How much influence has neo-liberalism had on British politics?

This was the question asked at ‘A Permanent Revolution?’, an event organised by the Centre for British Politics and the Centre for Political Ideologies.

Most of those who have written on this subject have described the ‘capitulation’ of Britain’s political parties, portraying neo-liberalism as the ideological equivalent of a tidal wave which has swept away all of the (intellectual) obstacles in its path. They have paid particular attention to the way in which politicians of all parties have, since the beginning of the 1980s, embraced the market and competition as a means of stimulating economic growth and maximising efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

But the picture is not so clear-cut. More recent studies, including those from Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe and Rachel Turner, argue that neo-liberalism is a far more complicated intellectual beast than previous analysts have acknowledged. Neo-liberal ideology has an extensive conceptual structure that stretches beyond economics into constitutional law and theories of knowledge. It is not just about the market.

The influence of neo-liberalism on all three parties has, therefore, perhaps been rather more subtle (if just as pervasive) than has previously been suggested.

For example, in her paper at our event Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite suggested that the way in which the Thatcher-era Conservative Party sought to achieve the moral rejuvenation of society drew on a variety of sources. The restoration of ‘traditional’ values allegedly eroded by forty years of social democracy – values such as thrift and responsibility – required, to their eyes, appropriate economic and legal (i.e. market) structures. Neo-liberal measures were therefore perceived as an essential prerequisite to the reassertion of traditional, old-fashioned Conservative values.

In his discussion of the Liberal Party, Peter Sloman suggested that while many post-war Liberals regarded the neo-liberals of the Mont Pelerin Society as allies, they did not regard their work as a template for political action. While many neo-liberal ideas reinforced existing Liberal prejudices about free trade and economic management, key figures within the party recognised that many of these ideas were difficult to reconcile with their commitment to social reform. As a consequence, neo-liberal intellectuals and the Liberal Party parted company over the course of the 1960s.

My own paper, meanwhile, assessed the role that neo-liberal ideas played in New Labour’s attitude towards equality. While the party retained a commitment to the pursuit of equality (despite claims to the contrary) it did so within a distinctly neo-liberal framework. The centrepiece of New Labour’s strategy for social justice was an investment in education and training designed to offer wider opportunities to the poorest in society. It sought to do so, however, through the enhancement of labour value and developing human capital – a concept that had been borrowed from the neo-liberal economist Gary Becker.

Of course, not all of the papers at the workshop took this line. Some argued that the influence neo-liberalism has been far more prevalent than hitherto suggested, while others suggested that the influence of neo-liberalism has been overstated – a debate best illustrated by the discussion between Kevin Hickson and Matt Beech on the nature of New Labour.

While Lord Lawson, who participated in the day’s concluding roundtable, claimed not to know what was ‘neo-liberalism‘ – other than a French insult – what all of the contributions illustrated is that the influence of neo-liberalism on British politics remains a live question. Even the likes of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband are today the captives of what in the end turned out to be one of the most successful ideologies of the twentieth century – and possibly of the twenty-first.

Matthew Francis

New MPs kick off

One of the most striking features about the House of Commons after the 2010 election was the number of newly-elected MPs.  A full 36% of the House was newly-elected, including 48% of Conservative MPs.  In the past, newly elected MPs have tended to be relatively acquiescent – at least to begin with – but one of the most striking features about the behaviour of the 2010 cohort, especially on the Conservative side, is how troublesome they have been.

In absolute terms, more Conservative newbies have rebelled (46) compared to Labour ones (21) or the Lib Dems (7). In percentage terms, while 31% of new Tory MPs have now rebelled, 33% of Labour ones have done so, with the highest percentage of newbie rebels located among the Liberal Democrats: although there are only 10 newly elected Lib Dem MPs, a full 70% have defied the party whip.

But these headline figures mask an important difference in terms of dissent by the new MPs of the three main parties. Between them, the newbie Tory rebels have cast a whopping 249 rebellious votes, compared with a modest 23 for Labour, and only a slightly higher number, 27, for the Liberal Democrats.

