Calls for the Labour Party to abandon its bold, left-wing agenda should not be embraced — the fight for a different kind of society must go on.
In the last half-decade Labour has come a long way from the days of austerity-lite. Rejecting austerity, a tradition of military adventurism and a broken, Thatcherite economic model. None of this is likely to disappear in the short term, certainly without sustained efforts to push the party rightward. But after the scale of last December’s defeat, there is already a great deal of clamouring for a sharp break with Labour’s left-wing trajectory. Yet this call for a big shift in direction remains out of touch with the views of the party membership, of the majority of a wider public and the needs of our economically polarised society.
Only 6% of those who switched from Labour switched because of the party’s economic policies, nor did a large swathe of the electorate oppose the party for its “hard left” policies. Recent polling from BMG has indicated high levels of support for all of the Labour policies polled, including public ownership of water and energy and reducing emissions to net-zero by 2030 as passed at a Labour Party conference. However, the same polling suggested swathes of the electorate were nervous about Labour’s agenda with regard to taxation, defence and public spending. This chimes with data from during the election suggesting that Labour’s policies were perceived to be unaffordable by the overwhelming majority.
Corbyn’s claim that the party was winning the battle of ideas was ill-timed and sounded implausible, but it was not baseless. As former New Labour strategist John McTernan argues in the Financial Times, ‘The Conservative Party won the election, but they are far from winning the battle of ideas’. Instead, neither of the major parties ‘speaks for competitive markets’. While there is still a way to go, Labour has made significant headway in shifting the debate onto terms more favourable to the left. The shift away from the old political consensus, expected by some to disappear after the catastrophic 2007–8 financial crisis, has been a lengthy process, but it has been taking place. Regressive and right-wing as it is, Johnsonism does appear to represent something distinct and new compared to its Conservative predecessors.
According to Peter Mandelson, self-evidently no dyed in the wool Corbynista, ‘McDonnellomics’ “reflects strong popular sentiment”. “There are few if any of Labour’s flagship policies that do not score good opinion poll ratings” and that “the British electorate has a much greater appetite for radical change than is often appreciated”. Further, he argues that these policies are inspiring equivalent ideas from the Tories ‘in most cases the policies are not the same but Labours ideas are already exerting an unmistakable practical and ideological pull on the Conservatives.’
This perspective on the election also extends onto the right of British politics. One account of the election campaign, from right-wing journalist Katy Balls, suggests that after the launch of the Labour manifesto, the Tories’ private polling suggested a fall in their lead to just 4 percentage points. “A strong communicator”, could carry forward these policies with gusto and sweep Labour into power. As Ronan Burtenshaw notes “Even the Telegraph had to admit that Corbyn’s platform had substantial appeal”.
Nor have strategies reliant on either finding the coveted centre-ground or building cautious iterations of social democracy been effective across much of Europe and across the wider world. The party would do well to take heed of this. When centre-left social democracy has gone up against the populist right, it is usually the populist right that has emerged victorious.
It remains a both a moral and strategic imperative that the party continues to stand for a genuinely bold left-wing politics, rather than for teasing out compromises and slow reforms. Moral because of who we represent, what the left believes in and the sheer scale of the problems that face us. As Sienna Rodgers argued during the election campaign ‘the level of ambition in the new manifesto is not optional — it is urgently necessary’. Strategic, because politics, even party politics, is not just about attaining high office but about achieving serious change. There is a difference between a Labour government which attains office and founds the National Health Service, the welfare state and nationalises key industries and one with a far more limited agenda. And there is a great deal of space between those two outcomes, a difference which has profound impacts on the lives of working people.
Without sustained activism from the grassroots and outside of the party and a union movement determined to stand for major change, this kind of shift back toward the centre may end up the likely outcome. The risk is that if we end up plumbing for For the Many-lite, attrition may lead to the party standing for something less substantial.
Labour’s platform last December, while not perfect, represents a confident, left-social democratic programme for the 2020s and for responding to an age of environmental breakdown and mass inequality. One that asserts the good of common ownership and industrial democracy, that confronts the indignity of the UK’s iniquitous labour market and the scale of the climate crisis.
It represents the vital hope of a radically fairer and radically more equal society.