On Monday my friend Adrian Chiles presented a very interesting Panorama exploring why most of Britain, and particularly working class areas outside London, voted Brexit. Adrian found the experience of making the programme fascinating and disturbing.
Here, paraphrased as best I can, are some of the things he said to me about his conversations with people in the West Midlands:
Saying “This is what happens when you give uninformed people the power to decide anything” just isn’t good enough. Even if you believe that, you must surely realise that it constitutes a massive problem that needs addressing.
At every level, of IQ, social class, age etc the issue of the level of immigration is critical. Everything but everything is blamed on there being “too many of them”. Can’t get a job? Immigrants’ fault. Low pay? Immigrants’ fault. Can’t get a council house? Same. Long wait for hospital appointment? And again. Spaghetti Junction gridlocked? Immigrants. So a lot of this is really about austerity; inadequate funding of public services yet, if for whatever reason, you don’t feel right in your own country - and it’s clear plenty don’t - that’s significant. And we can’t just dismiss it because we think it’s daft.
I have tended to take the view all my life that it’s a shame heavy industry has gone elsewhere and there’s not the jobs any more but that’s just the way the world’s gone. That’s just lazy thinking though, and actually callous. It’s just too big an issue. It’s a whole class of people. Half the country with no real purpose any more.
In a way “their” interests in big issues are purer than “ours”. I was there during the most fascinating turbulent week of Westminster Politics ever. People like us were glued to it, engrossed, entertained. No-one I spoke to in the West Midlands ever mentioned it once. It’s simply of no interest. What they care about are the real issues, not the House of Cards stuff.
In that sense their interest in policy/issues is purer than ours. They are literally only interested in what effects their lives and the country. The Gove, May, Leadsom, Johnson drama is not only of no interest to them; I get the sense it actually offends them. The view is along the lines of, “how dare they play their stupid games at this difficult time. We need leadership. Don’t ask me to be entertained by it! It’s all too serious for it to treated as entertainment.”
Our political system is disastrous for engagement. If you don’t live in a marginal - and none of them did - your vote is meaningless. And they know it. How do we expect them to engage?
Talking about problems with the pound and, worse, the stock markets was a disaster for the Remain campaign in those parts. As one of them said, we don’t care about the pound as long as it works in the trollies in Asda, and who gives a monkey’s if Easyjet shares have fallen.
Powerful stuff, but what can we make of it? One obvious point stands out – the underlying story is of the human impact of global capitalism: The brutal industrial restructuring of the eighties, the free movement of goods and people, the stagnation of living standards for the bottom half, the relegation of almost everywhere outside London to a branch office economy.
Of course, there is a whole battery of policy responses to these issues, ranging from the living wage to city devolution. Yet do these interventions address the more fundamental question – can any country shape capitalism in ways more aligned with people’s hopes and needs?
Back in the 1990s Gordon Brown and Tony Blair placed at the heart of the New Labour a key assertion; ‘economic dynamism and social justice can go hand in hand’. Their policy agenda involved a shift from advocating tax and spend redistribution to investing in supply side reform. This is what underlay Blair’s emphasis on ‘education, education, education’.
Labour made genuine progress in its attempt to improve opportunities, reducing the number of children in poverty by half a million, raising school attainment and expanding higher education, and - despite the modernising rhetoric - its tax and benefit changes were highly redistributive. Yet the impact of all this on social mobility and productivity was limited and improvements in living standards for lower income people petered out before being thrown into reverse by the global economic crisis. Despite major regeneration initiatives, something of an urban renaissance and two decades of growth leading up to 2008, the communities that had suffered most from de-industrialisation remained economically fragile and socially disadvantaged.
As progressives search for a new analysis and narrative, what is the 2016 equivalent of ‘economic dynamism and social justice hand in hand’, an approach which might offer a sense of possibility to the people interviewed by Adrian?
For me it has to be about how we direct the dynamism of modern capitalism towards human ends. Some of these ends are economic and conventional, higher living standards, better public services; others, such as community cohesion, a sense of agency and pride, the perception of just desserts are more complex. We can’t have everything we might want but right now it feels like we can’t even choose the trade-offs.
Some corporations worried about their reputation talk about ‘mission driven business’; the economist Marianna Mazzucato and others advocate a mission driven industrial strategy. But this is not primarily about state policy it is about a different national (and international) conversation which takes human ends not as things we vainly hope to be the by-product of economic change but as imperatives towards which economic dynamism and technological innovation must somehow be directed. Some of this thinking inspired my annual lecture ‘Towards a human welfare economy’ last year. It is also an important rationale for the RSA’s Citizens Economic Council launched last week.
The idea that capitalism can be better directed to human ends is anathema to free market fundamentalists and anti-capitalists alike. It involves a revolution in thought stretching from political ideology to corporate strategy to the detail of industrial policy. But one of the other things Adrian said to me is that if Brexit doesn’t give the people he spoke to some of what they hope for their response will not be remorse but greater rage.
The capitalist economy has to work better for people: In the words of a politician who would have been horrified by my analysis; ‘there is no alternative’.