Monday , December 10 2018

Changing the agenda

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Summary:
It’s hard to believe now, but only three years ago the country was not divided between Brexiters and Remainers. In fact, the very idea of such a split would have seemed as absurd as Swift’s division between big-enders and little-enders. Yes, there were a few fanatical Brexiters but most of us gave the matter no thought - including, we now know, most Brexiters themselves. It was a low-salience issue. This fact has enormous implications for how we should think about Labour party policy. It shows that it is possible for a government to shift the political agenda. Cameron’s simple trick of holding a referendum transformed our political priorities. Despite the fact that the Brexit negotiations have been an utter shambles, this might actually have benefited the Tories as it has distracted

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It’s hard to believe now, but only three years ago the country was not divided between Brexiters and Remainers. In fact, the very idea of such a split would have seemed as absurd as Swift’s division between big-enders and little-enders. Yes, there were a few fanatical Brexiters but most of us gave the matter no thought - including, we now know, most Brexiters themselves. It was a low-salience issue.

This fact has enormous implications for how we should think about Labour party policy. Jonathan-Swift-Gulliver-Travels

It shows that it is possible for a government to shift the political agenda. Cameron’s simple trick of holding a referendum transformed our political priorities. Despite the fact that the Brexit negotiations have been an utter shambles, this might actually have benefited the Tories as it has distracted people from the government’s many other failings. If the media weren’t obsessed with Brexit, it might devote a little more attention to the collapse of the railway network, inadequate mental health care, rising homelessness, wage stagnation and the many other effects of austerity.

Cameron has shown that we don’t necessarily need a popular political movement to change the agenda. It can also be done by one-off top-down policies, which can themselves then build movements, as Cameron created Leavers and Remainers.

It’s in this context that we should interpret Labour’s plans to give customers a say on executive pay or to expand worker ownership. It is of course wholly reasonable to question whether such policies, as they stand, will work*. Doing so, however, sometimes misses a Big Fact – that these are not merely technocratic fixes.

Instead, they are efforts to change the political culture. For too long, the question of how much pay and power bosses should have has been off the agenda. Giving workers and customers a say on such matters is a way of showing that such issues are important, and a means of getting people to question bosses’ rapacity and incompetence. It's a stepping stone towards worker democracy and socialism, and a step away from Westminster-centric politics.

We can also read Labour’s – ahem – constructive ambiguity towards Brexit in this light. The party’s dominant attitude to Brexit should be (and I suspect is): “this is Tory shit; they should shovel it.” Their priority is to keep the party together, maximize electoral advantage, and move onto the issues that really concern them: ending austerity and moving towards socialism. (This is quite consistent with opposing Brexit when necessary).

My point here is to stress a point that’s often overlooked. Politics is not merely about finding technocratic solutions to existing issues. It is also about deciding what is an issue in the first place. Those who judge Labour only on the former grounds are framing politics wrongly. And they are neglecting an important political question – of how, and by whom, the agenda is set.

* The details can be fixed later. If it’s acceptable for Microsoft to release beta versions of Windows and fix them months later, it’s acceptable for opposition parties, which have vastly smaller resources, to do so too.

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