Last month’s general election for the UK parliament provided a harsh reminder to some political parties that electoral success is all about telling a good story. The narrative has to be one that the electorate wants to believe or, at the very least, one that appeals to their common sense.
The Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland on the back of a story in which plucky little Scotland, honest and righteous, rises up against corrupt, oppressive Westminster, rejecting right-wing austerity in favour of compassionate social justice.
The Conservative Party won a majority across the rest of the UK by telling us that we can no longer live off borrowed money, and we have to tighten our belts in order to pay off our debts.
The veracity of the story is not important. What matters is that it is believable.
The fact that the SNP government in Scotland is quietly centralising, cost-cutting, and privatising – classic right-of-centre, conservative behaviour – is irrelevant. The people who voted for them want to believe that the anti-austerity, social justice story is true.
Likewise, the fact that the Conservative government will continue to add to the national debt in this parliament – rather than “pay it down” as promised – is irrelevant. Their story of government debt being the same as household debt is one that makes sense (to anyone who doesn’t think too hard about it). We grudgingly accept that we have to reduce our spending in order to pay off what we owe.
The other established parties in the UK election – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – failed to come up with stories in which we could believe. They were rewarded with annihilation in Scotland and a lukewarm response in the rest of the UK.
The difference between the winners and the losers is that the winners have clear objectives, which means they know exactly what what they want their stories to do for them.
The SNP wants an independent Scotland, so it needs a story that represents Scotland as being significantly different from the rest of the UK. With all of the main UK parties locked into the austerity narrative the SNP has an easy job: anti-austerity is the tale to tell. It gives voters something different to vote for and every step that the UK government takes to dismantle the welfare state is a step closer to independence.
The Conservatives have long dreamed of reducing the size of government, and the exponential rise of government debt in the aftermath of the 2007/08 financial crisis gives them the perfect plot line for a story that ends exactly where they want it to end: less government and more free market economy. The beauty of this story is that the voters blame themselves for the debt, including the increase in debt that will surely happen in every year of this parliament. So the guilt of the electorate reinforces the argument for smaller government.
In contrast the Labour and the LibDem parties appear to have no clear objective beyond getting themselves elected. They claim to be champions of social justice yet they speak the language of austerity. Their stories ramble from one side of the argument to the other in a craven attempt to capture votes from an increasingly confused and incredulous electorate.
This lack of vision, lack of purpose from parties with such distinguished histories of radicalism is, frankly, astonishing.
Never has there been such clarity among the general population that our financial and economic systems are hopelessly inadequate to the task of providing us with a secure and sustainable future. We are slowly drowning in debt. Few of us have any realistic hope of a job for life or a guaranteed pension. The damage that we are doing to the planet on which we all rely is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Neither the SNP or the Tories are offering anything that will solve any of these problems. When we read between the lines of their stories all they are selling is the empty tent of independence or the dismal dogma of the unfettered free market. What is the point of independence if it merely moves the dysfunction from Westminster to Edinburgh? What is the point of free markets if we’re enslaved by debt, terrified of poverty, and condemned to perpetual conflict over diminishing resources?
There is a huge void at the centre of UK politics that is aching to be filled. Many of the Scots who voted for independence last year did so not because they are SNP supporters, not because they have tartan hearts beating in saltired breasts, but because they hoped that independence might break the dreary ineptitude of Westminster’s business-as-usual. The spectacular rise of the UK Independence Party in parts of England and the more modest blossoming of the Greens across the UK are symptoms of the same disaffection with the status quo.
And yet, despite this growing constituency of the disillusioned, the LibDems and Labour are still floundering around trying to find a reason to exist. They appear to be blind to the opportunities that are presented by the expanding policy vacuum, preferring to scrabble around in the political dirt trying to grab scraps of territory from the Tories and the SNP.
If politicians have any ambition beyond being elected into office, if they truly want to change the world for the better then they must first identify what it is that people need, and then work out how to provide it, and then tell a story that people can believe and vote for.
The first bit is easy. People need economic security and social justice. None of us can survive or truly enjoy life unless all of us have both of these things.
The answer to the next question – how do we provide them? – is more difficult to pin down, but the first thing that we have to do is discard any notion that progress can be made through some judicious manipulation of the “economic levers” that politicians talk about with such authority. If we have learned anything from the last 100 years it must be that these levers are utterly useless in the quest for either economic security or social justice. We have to stop pretending that they’re connected to anything other than the ego of the politician who’s pulling them, and look elsewhere for answers.
Economic security means that the things that we need for our survival and comfort are reliably produced and distributed, and that each of us has the wherewithal to buy them. Social justice means that each of us has the opportunity to contribute in whatever way we are able to our collective well-being, and to enjoy the benefits of our collective contributions.
Money is the catalyst for all of these things. Nothing useful gets done unless someone applies their brain and muscle to the task, and money is what mobilises our brains and muscles. Our current financial and fiscal systems are clearly inadequate to the task of distributing money to where it is required, therefore the solution lies in reforming how money works so that it empowers us, individually and collectively, to do all of the things that we need to do.
The primary challenge for a political party in search of a purpose is to work out the most effective way to reform our financial and fiscal systems so that they work properly for everyone. Conveniently much of the hard thinking has already been done and practical ideas are sitting waiting to be deployed: replacing money creation as debt with sovereign money; abolishing means tested welfare in favour of universal basic income; getting rid of taxes on productive activity and replacing them with negative interest, land value tax, carbon tax. A combination of these reforms, properly integrated, will provide us with economic security and social justice, and give us the ability to choose how we manage the limited resources of our fragile planet.
Combining these ideas into a cogent set of policies is a task that may well be beyond the capability of party policy-makers who are more used to reacting to focus groups and opinion polls. Some new blood may be required. But when policies have been developed that can credibly fulfill the purpose, then the stories can be woven. Stories that will both capture the imagination of the electorate and appeal to their common sense. Stories that will inspire people to support the change-makers and participate in whatever way they are able to make sure that the reforms are successful. Stories that will knock the empty rhetoric of nationalism and austerity out of the park.