By Adam Peggs
Everyone knows that last week we witnessed a colossal setback, and one that cannot simply be blamed on the centre and centre-left, or the Liberal Democrats or blamed on the media, the rich or a Conservative Party willing to engage in dirty tricks.
I’m not going to dissect the result. We all have some ideas, but there are many people much better qualified to do that than me.
We are now expecting to see a leadership contest early next year and are beginning to see the alternatives on offer. There is good reason to believe that no leadership candidate would seek to abandon the last two manifestos in their entirety, those ideas are after all overwhelmingly popular with the membership. But they may begin to take the first strides in that direction, seeking to incrementally drop the 2019 manifesto’s agenda. We might see a pitch for a return to the vision of 2010-15 Labour, perhaps sprinkled with some extra left-wing sweeteners for the membership. Or we might see the vision teased by parts of the party more recently: Left-wing economics lite but without the internationalism or the clear stand with the marginalised.
Early criticisms appear to suggest that the party’s offering was too left-wing, too detailed and long, too generous on public spending, too unpatriotic and not sufficiently appealing to the white working class. Elsewhere, Labour’s support for trans equality and associations with ‘cosmopolitanism’ have been blamed as contributing factors for the defeat. These criticisms are wrong, and in some cases deeply flawed. A turn toward the politics of the flag and ‘one-nation’ and ‘cultural conservatism’, as is being called for by some, would be disastrous.
‘Real change’ is popular
The policies and objectives in the manifesto are predominantly popular, adding up to a plan for government which has genuinely inspired enthusiasm far beyond the party’s electoral base. From the inclusive ownership funds to the Green New Deal, to scrapping tuition fees and bringing in rent regulation, to a serious council house-building programme, public ownership of energy, Royal Mail and RBS and delivering free broadband. Support for public ownership of utilities and strategic industries, already notably popular, even increased during the period of Corbyn’s leadership. This popularity was not just true of the ‘bread and butter’ social democratic side of the manifesto, the policies that the centre-left of ‘Old’ Labour would have agreed with. This was true of much of the sharper end of the programme.
I’m not going to argue that this exonerates the leadership, or people on the wider left, but the idea that Labour’s shift toward universalism, active redistribution and economic democracy put people off goes against the evidence. Grave errors have clearly been made by the party, but to kill off this hopeful, popular programme would be a dereliction of Labour’s duty to deliver for working-class people. People deserve more than half-measures or mild social democracy to solve the housing crisis, the degradation of workers’ rights or to confront the vast gap between rich and poor.
‘Real change’ isn’t unrealistic
The wider trends do not render a future victory for the left inevitable. They do not indicate that Boris Johnson is incapable of winning another ‘stonking’ majority in 2024, governing for a decade. That could be the future that awaits us. At this election, the centre didn’t hold either. The Liberal Democrats performed poorly, Change UK predictably lost all their seats, and the ‘moderate’ ex-Conservatives disappeared too. Jo Swinson, who had had less time for negative exposure and less bad press than Corbyn, ended up with lower approval ratings and losing her seat. Whatever the answer is, Labour’s centrists will have quite a difficult time making their case. Returning to a platform of modest tinkering with the status quo, like the party’s unsuccessful platform in 2010-15 is no serious option.
The trends are that the incumbent economic model is becoming less politically feasible, not more. The offer that made neoliberal economics work for enough people, enough of the time, for it to carry on has effectively broken down.
Broader homeownership, greater levels of consumption, pay rising faster than CPI, none of these things are set to come back without substantial changes in our economic model. On top of this, as Larry Elliott notes growing private debt is a ticking timebomb. Finally, economic growth (while far from being the best measure of the state of a society) has been anaemic in the UK, but also Europe and the US, since the financial crash. This shows no sign of changing.
While an alternative answer to these problems could come from the right, there are few signs of that right now – and Johnson’s Neo-Thatcherite cabinet will make it harder for them to find any useful answers. Whether they abide by their manifesto, or govern from further to the right, then the UK is set to remain a low spending, chronically low investment, polarised and flagrantly unequal society. With a climate crisis already upon us, an environmental policy akin to Labour’s will become more necessary over the next five years, not less. This is not something that can be done on the cheap.
A vision whose time may come?
The idea of a world free from poverty, exploitation and social alienation is a legitimate, worthwhile one. Large-scale inequalities of power, status and quality of life are not necessary and do not have to be the norm. That kind of world was always going to take generations to achieve and a Labour victory last week might have been a first step in that direction. That first step has failed, badly. But it did not fail because people do not want or care about building a deeply fairer world.