Photo:Smoking Crow on Gramsci Way from Loz Pycock's Flickr photo stream

This is not a trick question. What is the link between recruiting a photographer at significant taxpayers’ expense to take cuddly, self-glorifying photos of a pet dog and a high level of successful appeals without precedent by disabled people against Department for Work and Pensions’ decisions denying them entitlement to benefits under welfare reform? You’d be right if you said a) the UK Conservative government or more specifically b) the Prime Minister – as it is he through a recent Cabinet Office advertisement who has been drawing on the services of just such a photographer.

This connection is both typical of the neoliberal populism of the present Conservative administration figure headed by Boris Johnson and sums it up. Thus the endless rhetoric of saving money and stopping scroungers and the reality of enormous waste (at least £22 billion estimated lost on ineffective ‘track and trace’) and the featherbedding of rich private sector friends and corporations,  incapable of fulfilling the public contracts awarded them, without transparency or accountability.

Populism and its close cousin demagoguery can come from any political position from hard left to hard right, but in the twenty-first century it has predominantly been associated with neo-liberalism; from Trump’s US to Orban’s Hungary; Johnson’s UK to Brazil’s Bolsonaro. All are associated with internal conflict and discrimination; individualizing and divisive policy approaches, rising levels of poverty and inequality. All have conspicuously failed to safeguard their populations and keep Covid-19 under serious control. If the pandemic had been sent by some avenging deity then what it has most conspicuously demonstrated is the failure of populist right-wing politics to deal with it – especially compared to societies like Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand.

So why do so many people seem to vote like turkeys to advance the interests of the small minority that tends to benefit from the regressive redistribution and disempowerment that are the signature outcomes of untrammelled marketised politics and policy? How can a political ideology that seems to serve so few people’s interests apparently rule the world? This is a question which has preoccupied political thinkers from Marx, through Gramsci to Malcolm X and beyond. Usually, their answers are framed in terms of the skill of the political right and its mass media to persuade enough of us to ‘hate the people who are being oppressed and love the people who are doing the oppressing’. But there is a prior question. Where do such political ideologies come from and how can we challenge them more effectively?

This seems a question well worth asking in a society like the UK where because of delayed, inadequate and incompetent policy action, at least 125,000 people have died from Covid-19, many more health problems have been created, even more, have lost their livelihoods and the nation’s economy is in significant disarray. And the brutal truth seems to be that dominant ideologies like neoliberalism are very narrowly owned. Indeed political ideologies more generally seem to draw us in much more as followers than co-producers. We are recruited as their stage army rather than co-creators in their shaping and ownership. A more day to day equivalent might be a premier league football club, where whatever the enthusiasm of supporters, it is the Chair, Board and financial backers who actually call the shots.

What’s most shocking about this situation is that few of us even seem to have thought how problematic such narrow ownership of prevailing ideology actually is – given that it rules our lives and as we are seeing has life and death consequences. The large scale revolt against such exclusion can equally be seen in the massive support that the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and renewed action against climate change have generated.

Covid-19 has generated a similar reaction, particularly from disabled people and other groups making up the new service user movements that since the last quarter of the twentieth century have fought for their full rights and citizenship. Not only have they been some of the groups most adversely hit by Covid-19 (and also directly failed by health and social care policy), but they have also had important contributions to make to addressing the resulting health, social and economic problems from their own experiential knowledge; many of living their lives routinely in lockdown conditions. Sadly these insights have largely been ignored by policymakers and in the allocation of research resources. In this way, policymakers have been guilty of paying insufficient attention to both the old and the new science.

If there is to be a new ‘normal’ for public health, health and social care, then it will need to be one that draws on the best practices of both pre-COVID-19 and COVID-19 resistant ways of living and working – face to face and socially distanced activity; that challenges traditional forms of exclusion as well as digital exclusion. Welfare service users have been prefiguring such approaches to collective and self-organization for decades now, despite the failure of funding to follow their innovation and inclusionary insights anything like as well as it might.

COVID-19 has highlighted the major inability of privatized methods to match public rights and needs. Appealing to the old panaceas of statist welfare is also unlikely to cut much ice in societies now habituated to consumerist rhetoric. The pressure for participation which we have seen growing in the health, care and public policy arenas must now also be focused on the development of participatory and sustainable political ideology, which draws equally on the insights and experience that the disabled people’ and service user movements freely offer. Then we may begin to have more effective oppositions and more accountable politics, policy and services for the future.

About the Author: This post is drawn from Peter’s latest book which was published last week by Policy Press (Beresford, P. (2021) Participatory Ideology: From exclusion to involvement, Bristol, Policy Press Published 15th March 2021 price £15.99). Peter can be found on twitter @BeresfordPeter