Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: What now for the centre left?

The Big Society cannot be a substitute for a social democratic state which ensures basic standards for all and fights against inequality and unfairness
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The Independent Online

I was in Dublin the whole of last week, working with the British Council and Forum on Migration and Communications (FOMACS), partners in a bold and creative initiative to create genuine empathy between immigrants to that country and its citizens, as both adjust to severe financial hardship and collapse of confidence. Hostility to the outsider is never purely triggered and sustained by economic forces. Other factors play their part – history, prejudice, political manipulation, selfishness, nervousness and so on. Pervasive resentment can fill the air in the best of times – say, Britain in the Sixties, or Ireland in its Celtic Tiger era. But undeniably, during slumps people do turn most ferociously against outsiders and one another. Those in power then have the grave responsibility to prevent civil disobedience and unrest and to ensure society holds together.

It being Ireland, everyone was talking endlessly, the noise like the sound of sleepless crickets in tropical lands, only now, after the initial laughs and thick gulps of booze, the talk was mostly about the fearful future, from students in cafes, doormen, taxi drivers, hotel staff (many of them recent migrants), street cleaners, local government officials, a teacher I met while eating alone. They accuse politicians of course, and fat cat businessmen who cannot resist that insatiable mistress neo-liberalism; others blame migrants and some grumpy men can't stand it that women have come into the workplace in huge numbers. But there was no generic condemnation of the working classes or unemployed people, or of organisations that try to protect their rights. Like in most of the rest of the EU, it is respectable to belong to these classes and to trade unions. It is not a crime to be poor or even feckless, and men like Louis Walsh and Michael O'Leary – even Tony Blair – are not universally lauded for their love of profits at any cost.

Fly back here and first our capital is supposedly quaking because "Red" Ken is selected to fight Boris Johnson in the next Mayoral election, and then "Red" Ed gets to lead the Labour Party even though Lord Mandelson, defender of the filthy rich, warned members not to select a toxic leftie with unions on his side. I am not in any way a fan of either of Ken or Ed and this column is not about them. It is about a nation, already previously class ridden, now calamitously divided and primed to scapegoat. Thatcher's essence is now in our soil and no alternatives can grow in it. The shoots die before they can poke through. Almost all the anger we are currently seeing about the state we are in is unprocessed, disconnected from political theory and practice, roaming rage that hits out at migrants, all effing politicians, the bloody media, the neighbour with the wrong kind of trees, those who "make a lifestyle choice" not to work, the burdensome thousands locked in a dependency culture, individual tax dodgers and so on.

What remains unknown or unsaid is that this was the big plan. In Thatcherism, one of the most compelling books analyzing the ideologue, edited by Robert Skidelsky and released in 1988, the LSE political scientist Brian Barry wrote: "Under the most repressive conditions... people seek to act collectively to improve things for themselves, and it requires an enormous exercise of brutal power to fragment these efforts at organisation and to force people to pursue their interests individually". That is what the iron lady did. However bad some union leaders were – and they were dreadful – workers were better protected when unions had some clout than after the draconian laws that neutered the collectives. Their grievances once had some fair coverage. Not any more.

To be modern and esteemed in Britain today you have to be anti-collective action, anti-equalities laws, anti-immigrant, anti-tax, pro-cuts and proudly selfish. The most despicable trick of all is that played by politicians and commentators who regularly abuse migrants and pretend to care for excluded white Britons. Successive governments incapacitated and degraded the poor and low paid. They try to copy the American system which promises high rewards and low taxes for the ambitious and nothing but contempt for those who fall.

The post-war consensus is gone, killed and cremated. It gave the country a coherent narrative on mutuality and the welfare state, balance of power between capital and labour, a good society that was built on co-dependence and later the ideals of equality. None of it was perfect but it was a damn sight more fair and productive for most than what we have today, citizens living anxiously, unsure of the future and what that will bring and so easily aroused to hate or hopelessness, prepared to forgo rights, to be willing slaves, as Madeleine Bunting wrote in her book of that name.

The new localism and "free" choice substitutes offered up by the Tories as an alternative to the state is just one more ruthless way to tap into the tribalism that comes with being human, and needs to be tamed or overwritten by bigger ideals and wider loyalties. Happy clappy street parties and paranoid neighbourhoods closing in are the planned future. What bleeding Big Society? Britons are being encouraged to join small units which cannot threaten state and business interests. It is right to ask people – all people, the rich too – to have a sense of duty towards compatriots and our social and physical environments, to be better parents and neighbours. But that cannot be a substitute for a social democratic state which ensures basic standards for all and fights against inequality and unfairness.

Millions of us prefer higher taxes to savage cuts, want a more just and equitable society – because, as research shows, they make all citizens happier, healthier and more sane – want to protect and grow the welfare state and believe foreign policies must involve more than monetary interests. We have become the marginalised. Even Nick Clegg tells us we are not welcome into his diminutive party, the misguided standing with the poor and dysfunctional. The oldest and most enduring of democracies has no place for us. What an impertinent assumption that the left of centre is irrelevant and doomed when the right has failed so spectacularly. This week the arrogance of the centre right has been punctured. It will defend its territory, absorb dissidence. Do we on the left have the guts to rise and fight back? Before that too becomes illegal?