Escaping the Matrix

a search for post-fantasy politics

Few people would ever mistake former Tory Health Minister, Matt Hancock for Keanu Reeves. However, his involvement in the ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ TV series has become almost as mind-bending as ‘the Matrix’.

Having discharged care-home patients from hospital, without any pre-screening for Covid, Hancock deserves having slurry and insects poured over him. Those who suffered the bereavements and traumas that followed might wish this to continue indefinitely. But there are wider issues about Britain’s descent into dystopian politics that the Game Show should not distract from.

Britain’s care system remains massively over-stretched and under-resourced; the NHS even more so. The decision of NHS nursing staff to go on strike is unprecedented. It reflects the desperation of those who held lives together throughout the Covid pandemic but who are now leaving/retiring early in droves through sheer exhaustion and overwork.

Despite this, calls for a substantial boost to NHS pay, a national training plan and an immediate/ international recruitment programme all die in the snake-infested jungle that passes for the British parliament. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement only makes matters worse.

Arbitrary austerity

Let’s be clear about two things. First, the economic debate is being boxed in between 2 targets/objectives that are wildly speculative. Move the target dates around, even slightly, and you may not be chasing deficits at all. This isn’t to say Britain doesn’t have massive structural issues to address – we do – but throwing the country into a period of arbitrary austerity is a political choice not an existential one. Second, the only people not responsible for Britain’s current economic crisis are its workers. Everything that spirals into crisis comes from elsewhere.

Britain’s energy prices are set by the marginal cost of the most expensive fuel (gas). Russia’s war in Ukraine is the main driver of the price hike and shows no sign of ending soon. Food prices are similarly driven by increased import costs (and the associated impact on fuel and fertiliser prices). Neither have been pushed by UK wage demands.

Extreme weather events across the planet have massively disrupted food production and farming. You can’t blame the workers for that either. And no one, apart from Liz Truss and her insane advisors, can be held accountable for the bonkers Budget that caused a run on the pound, a huge increase in import prices and the spiral of rising interest rates.

When you’re in a hole…

Today’s combination of an economic crisis and a climate crisis calls for a radical change of direction. It is an upheaval barely glimpsed at by the Chancellor. Insulating Britains’s homes was as close as he got. But even this was more of an apology than a policy. The extra £6bn of promised energy-efficiency spending won’t kick in until 2025 (!). This is a ‘stay warm in the afterlife’ gesture, not a serious fuel-poverty intervention.

Previous Labour programmes for tackling the scandal of ‘cold homes’ were all ditched by the Tories post-2010. The number of loft insulations have plummeted. Cavity and solid wall insulations followed suit. Now Britain must reconstruct a sector that successive Conservative governments crudely trashed.

The insanity of this is that any policy wanting to reduce energy bills, cut back on energy imports, lower carbon emissions and boost domestic employment would have had this as its centrepiece.

Was it really too much for the Tories to grasp?

B r i t a i n h a s h a d a d e c a d e o f Conservative governments throwing m o r e s u b s i d i e s a t p o l l u t i n g corporations than at rescuing fuel-poor communities.

Even today, the pretence of windfall taxes on the oil and gas sector is wrapped up in ‘tax allowances’ that promote research into new fossil fuel production! The Treasury gets very little in extra taxes from fossil fuel sectors that have been profiteering the most.

Just ending pollution subsidies and allowances would make a huge difference. The most idiotic of these is possibly the UK subsidies for biofuel production. Land that could grow crops to feed people has, instead, been used to feed vehicles.

Some 3.5 million people in Britain could be fed from land currently used for bio-fuel production. Shifting subsidies from fuel to food would reduce Britain’s reliance on food imports, cut the cost of food and make better use of the farmland we possess.

This isn’t rocket science. It just doesn’t suit the interests of the big corporates who bankroll the Conservative Party.

And for all the Chancellor’s ‘pocket-money’ handouts aimed at covering this winter’s energy bills, none open up the debates Britain most urgently needs.

Neither radical restructuring of the UK energy market around decentralised renewable energy systems, nor an accelerated shift into net-zero ‘circular’ economics, even got a mention. We must wait to see if Labour grasps the moment. The signs aren’t good.

The COP-out conundrum

Back in Egypt, moves to save the planet face similar obstacles. A legion of fossil-fuel lobbyists and oil producers block the roads to any Conference Statement committed to radical decarbonisation. Inside the conference halls, ‘Just Stop Oil’ protesters have been replaced by the ‘Just Stop Everything’ lobby.

Corporate (in)activists spray-paint their objections over clauses that even hint at carbon taxation or the introduction of (reducing) carbon budgets. They glue their hands over paragraphs that would otherwise set phasing-out targets or timetables. None will be fined or imprisoned. It is only the climate activists who are to be criminalised and silenced.

Britain does not (yet) ban the climate activism that might avert catastrophic climate breakdown. But it may not be long. Criminalising public protest may be the one thing Tory free-market buccaneers may hope to salvage from their disastrous leadership spell. No less worrying is the prospect of Labour supporting them.

The real danger is of Labour creating a delusionary world of its own. Much as I would love to ditch this squalid Conservative government, I can’t pretend Labour currently offers a visionary alternative. ‘I’m a Nonentity, Get Me Into There’ is not the answer to ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’.

There isn’t a viable Green New Deal if you don’t get out of oil. You can’t create sustainable food systems if you don’t radically reduce food miles and shift into low-carbon lifestyles and farming. ‘Growth’ delusions, tied to obsessions with increased consumption, will kill us all unless they are replaced by a new economics of circularity.

Beyond the Matrix

All this is still possible. But it is only accessible to Parties that are themselves open to radical, fresh thinking that embraces the unorthodox, the accountable and the inclusive.

This isn’t where the Labour Party currently finds itself. You don’t lose 200,000 members by accident. You don’t invite fresh thinking if Members, Branches and Constituencies are suspended for even wanting to discuss issues. And you can’t deliver a transformative parliamentary party if the Party machine blocks the most visionary candidates from selections, just in case local party members might choose them.

We cast a scornful eye on countries that systematically hound, exclude and criminalise those calling for a more open, inclusive and accountable democracy. We call them tyrannies. COP27 is besieged by them; some are corporate, some national. But the reality is this: the world cannot build either a sustainable politics or a survivable planet without escaping from a Matrix obsessed with control and yesterday’s delusions. This applies to all Parties, on all continents; Labour included.

Where are you, Keanu, just when we need you?

Alan Simpson

Nov 2022


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