Antics: The Winter of Discontent

The next issue of Anticipations looks at the challenges facing young people and the wider population as we head into another winter of austerity under the Coalition Government. Young Fabian members will be treated to articles by Caroline Flint MP, Seema Malhotra MP, Sam Tarry of the TSSA, and Richard Angell of Progress, not to mention a special interview with Emma Reynolds MP.

Here, editor Louie Woodall sets out the theme for this issue.


“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York;/And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house/In the deep bosom of the ocean buried”. These lines open Shakespeare’s tragic interpretation of Richard III, the hunchback king who- at least in the age of Elizabeth I- was seen as a villainous dictator who brought England to the brink of ruin. Here, he recalls the dark times before his brother- Edward IV of York- took the throne. It sounds like Richard’s discontent should be behind him, but as history- and the play- demonstrates, darkness begets darkness and soon England is at war with itself again.

Across the UK today, millions of people are facing their own winter of discontent as economic and social pressures conspire to disrupt their lives. The question all progressives and Young Fabians should be asking is: what does this mean for British politics? Some clues can be discerned from past experience.

Another winter of discontent seared into public memory was the winter of 1979, in the dying months of James Callaghan’s Labour government. The popular history of this period casts Labour as hapless ditherers, totally in thrall to trade unions that were holding the country to ransom over deteriorating public sector pay. Of course the real situation was infinitely more complex. Callaghan was not the gormless puppet of union interests his detractors paint him to be. In fact, he was a highly collegiate prime minister who favoured patient negotiation over shock and awe confrontation. His failure to reach a settlement with the unions was a by-product of the broader failure of macroeconomic policy throughout the developed world at that time, rather than any personal defect.

During the recessions of the 1970s, governments around the world were fresh out of ideas on what to do. A break from all that had gone before was needed, and in the UK Jim Callaghan and the Labour party weren’t the ones to do it. What’s more, Callaghan knew this. In a much celebrated quote he said: “There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”

1979 was such a sea-change. Thirty years on, is the UK poised for another? There’s no doubt we are in the midst of transformative times. A massive transfer of economic power from labour to capital is taking place. The evidence is everywhere if you look hard enough. Workers’ share of national income has fallen from 66% in the 1990s to 62% today, and wages have either fallen or remained virtually static since 2005. Productivity in the developed world is sinking steadily.

This economic imbalance is expressing itself through a revolution in public sympathies. Poll after poll shows that the British people are no longer content with the status quo. Currently 72% favour state control of the railways, 74% state control of energy prices, and over 50% support greater taxation of the financial sector in the form of a Financial Transactions Tax. These figures are either encouraging or terrifying depending on where you sit on the ideological spectrum. Whatever you feel about them, though, it’s clear we haven’t seen such positive attitudes towards state intervention for a generation.

Whether or not this will be translated into greater political unrest as austerity continues to bite remains to be seen. But both Labour and the Tories are acting preemptively to channel growing discontent into popular support for their own policies. Ed Milibands’ killer energy freeze pledge signalled a change in gear for Labour and a whole-hearted return to the politics of state interventionism, considered taboo since the Thatcher years. Team Cameron have landed some hits of their own, though, shoring up their middle class vote share with help-to-buy and offering energy firms relief from green taxes on the understanding they’ll pass the savings onto customers.

It’s too early to say whether these efforts will be enough to head off another sea-change. But what’s certain is that 2014 could be the pivotal year when we discover whether the political establishment can adapt to changed socioeconomic circumstances, or be overcome by them. Watch this space.

Louie Woodall is the Editor of Anticipations

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