The Return of the Edstone

By Adam Peggs

Last week the Labour Party launched the details of its ongoing Policy Review, conceived of after Starmer’s disastrous local election results. The review, echoing Neil Kinnock’s policy review in the late 1980s, appears to be intended to mark a shift in the leadership’s approach.

Reporting on the review the Guardian stated ‘Labour’s policy review is to focus on jobs, families and security’, whileLabour list noted the new slogan ‘Stronger Together: A Better Future for Britain’ with an accompanying article by Party Chair Anneliese Dodds which emphasised the new slogan, stating the term is central to the review.

TheEvening Standard highlighted Dodds’ praise for London Mayor Sadiq Khan with the headline “Record sums to be given to cycling and green jobs”, referring to the Mayor’s policies. Despite the rhetoric, there is no indication that Labour plans to match or outsize the party’s 2019 Green Industrial Revolution. 

In her Labour list article to kick off the review, Anneliese Dodds lays out six core principles for the party’s new policy agenda:

  • “secure Britain’s future role in the world”
  • “deliver better jobs and better work”
  • “a green and digital future”
  • “safe and secure communities”
  • “world-class public services”
  • “a future where families come first”.

This EdStone-like collection of objectives will likely do little to inspire the Party’s membership or supporters. Whether this marks a change in direction from Starmerism so far isn’t clear. Notably, none of these principles are aims that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak or Ed Davey would not profess to share. The term “world-class public services” echoes the Prime Minister’s own language, as does the emphasis on family and security. Many single and, in particular, LGBT people noted the social conservative connotations of the “family first” slogan.

The invocation of “safe and secure communities” is another phrase that can serve both as a generic, catch-all slogan, that any of the major parties could use, and one that evokes the same social conservatism that connects much of the leadership’s rhetoric. This builds on the party’s Tough on Crime slogans, including that ‘criminals should fear’ police, and condemnations of a Conservative government that has failed to ‘secure the borders’.

For those that have argued that Starmer’s leadership is failing due to a lack of policies, the announcement that the review does not expect to present policies until at least next summer will only reinforce these concerns. But, as Nicky Hutchinson has argued, Labour is not currently short of policies – they just don’t have the right ones.

The Party’s criminal justice agenda is effectively a return to the War on Crime politics of the Blair era. It is not that the party has little to say or to offer. The offer is clear enough – tougher sentences for a wide variety of crimes, increased police numbers and opposition to reform. This is an arms race they have little chance of beating Priti Patel in – and one where the moral implications of victory are unsettling.

On the environment, the Green Industrial Revolution developed between 2017 and 2019 has been driven into reverse. Democratic public ownership appears to have been dropped from the environmental policy package, the recent climate report commits the party to continued support for low-carbon fossil fuels and in Parliament the Party has focused on the target of Net-Zero by 2050 – rather than the 2030 goal democratically agreed at Party conference and supported by the wider public. With left-wing climate groups not included in the policymaking process, this problem risks intensifying further.

On social and economic policies, the policy agenda largely resembles a reheated version of the 2015 manifesto – including the recent return of a pledge for a job guarantee for the long-term unemployed (now dubbed a ‘job promise’). But with the scale of the country’s problems, this kind of agenda is even less appropriate than when it was tried by Ed Miliband.

The Party’s stance on Corporation Tax this spring found the Party outflanking the Conservatives, at least temporarily, to their right and deploying Keynesian-style arguments in a bid to appease big business. In Rachel Reeves, the Party has one of the most centrist figures to hold the economics brief in its modern history. While Reeves’ recent interventions on outsourcing are welcome and should not be irrelevant to our analysis, they should not distract from the big picture – that of a Party distancing itself from working class politics. And unlike in the Miliband-era, it is unclear whether the Party even supports raising taxes on the wealthy. The departure from ‘Corbynomics’ has been full and absolute.

That Dodds, rather than, say, Rachel Reeves or Lisa Nandy, is leading the review may mitigate against the worst outcomes, but there is little else to be optimistic about. The review, seemingly inspired by Lord Mandelson, looks like another stride in the wrong direction.

There is fantastic policy work being done by organisations such as Labour for a Green New Deal, Common Wealth and Autonomy and being championed by trade unions and organisations like Momentum. Yet there are no signs this kind of thinking will inform the review. In response, the left may be better off developing its own independent prospectus in opposition to the policy review and building on the previous manifesto and Momentum’s platform.

As Ben Fine argues, we need a political programme that places in “stark opposition the interest of the Many and those of the Few” that could deliver “profound economic and social transformations”. With the pandemic having exposed mass insecurity and vast inequalities, we need socialist change more than ever.

Adam Peggs is a writer and activist based in Deptford, London. 

Image: Keir Starmer, February 2020. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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