Last month, the Centre for Welfare Reform (CWR) launched a new campaign, calling for constitutional reform to combat a political system that serves only the interests of the few.
The CWR, working with a broad alliance of different organisations, is calling for a citizens’ convention in order to develop a better constitution for the UK. The Centre have published an open letter calling for change:
Open Letter on Constitutional Reform: A new settlement between people and government is needed. We need a written constitution.
We, the undersigned, work to bring about a better, fairer society. However we have come to see that our efforts are compromised by an economic and political system that serves only the interests of the few. Every day we see grotesque inequality, poverty wages and rising consumer debt, over-powerful banks and energy companies, a housing crisis, and disregard for environmental standards. Worst of all we see a retreating welfare state that inflicts punitive sanctions on some of our most vulnerable people and communities.
Multiple injustices at home are mirrored by a deeply unethical foreign policy. Rather than promote peace, uphold human rights and democratic norms, our foreign policy is dominated by commercial imperatives which include lucrative arms sales to countries with repressive regimes and abysmal human rights records.
None of these crises can be resolved without reference to basic principles of economic, social and environmental justice and these in turn should not be separate from the legislative principles that guide the work of Parliament.
To make this happen, we need a new settlement between people and government in the form of a written constitution that embeds a comprehensive bill of human rights, including economic, social and environmental rights. It must delimit the power of Parliament by devolving real power to the regions and nations that make up the UK and place local government on an independent legal footing. Only then can ordinary people gain real control over their lives and shape their own future. The people, not Parliament, must be the new sovereign and a written constitution is the means to achieve that.
We therefore call for a Citizens’ Convention on a written constitution as the first step towards this goal.
Anyone wishing to add their support to this campaign can do so by contacting Gavin Barker from the Centre for Welfare Reform.
You can also read Gavin’s excellent article here: Why the UK Needs a Written Constitution
Neoliberalism works to support a politically powerful and influential minority to accumulate wealth by steadily dispossessing the majority of citizens. This has implications for social justice, human rights and democracy. The idea that the market is somehow a neutral mechanism through which the sum of individual choices will lead to progress has been seriously challenged by empirical evidence that demonstrates clearly how neoliberalism has led to social, political and economic regression, as our post- war settlement has been systematically dismantled.
As a researcher and campaigner against austerity, inequality, social injustice and political authoritarianism, and as also, as someone who recognises that neoliberalism is utterly incompatible with democracy and a human rights framework, Politics and Insights welcomes and supports this campaign.
The current government believes that some people are ‘better than others’, and deserve more wealth. The neoliberal view of a meritocratic society has simply reconstructed the traditional Conservative defence of order, authority and discipline (but only for the poorest citizens) and has simply reimposed their view of a hierarchical ‘natural order.’
The political justification presented for this is the mistaken belief that socioeconomic inequality is desirable, as it somehow ‘incentivises’ people to achieve more. However, historic empirical research indicates that achievement and human potential are stifled when people have to struggle to meet their basic need for food, fuel and shelter.
We are told that we are free to choose the course of our lives, but the freedom to make decisions outside the narrow narrative of ‘success’ is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be ‘losers’ or ‘scroungers’, and defined as a burden on the state.
Neoliberals would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the myth of unrestricted choice, self-government, self-responsibility, self-discipline and self-management are the mantra. For those who don’t, well there is a team of behavioural economists employed by the Government who are running social experiments without your consent, looking for ways of aligning your behaviour with neolberal outcomes. Choices become choice, our ‘best interests’ are ultimately being defined by the state and a handful of self appointed technocrats and “choice architects”.
Along with the idea that wealthy people are cognitively competent, but the rest of us are not, the freedom of choice we are told we have in the UK is the greatest untruth of our age. Competitive individualism invariably means a few win and many more lose. That is the nature of competition, after all. Inequality is built into the meritocratic script. It’s also built into our laws. Along with growing material inequality, the distribution of power in our society has also never been more unequal in our lifetime. Imposing an economic system that benefits so few requires an authoritarian Government, which, despite its ‘small state’ narrative, has become increasingly intrusive on a personal and psychological level over the last few years.
The steady retreat of the welfare state that now embodies coercion and punishment, rather than support, inflicting discipline and draconian sanctions on some of our most vulnerable citizens and communities, no longer provides adequate support for citizens who lack the means to meet their basic survival needs.
Our post-war settlement is being dismantled with stealth and dispatch – the welfare state, the NHS, legal aid and social housing – each of these historic social gains formed the basis of inclusive, civilising and civil institutions that have democratised and civilised our society. Yet public services came about to ensure each and every citizen’s life has equal dignity and worth; that no-one dies prematurely because of absolute poverty or because they have no access to justice, medical care and housing.
Small state libertarian principles apply only to public services and meeting public need, when it comes to the private interests of the wealthy, the Government shows a remarkable generosity. Apparently wealthy people aren’t ‘incentivised’ by cuts to their income, draconian discipline, and brutal ‘behavioural change’ policies like poor people are claimed to be. Public policy has become an instrument of stigmatisation, social exclusion, outgrouping and increasing marginalisation.
Othering and outgrouping are politically weaponised and strategic inhumanities designed to misdirect and convince populations suffering the consequences of intentionally targeted austerity, deteriorating standards of living and economic instability – all of which arose because of the actions of a ruling financial class – that the ‘real enemy’ is ‘out there’, that there is an ‘us’ that must be protected from ‘them.’
It needs to be challenged and we need to change this, because social prejudice undermines the safety, fair treatment, dignity and worth of fellow human beings, on the basis of their characteristics.
This extremely divisive and dangerous approach to imposing a totalising neoliberal ideology has been amplified by a predominantly right-wing media, who have constructed negative stereotypes – folk devils – from already marginalised groups to generate moral outrage and to desensitise and de-empathise the public to the terrible consequences of harsh neoliberal policies on previously socially protected groups. Stereotyping goes hand in hand with prejudice.
Given our diverse and multicultural world, it is of great importance to understand ways to reduce social prejudice. In the 1950’s, Gordon Allport – who studied the role of social prejudice in Nazi Germany, leading to the Holocaust – introduced the intergroup-contact hypothesis. In this view, intergroup contact under positive conditions can reduce social prejudice. The necessary conditions include cooperation towards shared goals, equal status between groups, and the support of Government, local authorities and cultural norms.
I’m also a strong advocate of prefigurative, participatory democracy. I don’t believe that democracy is just about voting once every five years. It’s also about distributive social justice (concerning the socially just allocation of resources and goods).
Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. However, the Government persistently dismiss qualitative accounts from citizens as ‘anecdotal’, refusing to engage in a democratic dialogue.
In the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.
I absolutely agree that none of these issues can be resolved without reference to basic principles of economic, social and environmental justice and these in turn should not be separate from the legislative principles that guide the work of Parliament.
And: “To make this happen, we need a new settlement between people and government in the form of a written constitution that embeds a comprehensive bill of human rights, including economic, social and environmental rights. It must delimit the power of Parliament by devolving real power to the regions and nations that make up the UK and place local government on an independent legal footing.”
Positive change is long overdue.
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