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31.07.14

There is building anger at home and abroad. We need a new big tent

I had this on Labour Uncut last week.

“Today my work is global,” Tony Blair reminded us in his inaugural Philip Gould Lecture. Even when Blair was a mere domestic politician, the forces that he grappled with, as he often noted, were global. Policy Network, the international think-tank, sees these forces as having contributed toward 5-75-20 societies.

The fruits of globalisation have been sweet for the 5 per cent at ‘the top’, enjoying ‘runaway’ rewards from finance and property. They have been bitter for those at ‘the bottom’, seemingly trapped in cycles of low-wage, irregular work. The 75 per cent are the squeezed middle. These ‘new insecure’ have suffered declining wages, feeling the pressures of continued globalisation and automation.

In the NICE – non-inflationary continuous expansion – years of prime minister Blair, the pitch to the middle class emphasised aspiration. If they worked hard and played by the rules, they could aspire to lives at least approximating to the 5 per cent. Now, however, the 75 per cent are more fearful about falling behind.

As in the famous class sketch, featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, the middle classes still look up and down. But angrily in both directions. Upward at the 5 per cent, who are increasingly presumed to hold their status due to underhand methods. Downward at the supposed welfare queens of the 20 per cent.

Of course, this is to paint a very broad brush picture. But reconceptualising contemporary society in 5-75-20 form allows us to understand afresh the popularity of both Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze and the vengeful tone of the government’s welfare policy. The former speaks to the frustration of the 75 per cent with the 5 per cent and the latter to the antipathy of the middle for the 20 per cent.

Viva Hate was one of the albums of the 1980s and we risk regression to that decade’s politics of competing antagonisms, so viscerally evident on Morrissey’s record, rather than building upon the big tent optimism of the Blair years that came in between. 5-75-20 is an attempt to revive a big tent. To pitch progressive politics as the solution to the problems of the broad mass. In this endeavour, grounding social security in contribution, which would curb the resentments of the 75 per cent against the 20 per cent, and making capitalisminclusive, which would allow all to share in the success now appearing the preserve of the 5 per cent, are vital. Liam Byrne is doing his bit by forming and unanimously being elected chair of a new APPG on Inclusive Growth.

In the insecurities of the 75 per cent, however, we can see the seeds of a rolling back of the globalisation that Blair proclaimed as irreversible. Support for protectionist or trade restrictive policies could be predicated upon these worries.

“The world,” as Dani Rodrik has written, “has seen globalisation collapse once already. The gold standard era – with its free trade and free capital mobility – came to an abrupt end in 1914 and could not be resuscitated after World War I. Could we witness a similar global economic breakdown in the years to come?”

It’s not just the strains of the 75 per cent that make me worry that we could. It is, as Timothy Garton Ash put it, Putin’s 19th-century völkisch vision as the policy of a 21st-century state. It is the descent of the Middle East into violentSunni-Shia conflict. It is the building tensions between China and Japan.

In extremis, these trends could lead to World War III. We wouldn’t have to travel so far down the road in this direction, though, before the free movement of people, goods and labour, which characterises globalisation, is reversed. Some claim that a US more determined to uphold the liberal world order that it built would have prevented these situations escalating as they have. Others see them as beyond the control of the US. Or, in what Ian Bremmer calls a G-Zero world, anyone. What’s most shaming, from a UK perspective, is that these issues are so rarely intelligently debated in our politics, in spite of their profound and potentially grave consequences for us.

Today, in a world such as this, all our work should be global. At least in our perspectives and understandings. Yet burdened by the trials of our 5-75-20 society, we rarely so raise our sights. Which risks, ultimately, recasting Blair as a Henry Campbell-Bannerman type figure. Landslide winner and social reformer, at the last gasp of a global age.

The logic of 5-75-20 leads us toward a new big tent at home. While such a tent would partly be a response to the discontents of globalisation, the gains of this process, including lifting hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in the developing world, are too great for us to not also take the steps required internationally to fortify it.