With Number 10 now housing the first sitting Prime Minister to break the law, and with living costs soaring across the country, Her Majesty’s Opposition should be making the political weather, and making plans to form the next government. That things aren’t panning out that way tells us something critical: that voters still have no clear understanding of what the Labour Party stands for.
Ask yourself what the party’s core message is and how it would improve lives and communities around the country, and few, if any, answers are forthcoming. But ask yourself what the party actually does, and the answer pops up instantly. Labour gives every impression of being preoccupied with purges and internal warfare. Talking to the country appears less a priority than removing all remaining vestiges of anything associated with the previous leader. Scarcely a day goes by without Keir Starmer making a new effort to signal to the electorate that the bad old communist Grandpa is gone.
Still licking its deep and self-inflicted wounds from the general election of 2019, the party under its current leadership appears desperate to convince voters that the Corbyn era was nothing more than an aberration, a squalid interregnum which came about because a proud movement momentarily took leave of its senses. Such a strategy is not without merit, of course. After all, that Corbyn was unpopular on the doorstep is undeniable, as is the fact that the gulf which existed between the Labour Party and its traditional base at the point of his departure was greater than it had ever been. So great, in fact, that there remains a question mark over whether it might ever be bridged.
In his eagerness to detoxify the Labour brand, Starmer should be aware of one or two risks. The most obvious is that a return to anything resembling Blairite liberal-centrism — undoubtedly the wistful long-term desire of many within Labour’s ranks — would do nothing to bring about rapprochement with the party’s old heartlands. Indeed, it is indisputable that while the rupture unquestionably worsened under Corbyn, it began several years before.
Second, not everything the Corbynites did was wrong or unpopular. True, they took hyper-progressivism to suffocating new levels and, in doing so, alienated huge swathes of provincial and working-class Britain. But they did get some things right. Most notably, in seeking to challenge four decades of neoliberal orthodoxy and shift the dial towards a fairer and more redistributive economy, the party under Corbyn showed a boldness of thought that had, for a long time, been sorely lacking.
Labour was, for instance, right under Corbyn to declare that austerity was not an economic necessity but a political choice; right to assert that a nation cannot cut its way to prosperity; right to argue for investment-led growth; right to see the role of government in the economy as active participant rather than mere bystander.
This agenda was savaged by critics and pundits. They thought it reeked of the twentieth century and top-down, Soviet-style command economics. They were wrong. Corbynomics amounted to little more than the type of Keynesian interventionist approach which was adopted by every British government for three decades after the end of the Second World War, and has long been the hallmark of the Nordic economies. As Keynes’s most prominent advocate and biographer Robert Skidelsky argued, Corbyn deserved praise for confronting what had become the entrenched conventional wisdom and seeking to reassert the proper place of government in the economic life of the nation.
And while it is de rigueur for political pundits to now claim that “Corbynomics” were in large part responsible for the party’s annihilation in 2019, the reality is that much of the agenda was popular — far more so than the man after whom it was named. People like the idea of an increase in the minimum wage; they frown upon huge disparities in wealth and income; they are sympathetic to progressive taxation and public ownership of key utilities and services; they want regional inequalities addressed and boardroom excesses tackled; they support the concept of worker representation on company boards.
That is why, with a cost-of-living crisis now taking millions of families to the brink, and the prospect of the biggest drop in living standards since the Fifties, Labour must not shy away from offering a healthy dose of radicalism now. They must contrast themselves with a flailing chancellor. Rishi Sunak was happy to splash the cash during the pandemic. But at the moment, all he offers voters desperate for a recovery are the failed Thatcherite policies of the past.
So while Labour has been right to call for such measures as a windfall tax on the oil and gas companies and the scrapping of the national insurance hike, it must not limit itself to arguing about particular tax and benefit rates here and there. Instead, it needs to set out a bold vision for a complete reordering of economic priorities. That means — and I can’t say I’m holding my breath here — agitating for an approach that would see the government assuming full control over macroeconomic policy and opposing any further ceding of authority to technocrats with no democratic mandate. It would mean elevating the needs of our long-neglected productive sector — the real economy in which most people live and work — over those of finance.
Why should a party with such a radical tradition resign itself to the defeatist belief that there is no alternative to the dominance of the market over vast areas of our national life; that bankers and business leaders always know best; and that, in the end, government intervention in the economy should be seen as nothing more than an occasionally necessary evil?
The public are ready for Labour to be audacious once more. A decade of austerity has impoverished millions. The pandemic revealed dangerous flaws in globalisation — from supply chains and Britain’s missing industrial base. Our over reliance on global markets was utterly exposed. Voters understand all of this. Labour must make the case for the self-governing nation state, untethered from fragile markets and exploitative multinationals. But Labour rarely speaks in these terms.
If the party wanted a truly bold idea to express a new economic philosophy, it might embrace the “family wage” — a concept designed to ensure that families are able to enjoy a decent quality of life on the wages of one earner. This really would signal a revolution, as many across the Labour movement bristle at the proposal whenever someone is brave enough to float it. They often argue that it would serve only to reinforce the patriarchy, but such a reaction demonstrates how far the movement has retreated from its historical purpose. It seems large numbers within Labour’s ranks would sooner see both parents be forced to go out to work than entertain any suggestion the economy be reordered to grant them the flexibility to allow one, should he or she wish it, to be a full-time home-maker.
In any event, Labour must seek to use the current crisis as a springboard to set a new economic narrative. But, in doing so, it must not strive to exorcise every demon from the years 2015-19. While ridding the party of the worst elements of Corbynism is certainly no ignoble ambition, an indiscriminate blitz would be injudicious and counter-productive electorally.
Of course, any approach that is seen to run counter to the demand for economic retrenchment will be met by the usual vested interests protesting, as they did when Corbyn ran the show, that “There is no magic money tree”. But not only does such an objection demonstrate a misunderstanding of the nature of money — it can, in fact, be created out of nothing — it would, in the wake of the billions suddenly conjured up to get us through the pandemic, surely ring hollower than ever.
The perfect storm of a government in disarray, a forbidding economic landscape and an increasingly disaffected electorate presents Labour with an open goal. This is not a time for timidity or tinkering at the edges. It’s a moment for the party to display again its historical radical impulse.