take the fight for more of this precious commodity all the way and this generation will soon make the effects of its actions felt in all political parties. The election of McCluskey also signals that this will also make itself felt in the wider labour movement. It would be wrong to ‘mistake the first month of pregnancy for the ninth’ but the fact is that 2010 saw at least the conception of change which is both permanent and radical in this country and the wider world.
Whether that is carried through, to term, will depend, as it always does and always will on both the individual and collective agency within these new movements as well as theoretical direction they try to travel. My submission is that social justice and consistent democracy, two inextricably linked ideas, should be the guiding lights of the new movements. If they are then I think 2011 could easily surpass 2010 as a year of change and this time it will be change for the better…