Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The social democratic triangle

Labour’s centre-left must be pro-success and aspiration to renew and win again, writes outgoing director Richard Angell

The future for social democrats in the Labour party feels uncertain. Not because a new party in imminent – even those who think it is a desirable outcome are starting to see it is not a workable solution – but because our internal hard left opponents are ruthless in a way few could imagine and we, as the social democrats, have lost our confidence. There has been pushback against the Momentum machine, as well as the growth of antisemitism, hounding of public officials and revolutionary politics within the party. Good organisation is not enough though, and must be matched with intellectual renewal.

The Corbynistas in the party have a narrator (Jeremy Corbyn) and a narrative (anti-war, anti-austerity, anti-fees) but when the policy ‘rubber’ hits the real world ‘road’ many of the policies do not withstand scrutiny. From Stella Creasy on women’s rights in Northern Ireland to Wes Streeting on rights for gig economy workers or Liz Kendall and Caroline Flint on social care, the centre-left is buzzing with individual ideas. You just have to look at Alison McGovern and her work on Brexit to see that we can campaign and create change. We are, however, without a narrative to tie these ideas together into a coherent vision of what we want the country to look like in 10 years’ time. Even if we had one, there is no obvious single narrator to tell our story of Britain’s future.

The social democracy triangle

The challenge for those who want a different future for Labour is to reconcile three objectives that many suggest are in competition, if not, contradiction. First, growing the economy; something Labour has not talked about with any conviction since Labour left office. Second, Labour talks about tackling inequality but its policies – abolishing tuition fees, renationalisation and maintaining the benefits cap – would not achieve it. Third, social mobility; Labour – and Theresa May – has shamefully abandoned this to the coalition years. Alan Milburn’s programme for social mobility is far more radical than the 2017 Labour manifesto or anything said by the Labour frontbench since.

This ‘social democratic triangle’ – growth, helped by state investment; reduced inequality, helping ‘left behind’ communities with a post-second world war Marshall-style plan for the working classes; and revived social mobility, speaking directly to young people trapped out the housing ladder – should be the frame within which we build a centre-left narrative. The notion of success holds the three together: that when the country and we as individuals prosper, growth will occur, inequality can be tackled and social mobility become real.

Success, aspiration and the future

Labour has not seemed pro-success since leaving office (with a brief Tessa Jowell-inspired interlude for the 2012 Olympics). Despite the horrors of a Tory government, Britain is a great place. It has extraordinary people, businesses, universities, trade unionists, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs, but it could be so much better.

Social democrats have to be optimists. Like many, I look back on the 1990s as a time of great hope, but it is too easy to forget the early part of the decade was marked by economic difficulties, Labour’s defeat in 1992 and the drift of the John Major years. Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were key to the optimism of those times politically, alongside ‘Cool Britannia’ culturally. The belief that change is possible must be replicated now. This is difficult to conceive with while the Tories are in power and Brexit seemingly on the horizon.

To achieve this, we have to look to the future, celebrate success and be pro-aspiration. The future is not just evil tech giants and the absence of working-class jobs; it is a massive opportunity. To be healthier, more knowledgeable and have greater leisure time – a four-day working week is an attainable goal that is well worth striving towards. If the average working week can go from 47 hours in 1930 to 32 hours today, it must be able to fall further without hitting living standards.

But to be pro-success and endeavour the Labour party should be unashamedly pro-work. Not just access to an income but its ability to provide dignity and economic security. It should be a point of principle workers should always take home a majority of the next pound they earn, so 50p top rate payroll taxes are wrong. But it is also wrong that wealth goes untaxed or at a privileged rate. It is time the income from assets was taxed like all other income. No special status for capital gains, inheritance tax replaced with a lifetime gifts allowance with the remainder taxed like PAYE and pensions be tax-beneficial at the same rate for all workers without preference for higher-rate tax payers. Importantly, those who cannot work are not without a contribution to make; a proper Labour social security would give dignity to disabled people and see the potential in everyone.

The danger with ‘optimism’ is it looks like satisfaction with a status quo the public are rightly sceptical of. Centre-left Labour must get this balance right. Government can help people but it fails too many. We should challenge it to do better without pandering to those who want to rip it all down. Investment and reform is more the politics of the future, than the past.

Reforming capitalism

The reality is there is barely a fag paper between the hard-left and the centre-left on the funding of public services. The difference is about how we reform capitalism. The former, headed by John McDonnell, want reforms that will create control over the economy – nationalisation, increased Treasury spending, wage councils, investment banks overseen by ministers and the governor of the Bank of England. The centre-left wants reforms that would hardwire equality – labour market protections, changes to company governance and short-termism stemming from financial reporting, tax and benefit changes, regional banks, an independent national investment bank and greater collective bargaining. One is about the power of the state, the other the power of the collective.

The centre-left needs to be able to clearly articulate this. If the archbishop of Canterbury can, then we can – and win votes in the party and the country while doing do.

This was Ed Miliband’s vision. But he lacked two critical factors to making it a success: one, he thought he could somehow be ‘pro-business’ and ‘anti-profit’; this was a folly. Two, he never saw people in the private sector as allies, only ‘predators’. No company, like no human being, is truly and consistently ethical but some are better than others. Find them and use them to make the case for changing our economy so it is fair, not pitching one against the other in a zero-sum-game.

Corbynism is based on misconceptions

Finally, to get all this right, the centre-left has got to get the politics right.

First, it must transform its view of the Labour party membership. Our failure on the centre-left was to leave so much space to our left, and seem so very technocratic, that Corbyn was able to stand in not just one but two Labour leadership elections as a modern Charles Kennedy (think 2003: anti-fees, anti-war), whereas ideologically he is really a more affable George Galloway. But this failure means Corbyn, not centre-left Labour, is at the head of a social democratic and liberal mass membership. Every day he betrays them on Brexit and more members are coming to realise the gap between promise and reality. We must be open and welcoming to those who supported Corbyn, understanding the reasons they did so.

Second, recognition is needed that the meteoric rise of Corbynism in 2015 is based on an analysis that simply is not true: a narrative that says there were three New Labour leaders and the project ended in two defeats in a row. This is not true. It was the abandonment of that project that led to Labour’s losses. We should not begrudge the better than expected result achieve by Corbyn in 2017. But if things carry on as they are – Corbyn third behind May and ‘don’t know’ as the public’s preferred prime minister, the Tories have a new leader and no anti-older people policies at the next election – it will be Corbynism and the rejection of New Labour that will have led Labour to its fourth loss in a row.

Third, it is only a matter of time that the false promise of the populist-left and the populist-right will be revealed. They knowingly offer the voters a future that cannot be realised: free university tuition is not fair to working-class taxpayers, nor students struggling with their cost while studying, and would starve further education of vital resources; a left-exit from the EU would amount to nothing; and the Brexit promised by the Vote Leave-leading rightwing is undeliverable.

The challenge for the centre-left is this – are we ready with the vision, ideas and talent for what follows?

Conclusion

The centre-left is more in charge of its destiny than many in its ranks believe. The next few years in Labour politics will be dominated by Brexit and the attempts to deselect mainstream Labour members of parliament and council leaders. It will make doing this task harder, but getting it right makes it all the more worthwhile.

The good news is what our politics requires, and what our country needs, are one and the same. Increased growth, reduced inequality and revived social mobility. This is our challenge and our opportunity. Labour’s centre-left just needs the confidence to go for it.

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Richard Angell was director of Progress 2014 to 2018

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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

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