Miliband’s election, and the reaction to it, tells us much about the nature of long-term social and political change.

I’m not a member of the Labour Party and didn’t have a vote in the leadership election, but I am a social democrat. There were cheers in our house when Ed Miliband won the leadership – and some perplexity since then as to why the Conservatives seem to think it’s such a good result for them. It’s probably worth explaining this, for wrapped inside both of these arguments is a larger story about the nature of long-term change.

As a social democrat, I am one of those who has voted, quite often, for Labour in the past, but didn’t this year. I didn’t recognise it as social democratic any more. My list is much the same as everybody else’s, and there’s little need to rehearse it here at length, but authoritarianism, attacks on civil liberties, complicity in torture, failure to reduce inequality, creeping financialisation of the public and personal sector, a disregard for the environment (Runway Three?) and an undue interest for the opinions of the wealthy would all be there, along with, of course, the illegal war in Iraq.

It’s not a surprise to me, therefore, that a number of these were highlighted in Ed Miliband’s first leader’s speech this week, as a re-statement that the Labour Party ought to be a social democratic party. Sadly, for all his social democratic instincts, we’d have heard less of this from David in the parallel universe in which the older brother won.

So part of my perplexity is why the Conservatives are so sure that the clear expression of social democratic values is going to be electorally damaging.

Long waves of change

At this point it’s worth stepping back, quite a long way, to look at some of the long waves of change. The drivers of long term change are generally regarded by futurists as being technology, economics, and generational change. (There’s a good paper by James Dator on this, opens in pdf.) One useful model of generational change is that of ‘The Fourth Turning‘ by Strauss and Howe, which suggests that over an eighty-to-hundred year period, societies move from crisis, through institution building (“High”), through an Awakening, through an Unravelling, and back to Crisis again. The High is a clear phase in which there is shared social purpose; the awakening starts challenging this, and the Unravelling period is a reaffirmation of more individualism. The crisis emerges when the contradictions within the Unraveling period finally overwhelm us.

The Fouth Turning model – which is based on analysis of US history – is quite complex, and sometimes too precise for my taste, and it is supported by much close generational analysis. But at a high level, looking at the UK, one can see the 1920s and 1930s as representing a crisis phase, followed by the institution building of the late-wartime and post-war period. ‘Awakening’ corresponds to the late 50s through to the early 70s (‘you’ve never had it so good‘), and we have been unravelling since the late 70s, before crisis arrived in 2008. By the way, if you think this seems unduly schematic, as a model it aligns surprisingly well with the Panarchy model of systemic change.

Accenting the common good

And looking at the technology, economics, and innovation waves proposed by Carlota Perez (I’ve written about this here before) the story seems to overlap. The ‘installation’ phase of a technology wave is driven by finance capital and is more individualistic (the current technology wave started in 1971). The “deployment” phase, which we are in now, is driven by production capital, and tends to be more inclusive. As she argued last year in Open Democracy,

Installation periods, and especially bubbles, bring the system to extreme individualism and callousness; bubble collapses and the ensuing Deployment periods tend to bring back the balance and put the accent on the common good.

But it’s also worth emphasising that these transitions are messy, and the signals which emerge between them are also ambiguous. There’s a piece of more short-term data from the Futures Company, where I work, which underlines this. The company has been asking people for around 25 years – in part of its earlier guise as the Henley Centre as well – whether the quality of life is best served by looking after the community’s interests or looking after ourselves.

The outcome seems to track closely the political mood of the country; Labour does well when ‘community’ is in the ascendancy; the Conservatives do well when ‘individualism’ is at the top. (Click on the image for a closer look). What’s striking about the data – apart from regret at the size of the transformational opportunity which Tony Blair threw away – is that this year the Conservatives won despite the data pointing back towards community (the year on year shift is 6%). This partly reflects the Conservatives success in appropriating some of that language, and also the evident weakness of the Labour Party, but it may also be an explanation of why the Conservatives didn’t manage to get the overall majority they expected.

Cuts and the middle ground

This ought to be a clue about what’s going on when Blairites complain about the new leader – such as the comments on crime, or on the ‘middle ground. In a phrase, we’re not in the 1990s any more. The financial crisis has moved us into a new phase. If the Coalition government pushes through cuts of even 10% – and there seem to be striking differences between their ‘slash and burn’ rhetoric and the numbers in the Chancellor’s Budget statement – it would be a larger reduction in public spending than any achieved in the 20th century. Even 5% cuts in public expenditure would affect all but the richest earners. Talk of ‘middle England’ suddenly seems misplaced.

The other thing about crisis moments is that they are more open politically. They offer spaces in which it is possible to reframe public issues. And framing, as George Lakoff reminds us, is a central political issue. My perception is that Miliband understands this but hasn’t found the language yet. But it means, for example, that the answer to a question about public sector pensions is to suggest that the more pressing question is why it is that the financial sector seems unable to deliver reasonable pensions to private sector workers. Or that the answer to questions about ‘which cuts’ you will back (as seen from the ever-strident Paxman on Newsnight this week) is to argue that the way to improve the value of public services, whether reducing costs and improving outcomes, is not by the sort of piecemeal cuts within departments that the Coalition has already made, but by looking at the flows of value through services and the way these are perceived by users. (See Hilary Wainwright’s book on Newcastle, or Vanguard’s work in the area of lean service, if you doubt this.)

It might also mean explaining to the Blairites who are addicted to be being ‘tough on crime’ why this policy which is hugely expensive and also utterly toxic in terms of its social and economic effects, leading to social labelling and the spiralling absurdities of the ASBO regime. It is also, whatever your view of electoral arithmetic, anathema to social democracy. As the Conservative Ken Clarke understands, short-term prison sentences are utterly destructive, in more ways than I have time to explain here. If Clarke gets this, perhaps Labour’s Alan Johnson can also work it out.

Open moments and open questions

It is, then, an open moment. The long hegemony of the notion of the primacy of the global market has unravelled. It is also unstable and unpredictable, and could be for a decade or more. But the opportunity is there to change the discourse. Whether Labour can do this is an open question; they may prove be hopelessly trapped in a 20th century world of economic growth and production. But the opportunity will be there for a progressive politician, with a vision about the new institutions we need to repair the damage done during the unravelling, over the course of the next decade.

Thanks to The Futures Company for their data. The photograph is from Labour List, also used with thanks.