Whatever his shortcomings, Gordon Brown was always more attuned to the history and politics of the labour movement than most of his New Labour colleagues. So it is no surprise that he, and not Tony Blair or any other senior figure from that period of the party’s history, should be the one to launch the Alliance for Full Employment — an initiative designed to persuade government to give greater support to workers and businesses hit hardest by Covid-19.
It is encouraging — for those of us rooted in the movement, at least — to hear the language of full employment being deployed again so boldly. But the challenge will be to ensure that it lasts beyond the current crisis and takes its rightful place again as a central and permanent feature of Labour campaigning.
The party started to become reluctant to bang the drum for full employment at around the same time — the late 1980s — that it began to embrace monetarist orthodoxy. Stung by three successive election defeats (the fourth was still to come), the party leadership swallowed Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘There is no alternative’.
From that point, it was in with the rolling back of the frontiers of the state and out with the notion that government should feature as a main actor in the economic life of the nation and be willing to use every tool at its disposal, fiscal as well as monetary, to manipulate demand and manage the economy in the interests of ordinary people.
And so a principle that had been a staple of the post-war consensus — the Tories themselves didn’t even renounce any commitment to full employment during that period — was, if not jettisoned by the Labour party, then certainly sidelined, with monetary targets such as restraint of inflation supplanting jobs and growth as the central objectives of macroeconomic policy.
All of this demonstrated Labour’s abject lack of intellectual confidence and radicalism on economic affairs during these years — something for which Brown himself must accept his share of responsibility. The damage was lasting. Not even the rise of Corbynism was enough to persuade Labour to institute full employment as a prime goal of economic policy (the 2017 and 2019 manifestos made no explicit reference to it).
Nonetheless, Brown’s fresh intervention is welcome, and it has drawn support from across the labour movement. There is likely to be strong support for it in the country, too. There is a recognition that the price the whole country pays for large numbers of people being out of work — such as through depleted tax revenues, higher welfare payments and sheer waste of human talent — is an enormous one. And, crisis or not, it is never a price worth paying.