The UK's 2010 General Election: Will it Mean Anything at All?

Given the complete inability of the UK political class to mobilise anything but a short-term solution to the most serious economic crisis since the war, it’s not clear that it makes any difference at all who wins.
Jeremy Gilbert
12 April 2010

A  public seminar on April 21st will address the question Will it Mean Anything at All? This is the question which we ought to be asking about the election process. Given the inability of the political class to mobilise anything but a short-term solution to the most serious economic crisis since the war, it’s not clear that it makes any difference at all who wins on 6 May.

The real issue is this: everyone knows that whatever government we have in June 2010 is going to pursue a set of highly unpopular policies (such as raising university tuition fees) which they don’t want to admit to; while on the other hand they’re not going to do anything like the kind of damage that they keep threatening to do. The kind of figures being bandied about for actual cuts (15-25%…‘worse than Thatcher’…) are pure right-wing fantasy.

As John Lanchester so brilliantly demonstrates in his latest contribution to the London Review of Books, cuts on the scale that the city/CBI/professional- economics lobby are calling for, and that even Darling is promising, would simply devastate the infrastructure of the country past the point where any sane administration could actually contemplate them. So why is even  Alisdair Darling so keen to frighten us with tales of dark times ahead? As Lanchester argues, a large part of the reason is that this is the kind of language that the bond markets want to hear, and so hear it they must, lest they desist from lending huge amounts to the UK government at low interest rates.

But this doesn’t quite explain the quietly terrifying tone  of much of the rhetoric, which requires some further explanation. Surely this is intended not to prepare us for a Blitz-like period of national character-building, but to generate a climate of paralysed anxiety at just the moment when a serious political challenge to neo-liberalism might seem most likely.

The thinking shared by Brown, Darling, Cameron and Osborne is clear: by the time it turns out that the cuts can’t be that bad after all,  that we’ll just have to pay off the debt over 15 years rather than 5, then the worst danger to the system which they uphold will have passed. By that time, we’ll all have been so scared for so long that the fact that the chance of anyone my age retiring at 65 will have been wiped off the table, that student fees have doubled, and that a fundamentally unpopular and unaccountable socio-political regime has survived a storm that should have destroyed it, all won’t look that bad after all. We’ll sigh with relief, take out more mortgages, and take a furtive sip on our flavoured lattes, glad to note that we haven’t lost our 48-hour-per-week no-childcare, no-pension jobs….

And yet we will not find a single mainstream political commentator willing to give voice to any of this. Is there ever a more dispiriting reminder of the weakness of mainstream political commentary than in the weeks running up to a general election? It’s symptomatic of the complete failure of the mainstream press and, above all, broadcast media, to offer any substantial analysis of the current crisis of British politics that blogs and websites such as this one have become the place to turn for insightful analysis and original perspectives.

While the traditional spaces of public discussion have shrunk or been hollowed-out or beaten into submission, rarely offering any scope to voices which are genuinely critical of the (neo) liberal consensus, the online universe is opening up new spaces for public discussion and for the production and circulation of knowledge, as readers of OurKingdom will appreciate more than most. God knows we need it - if any mainstream political commentator has so far had anything interesting to say about the forthcoming general election, I’ll be delighted to have it pointed out to me…and this apathetic acquiescence is being exhibited at a time when the historic crisis of representative democracy and the final completion of finance capital’s capture of the state ought to be provoking outrage and posing fundamental questions about how we are governed.

Of course, as is often pointed out, what the online public sphere lacks  - even in comparison to traditional broadcast media - is  that important quality of face-to-face contact between members of the newly-emerging public (be they writers, readers, commentators or all three). This doesn’t have to be the case: part of the democratic promise of the internet was always its capacity to bring real bodies together in simultaneous and convergent space.

It’s partly to test this hypothesis that over the past year at the University of East London, I’ve run a couple of events partly featuring speakers who are neither academics nor traditional journalists, but are best known for writing quality blogs. These events have been remarkably successful - well attended, lively, featuring a very high level of analysis. Bloggers, it turns out, are good at speaking in a lively, accessible and intelligent way, and they have a readership which is keen to get the chance to talk to them.

For the latest of these events I’ve invited two of the best from different generations to discuss the meaning or meaninglessness of the forthcoming election with political theorists and scholars of journalism from the university, as well as any interested members of the public. Anthony Barnett requires no introduction, as the founder of oD, editor of this very page and an astute commentators on our political scene for decades: but check out his devastating analysis of the prospects for the election in the New Statesman. Richard Seymour, best known for his excoriation of the ‘pro-war left’, The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso 2009), is one of the sharpest political analysts to have come out of the hard left for many years.

While I, like many OK readers, may not share his sympathy for the residual fragments of late twentieth-century British Trotskyism, the rigour of his critique is a frequent and salient reminder that intelligent Marxism remains unsurpassed as a coherent paradigm with which to understand the dynamics of power in the modern world: a perspective which might sometimes require qualification or supplement, but which is clearly indispensable for understanding just how it is that the people who control the flows of debt and investment still maintain such a stranglehold over our polity and our culture. Check Lenin's Tomb for a good example.

We expect a good turn-out and a good discussion on the afternoon of April 21st, to be followed by a screening and discussion of Meghan Horvath's short film A Dollar and a Dream and all OK readers are more than welcome to join us - full details are available here.

Readers may also be interested in a pair of seminars planned to follow the election at the Centre for the study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, starting their new series around the question Is Democracy Possible Here in the UK?:

May 13 Post-Election Reflections with Angela McRobbie (Goldsmiths, author of The Aftermath of Feminism, 2009) and Colin Leys (Goldsmiths and Queens University, Ontario, author of Market-Driven Politics, 2001).

May 20 Democratic Futures? Democracy beyond the UK with Jeremy Gilbert (UEL, author of Anticapitalism and Culture, 2008), Alice Mattoni (European University Institute, Florence) and Samuel Toledano (International Visiting Fellow, Goldsmiths)

Both 5:30pm Goldsmiths main building RHB 309 for more details, write to Nick Couldry, [email protected]

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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