Tory newcomers have accounted for 31% of rebellious votes cast by all Conservative MPs, compared with a tiny 5% for Labour, and 15% for the Liberal Democrats. The top Labour newbie rebel, Yasmin Qureshi, has accrued only five dissenting votes. Even the top Liberal Democrat newcomer, David Ward, can boast 11 rebellions.  But the top Conservative newbie rebel, David Nuttall, has amassed 54 rebellions.

Nuttall is only the most rebellious of a rebellious cohort. The top ten Conservative new MPs are:

David Nuttall: 54

Andrew Percy: 23

Mark Reckless: 21

Zac Goldsmith: 17

Richard Drax: 12

Jacob Rees-Mogg: 11

Gordon Henderson: 10

Jason McCartney: 10

Martin Vickers: 10

Steve Baker: 9

Together, these top ten Tories account for more than seven in ten (71%) of the dissenting votes cast by Conservative newcomers; and they account for more than one in five (22%) of Conservative rebellious votes cast thus far this Parliament.

As well as trouble from the old guard – many of whom have serious doubts about the Conservative leadership – David Cameron’s whips therefore are also confronted by a hardcore of highly rebellious newcomers.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The politics of being human

Most of our science and philosophy is ‘humanist’ and anthropocentric. It carves up the world into neat little distinctions between man and nature, human and animal, and human or non-human. It places man at the centre of its politics and legitimates his dominion over other beings and things.

However, the Human Genome Project revealed that 98% of human DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee.  What’s more, human DNA is made up of the same atoms and molecules as inorganic matter. These findings present fundamental existential and political questions about what it means to be human. Our individual and collective response to this question has vast ramifications for our everyday personal relations and our conditions of existence on planet earth.

For, just like our planet, the human body is a finely tuned balance of different chemical and biological systems – and the politics and practices that follow from an anthropocentric humanism are destructive to this precarious balance.

Can we really define our humanity in isolation from the non-human elements that constitute our existence? Can we live without inorganic elements that make up part of us? Do we want to live without the friendly bacteria that colonizes our guts? Where do we draw the boundary between humans and non-humans?

The way that we respond to these questions has real political consequences. If we accept that humans are different in kind to all other beings and entities, then we create a rigid distinction between the human and the non-human and give legitimacy to our current patterns of consumption and production. If, however, we acknowledge that there is only a difference of degree between humans and non-humans and that non-humans also have a capacity for agency then we acknowledge the basic inter-connectedness between different entities. This is more likely to make us radically rethink our everyday relations with the different parts of ourselves some of which are non-human.

Indeed, the ecosystems of the earth and our bodies are under threat from the way we live today. Low sperm counts, the growth in fat cells, and the alarming increase in cancer rates are just a few of the effects of living this bifurcated existence, where we are willing to go on developing chemical products on a mass scale with little regard for the negative impact of these practices on the microorganisms and species that sustain our conditions of existence. The use of pesticides and other chemicals used in agricultural processes and in the production of consumer products, not only adversely impact the earth and wildlife, but some are starting to affect our very genetic makeup and disturbing our neurological functions. These are some of the consequences of our anthropocentric domination of our planet, and we need to rethink our practices and relations to each other and the world.

Bonnie Honig is developing a new ‘agonistic humanism’ which is attentive to man’s mortality and suffering, but also celebrates the human capacity for pleasure, mutuality, care, action and innovation. My paper for the recent CONCEPT conference on Honig’s work echoed many of her sentiments about ‘agonistic humanism’. However, I argued that Honig’s approach does not go far enough because the capacity for action and innovation is limited to human actors. Using the work of Jane Bennett I showed that to be human is to be caught in a web of relations and processes, and that the human and non-human ‘other’ is always already part of us.

There is no separate object, entity, or being called ‘man’, but just our conditions of existence, which are comprised of relations, connections, assemblages and networks between different human and non-human entities. Human life without these non-human aspects is impossible. The artist Kate Macdowell gestures towards this in her piece Casualty which illustrates this post. Thus, humanism needs to be redefined to include the nonhuman or intra-human. Any knowledge or experience that fails to acknowledge its non-human, in-human, post-humanism and inorganic constituents isn’t placing the human high enough. It is self-defeating because it undermines its own conditions of possibility and is ecologically dangerous for life.

