By Adam Peggs
Four decades since the advent of Thatcherism and its economic settlement and that very system is continuing to fragment. As confidence in business as usual has faltered, Labour has continued to flesh out its alternative with pledges to rewire the economy, cascade wealth downwards and revitalise services. But with a serious chance of a General Election this year, where is Corbynism going?
John McDonnell has promised that the next manifesto will be ‘more radical’ than 2017’s and figures from outside the Corbyn camp have signalled approval for this kind of approach, with even the Guardian suggesting Labour should be ‘bolder’. There are areas where the party has settled for a degree of cautiousness and a willingness to stick to safe Labour territory. On justice, immigration and defence the party has positioned itself to the left of the last few leaders, but in all of these areas Corbynism has been more orthodox than might have otherwise been expected. The party’s landmark policy on policing is more funding, it’s approach to indefinite detention isn’t yet fully developed – though Abbott has led great strides forward and the manifesto took a centrist line on defence.
So how does Labour going forward seek to galvanise support? Advocates of a more conciliatory Corbynism have for some time argued that this ought to involve a distancing from left foreign policy, among other varying demands for a shift toward the centre ground. In the New Statesman last August Paul Mason put it in these terms:
“Labour’s number one objective has to be to form a government radical in social and economic policy. For that, I think it should be prepared – as I saw Alexis Tsipras do in January 2015 – to put radicalism in foreign policy on the back burner and seek a de facto progressive coalition to push through lasting constitutional change, even if the party has secured a Commons majority on its own”.
While the first part of this agreeable, but ‘social and economic’ affairs do not – and cannot – end at the United Kingdom’s borders. International and ‘home’ affairs are deeply connected and a coherent political agenda cannot neglect one for the sake of short-term expediency, not least because this may not be expedient in terms of the bigger picture.
Secondly, it is evident to most that aping the strategy of Tsipras is not a proven pathway to tangible success. Britain may be better placed to overhaul its domestic economy than Greece but the assumption that a Syriza strategy is of great value is still, quite obviously, dubious.
The objectives of Corbynism Mark II can’t be about working to ‘reconnect with the centrist electorate’ – which does not exist in any large-scale coherent form, nor can it involve casual attempts to patch over divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A swathe of the parliamentary party are likely to never be inclined to back any leadership offering a drastic departure from the current state of things.
Nor is the prospect of a second referendum likely to help the Corbyn project, at least in the medium to longer term. The European Union’s rules on state aid would prevent a political programme from the left from advancing beyond its first few steps. While state aid’s characterisation as a neoliberal straitjacket could be an overstatement, it is very difficult to deny that the rules do not place firm limits on the scope of any economic alternative. Of course these first few steps, from ending austerity, establishing a fairer tax system and bringing key utilities into public hands, are crucial.
Thinking further from this full membership of the single market would not be amenable to the politics of the left. Given there is currently no roadmap to reform of the EU which can be taken especially seriously, we should not expect hopes of European reform to be just around the corner. Those who are pushing for a new referendum or EEA membership are, with relatively few exceptions, content for Labour’s endgame to be an anti-austerity agenda and progressive social democracy.
What would help would be a measured yet unapologetic push to awaken left-wing ideas across the electorate and to deepen those that are already present. Even now the embryonic constituency for this remains partially untapped, with Labour having often underestimated sympathy for socialist ideas in the country.
Most of us know we live in a class riven society, divided by wealth, status and control rather than by remain or leave. Nearly 45% of the population say Britain would be a better place with a ‘genuinely socialist government’. More than half say they would prefer the United Kingdom’s banks to be in public ownership. All polls should be taken with a few pinches of salt, but this is indicative of a hope for socialism and a deeper antipathy toward inegalitarian society than most could have anticipated. What it does at least imply, rather than prove, is that this kind of impulse toward drastic change is not just confined to Labour’s core vote.
I am not suggesting that For The Many, Not The Few should have pledged to seize control of the banks, or reverted to the Bennite platform of a generation ago. But that this is illustrative of the likelihood that we have not yet reached ‘Peak Corbynism’, or at least the possibility that there is even more space for a renewed left out there.
Labour has unveiled a worker ownership fund proposal which challenges economic orthodoxy in a particularly serious way, it has proved decisively popular, yet the party has not shown major signs of trying to capitalise on this and make the most of it. Labour in 2019 could do a lot worse than taking these kinds of ideas, developing them and weaving them into a stronger narrative of political rupture.
The contradictions in the global economy mean that this is an important juncture. Growth, which has been relatively weak since the Thatcher era, has now been dismal for around a decade. Public assets have diminished to the point where there is little left to sell off, while injecting markets into public services has achieved only public distrust. And the average net wealth of the poorest 50% is so woeful it looks barely believable, with net property wealth at £0.
Rather than fulfilling the promise of property-owning democracy, decades of Thatcherite economics have delivered a propertyless workforce with stagnant living standards and few opportunities for security. Life for many working people bears a greater resemblance to that of Britain in the early 20th century than might have ever been expected. The willingness of the party to elucidate this was present in For The Many, Not The Few, which articulated that ‘inequality has ballooned as the economy has shifted towards low-paid, insecure jobs’ and emphasised the links between this and the financialisation which began in the eighties.
A broader range of opinion has now grasped that the current state of affairs is no longer tenable. Even some figures close to the New Labour project, notably Rachel Reeves, have repudiated the old doctrines of privatisation and vigorous competition. Much of Labour has now realised that this is a generational chance to build something far better. John McDonnell acknowledged this clearly in his conference speech last autumn, ‘the greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be’. But if Labour wants its alternative to be truly far-reaching, it cannot see the crisis of economic stagnation as confined to the traditional economic sphere, it stretches out across the broader state of the world today.
There is no need to fall for the failure in some left-wing political thought of emphasising a domestic agenda over international affairs, conciliation over galvanising approaches and wide popular alliances with too little thought of their ramifications. It is intended to create a sleek, responsible left-wing party – and has all the right intentions – but always runs the risk of being a politics which falls short of the left’s hope to really reconfigure politics. There is surely a need to get down to what Stuart Hall called ‘the hard graft of transforming society’.