21 June 2017
At the outset of the 2017 election campaign there seemed to be a good chance that the Labour Party would be broken – possibly irreparably – on the anvil of nationalism. After all, that was why Theresa May had called the election. Enormous credit is therefore due to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left for running an excellent campaign that capitalised on the abject weaknesses of the Conservatives and ultimately saved Labour from what many people – including me – thought would be a shattering historic defeat. After two years of bleak political news, the forces of conservatism in Britain have finally lost some ground. Much conventional wisdom now looks questionable as a result of the election, but I want to focus here on one point that raises some challenges for all parts of the Labour Party, including for Jeremy Corbyn and the left.
Corbyn himself said that Labour’s manifesto was the star of its campaign. It is widely agreed that the radical policies in the manifesto made a substantial impact on the election by offering a clear, positive vision of what a Labour government would do. Indeed, so successful was this vision that the Conservatives – whose positive political appeal for decades has been based on reducing direct taxes and handing out cut price houses – are now lamely accusing Labour of having bribed the voters. But what precisely did the Labour manifesto offer? Key measures in the manifesto included promises to increase income taxes on people earning over £80,000 a year; to introduce new workplace protections and rights; to bring energy, water, the Royal Mail and the railways back into public ownership; to invest in infrastructure; and to increase funding for public services, including for childcare and the abolition of university tuition fees. While there were some perfunctory gestures towards constitutional and democratic reform, and a more substantial but under-developed idea about promoting co-operative ownership structures, the heart of the manifesto was about strengthening the role of the state in reducing inequality and managing the economy.
One startling aspect of the success of this prospectus is that it essentially offered a fairly conventional social democratic politics of the sort that much of the professional elite and supporting intellectual network of the Labour Party has harboured grave doubts about since Labour left office in 2010 (and in some quarters even before then). Centre-left think tanks, commentators and academics have in recent years spent a lot of time worrying that ‘traditional’ social democracy required too much public spending or too great a role for the state, or lacked a patriotic rapport with Britishness and/or Englishness, or presented a deracinated metropolitan liberal perspective untethered to the parochial realities of working class life. While there was clearly something to these worries, some of this now looks overblown, in the sense that it underestimated both the volatility of the British political landscape and the strength of Labour’s traditional brand when given a sufficiently distinctive political focus. Although it would be foolish to feel certain about what will happen next, we can now see that the Conservative Party also faces fundamental challenges in holding together the electoral coalition constructed for it by Cameron and Osborne. In the wake of the European referendum, the Conservatives seem to have alienated a significant chunk of (predominantly younger) voters through their positioning on Brexit while simultaneously repelling other voters through their positioning on public services. As long as the Conservatives remain in government and have to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU, with all its attendant economic problems, then their voting coalition looks vulnerable to the sort of positioning Labour adopted during the 2017 campaign.
But it is paradoxical that the group in the Labour Party that actually had the courage to take a robust vision of social democracy to the country is one that has itself not been historically strongly attached to it. The stance of the Labour left has always been that social democracy is not enough. They have traditionally argued that a state-led welfare state lacks opportunities for popular participation and control, and that taxing and spending without democratising the ownership of capital will ultimately yield only limited gains. A fascinating aspect of the campaign is that it fell to Jeremy Corbyn to mount a potent defence of some of New Labour’s great achievements: high public spending on health and education; the Educational Maintenance Allowance; government investment in childcare and Sure Start; and a universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners. But the difference with New Labour was that since the 1992 general election, Labour’s leaders have always assumed that the party must be excruciatingly specific and precise in its tax and spending commitments or it will face a fatal media and Conservative onslaught during the campaign. Although the 2017 manifesto proclaimed itself to be ‘fully costed’, the truth is that the tax and spending commitments of Labour in 2017 were not as focused and watertight as they had been at every other general election since 1997. It is an interesting question as to why this was nowhere near as problematic for Labour as it might have been. One possibility is that it was simply another example of a dysfunctional and complacent Conservative campaign that failed to get a grip on its opponent. But another possibility is that economic credibility is beginning to mean something different as the challenges of leaving the EU become clearer and the grinding impact of seemingly perpetual austerity hits home. The existential challenge of how the British economy can succeed outside the EU could be crowding out the debate on the deficit reduction timetable. A bold rather than a minimalist economic and social policy package may therefore now have greater appeal than in more cautious times.
Once the relief of the election result wears off, there will be a need for intellectual honesty rather than political posturing on all sides of Labour in order to work out how to build on 2017. Like the Conservatives, the Corbyn electoral coalition also looks vulnerable to fracture, particularly if Labour were to take office while Brexit negotiations are still underway. There is a lot to do, but Labour has already achieved what seemed impossible only a few weeks ago – not just avoiding a hopeless defeat but also putting the Conservatives in a severe, maybe even inescapable, political fix.
Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and Co-editor of Political Quarterly.
To support Renewal’s work promoting productive debate across the British left and get the whole journal every quarter, please subscribe.