We need an ecology of everyday life. It is not enough to think local and act global because we live in an inter-connected world where an innocent act in one context has ramifications for the political and ecosystems of individual bodies, our communities, and the earth. When we act we need to think what are the potential chemical, biological, physical, political and social impacts on an individual, local, and global level. We need to think – how does what we do and how we do it impact upon the living conditions of other humans in a different part of the globe, as well as the non-human entities that are part of our bodies and our conditions of existence?

Gulshan Khan

In the rebellion game, everyone’s a winner

Conservative MPs are the most rebellious in the House of Commons, as the right kicks against Cameron’s leadership.  Actually, that’s not true.  Liberal Democrats MPs are in fact the most rebellious, with widespread rebellions against the policies of the coalition.  Actually, that’s not true either.  The party which has been the most rebellious since 2010 has been Labour, revealing the extent to which Ed Miliband is not in control of his parliamentary party.

Which of these is true? The answer is all of them, and it all depends what you decide to use as your measurement.

So far this Parliament, Labour MPs have rebelled in nearly 20% of all Commons divisions, almost identical to the Liberal Democrat rate of 19%, but far outstripped by the Conservative rate of 33%.  So, on that measure Conservative MPs are the most rebellious.

But while Conservative MPs rebel more often, they do so in smaller numbers than Labour.  The average Conservative rebellion consists of just seven MPs; the average Labour one comprises eight MPs. The average Lib Dem rebellion is just three MPs.  So, on that measure Labour MPs are the most rebellious.

Labour’s got fewer MPs to begin with, so the figure for Labour is not only higher in absolute terms but also higher as a percentage of the two respective parliamentary parties (3% as opposed to 2%).  But if we’re talking about percentage rebellions, then the highest average rebellion occurs among the Liberal Democrats. Their mean of three MPs constitutes five percent of the parliamentary party.  So, on that measure Lib Dem MPs are the most rebellious.

So, depending what you focus on – and depending what you are trying to prove – you can make a case for any of the three main parties as the ‘most divided’.

And you can do something similar if we look at how far the habit of rebellions has spread amongst the parties.  A total of 86 Conservative MPs have rebelled so far, along with 30 Lib Dems.  But 119 Labour MPs have defied their party’s whip, more than the Conservatives and Lib Dems put together.  On that measure, then, Labour are the most rebellious.  Those Labour MPs make up 46% of the PLP, outstripping the 28% of the Conservative Parliamentary Party who have rebelled.  But the highest percentage of rebels is to be found within the Liberal Democrats: 53% of MPs have rebelled at least once.

For what it’s worth, we’ve long been skeptical about comparisons between rates of rebellion in government and in opposition.  The whipping arrangements are very different; rebellion matters much less in opposition.  So rather than get into these comparisons, it’s best just to say that they are not comparable.  But for those who want to, you can make the numbers tell almost any story.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Riots Special Edition

The recent riots – which began in Tottenham on August 6th, but rapidly spread first across London and then across the country – have prompted innumerable instant responses from politicians, journalists, and academics alike. Some have been more considered than others.

Among the politicians, the Prime Minister has promised a ‘social fightback’ against the groups involved in the riots. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has argued that Britain is in the ‘last-chance saloon’ and must learn the lessons of the riots or a full-scale social crisis will follow. For the opposition, Ed Miliband has warned the coalition that it must respond to the riots with ‘lasting solutions’ rather than ‘knee-jerk gimmicks’. Other commentators have pointed to a wide variety of possibly causes, ranging from the government’s austerity measures to rap music.

Here, we collect together the recent Ballots and Bullets posts that have contributed to the ongoing debate about the causes and consequences of the riots.

Deirdre Duffy argues that the way to prevent future riots is to focus on youth clubs rather than policing.

Mat Humphrey asks whether the riots had a political motive, or merely represent the ‘triumph of triviality’.

Matthew Bailey finds evidence to suggest that we might have been here before.

David Bell considers the possibility of using popular education to ‘empower the wastrels’.

And Mat Humphrey offers a reminder that we have long been warned about the tensions inherent in contemporary capitalism.