During his ill-starred attempt to become Labour leader in 2010, David Miliband fired several warning shots to Labour’s centre-left about the danger it was in. ‘Future’, he said somewhat whimsically, ‘is the most important word in politics. We must convince our fellow citizens that we are a party of the future.’ Few could have imagined the future that would later unfold.
In 2015, following the five-year tragedy of triangulation under Miliband’s brother, Ed, the candidates contesting the subsequent Labour leadership election all suffered, in different ways, from an inability to adequately describe how Labour would take this country into the future. For all its flaws, New Labour in its early days was able to capture the zeitgeist of change in a way that now seems so remote as to be absurd.
This is because Labour is a party obsessed with, and nostalgic about, the past. Owen Smith’s stirring campaign video released last week included many figures and policies from Labour’s past, but none from the last 30 years (because we’re all a bit embarrassed about our recent past, apparently). This is ironic, considering the name of our main opponents, the Conservative party. And yet, across the entire Labour movement, I cannot think of a single figure or faction that can provide clear and defining alternatives – not mere visions – in the face of the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism and its current, particularly menacing bodyguard, austerity.
Anyone who has read Owen Jones’ book, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, will be familiar with the important passage about how the New Right established intellectual hegemony in the worlds of politics and economics. Here Jones explains that, in the wake of the financial crises of the 1970s, the New Right’s intellectual outriders, who had for decades been waiting to strike, advanced their fresh narrative while the Labour party retreated to the left under Michael Foot. Neoliberals have been in the ascendancy across the western world ever since.
In 2008, in the sweltering heat of the global financial crash, the left was afforded a golden opportunity to strike back and re-establish some kind of morality at the heart of markets which for decades had been widening the inequality gap that had initially shrunk in the west following the second world war. And what happened? The left froze and rightwing governments across the west, including in our own country, seized control.
This was, quite simply, because the left was not ready and had not renewed. Had the left in Britain been able to call on intellectual outriders of the standing of Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman as the New Right had, it might have seized the moment. Instead, there was a brief reversion to John Maynard Keynes under Gordon Brown, followed by a crushing general election defeat and a shift to austerity under the Tories. The left is still not ready now. Let us not pretend that Corbynism is that radical alternative we need. It is a howl of pain and impotence and a terrifying indictment of how intellectually sterile the centre-left has become.
There will soon be another economic slowdown. It may not be next year or the year after, but it will come. A centre-left that was genuinely prepared to govern would seize that moment. But I fear it is nowhere near ready. Indeed, as one of the few genuinely bright centre-left outriders, James Bloodworth, noted recently in his storming book, The Myth of Meritocracy, Labour has not been able to call on a figure of Anthony Crosland’s repute for half a century.
So what can be done in the short term? Adopt the liberalism of Canada’s Justin Trudeau? I don’t think so. The Liberal Democrats attempted something akin to that during the general election last year and were crushed. In any case, the Labour party should never aspire to be a liberal party in the field of economics. We are a socialist party and the only return to relevance will come from making our socialism believable.
This will, of course, not concern Corbyn. The hard-left and far-left have never been particularly concerned with reality. Yet it should be of grave concern to the centre-left, because we are running out of time to remain in contention for power. The journalist Nick Cohen, speaking this summer, warned eerily that we may soon be in a situation where elections in this country are decided between a centre-right Conservative party and a far-right United Kingdom Independence party. What a truly terrifying prospect that is.
So it falls to people on the centre-left to go out urgently and find, encourage, or even become outriders for a new future. A thousand Anthony Croslands are needed in double-quick time, or soon it won’t matter what the centre-left has to say about the future because it will simply be a thing of the past.
Sam Stopp is a councillor in the London borough of Brent. He tweets at @CllrStopp
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