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In theory, the power that they hold is held in check by elected governments – as well as a vigilant media. But this simply isn’t happening. In our current system, wealth accumulation and unbridled economic power are essentially unconstrained.
The story of Britain in the years from the Banking Crash up to COVID provide a moral tale from which we need to learn. And the continuing adventures of our anti-hero – let’s call him Gideon – give us a focus for the story.
As it happens, I interacted with Gideon on a couple of occasions. I sat next him in the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons. He struck me as bright, but not always especially interested in the minutiae of the Committee’s work. He was soon to be elevated to the Tory Front Bench – where I saw him close-up during the time I worked in No 10.
At the time of the Banking Crash, I went to work in Downing Street as PPS to Gordon Brown. The Labour government led by Gordon immediately understood the gravity of the situation which faced the whole economy, as the effects of greed and the unbridled power of Banks threatened to pull us all down.
Gordon Brown acted with great strength of purpose to use the power of public institutions to act in the common good, and to protect it from colossal market failure. This was a classic moment of Social Democracy. Without that Labour Government, it is scary to imagine what might have happened.
However, almost immediately after, our man Gideon began to attempt to redefine the crisis. The cause, he argued, was the Labour Government, which had spent too much money and left the country in debt – not, as was actually the case, the immensely destructive actions of the banking moguls.
As Chancellor following the 2010 election, the cumulative impact of Gideon’s actions – in spite of some structural changes to the finance sector – was to leave the Banks largely untouched, whilst simultaneously slashing billions of pounds from government programmes and public services, at the very same time as the wages of ordinary people were being cut back. As the era of austerity went on, we saw the enrichment of corporations and the super rich increase to a vast extent.
Since the Banking Crash, the richest 1000 people in the UK increased their wealth by £538 billion. Yet, the wages of working people have fallen by £433 billion.
Not that you would know it, however, since the vast bulk of the British media barely commented on the growing inequality we were witnessing. Meanwhile, after muted howls of anguish about the bankers, order was soon restored as much of the media turned to their favourite topics, such as commenting on the distractions of celeb culture, the demonisation of the poor, and the alleged mismanagement of the Brussels bureaucracy.
But, if the function of our media is to speak truth to power, then it is clear it has largely failed – with the UK commentariat turning their gaze to the continual anti-social actions of the wealthy only on rare occasions.
Following his disastrous role in the Remain referendum campaign, Gideon left the Commons under a cloud of failure. However, despite his monumental downfall, lo and behold he somehow turned up as the Editor of a great national newspaper – the Evening Standard. This seemingly seamless transition from political power to mainstream media editor raises important questions about the role of the so-called fourth estate.
Of course, the oft-asserted idea that the press exists to call out the abuse of power might well be a little more believable if the vast bulk of the UK Press did not happen to be in the private hands of billionaires, or when the Editor of our Capital’s largest newspaper is the very person who made it his business to protect the banking sector and to promote the wealth of the richest whilst he was in power. Indeed, it could be easily concluded that large of parts of our media exist purely in order to manipulate public opinion into accepting private power and inequality.
But Gideon’s journey didn’t stop at the Evening Standard. Today we learn that he has arrived at a new staging post in his career. Yes, he has now gone into the banking sector: the very industry which not so long ago as Chancellor he was supposed to regulate.
And so, we see a circular journey – from a career in politics, into the media, and then onto banking. Thus, it is that our country is governed, and the position of our ruling class is continuously enhanced. This revolving door political system is definitely working well for them, but it isn’t working for the overwhelming majority of people, is it?
They Rule Britannia
Grifter gifts $100bn in tax cuts to big business, then plays journalist to put the boot into the bankers' nightmare Corbyn.
Claims reward – a £multi-million sinecure with Mayfair-based bank with 13 employees. Profit in 2019 – £48.4m. https://t.co/2GIjGYKaPz
— Steve Howell (@FromSteveHowell) February 2, 2021
It is for this very reason that I spent much of my time in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet considering how best to reconstruct the way we do politics in order to reverse the fact that our institutions are colonised by, and run in favour of, the wealthy.
In my view, only major reform to our constitution and our politics can set the balance in favour of working people. This is why I successfully argued that Labour should include in our manifesto the idea that a democratic revolution needs to occur.
Had we been elected to government, there might well have been further encounters between myself and people like Gideon – but the outcome would have been very, very different to all the previous ones.
Jon Trickett is the Labour MP for Hemsworth.