What Bennism has to offer Starmer

Sam Pallis

Wikimedia Commons

Labour has to acknowledge the cold, hard reality that First Past the Post can’t save us. Once-dominant political parties can be relegated to insignificance under FPTP – as the Liberal Party were in the 1920s and 1930s. Labour must confront the peril of the situation.

The centre ground of English and Welsh politics is a cultural critique of capitalism. The argument goes like this: the metropolitan elite has outsourced our jobs and stripped our communities bare. Brexit has allowed the Conservatives to ride this and present themselves as the anti-elitist party.

The Conservatives hope they can continue to ride on this rhetoric without confronting the forces which have shaped their ability to speak as the anti-establishment party. They hope they can call an early election before any hard decisions are made. They think they can be associated with the big state for their action during the pandemic – and for some modest, largely aesthetic investment in local infrastructure – without actually producing coherent domestic policy.

But the Conservatives are riven with indecision as to how a government which makes ‘levelling up’ its core mission should confront the world economy: should they be aiming for a Singapore of freeports and super-deductions, or a renewed interventionist state? Brexit means that the Conservatives need some form of industrial strategy – but the internal contradiction within the party does not make this a straightforward job.

Labour has to confront the contradictions within the Tory party over their industrial strategy. It must call their bluff. Labour has to say there is now an opportunity to bring jobs back home, to use state aid to defend and revive great British industries like steel, and to make us a truly independent energy nation. Labour should not only make this a narrative about production and producers, but also about the service sector and consumers.  They need to convert energy independence into a patriotic programme and they need to call time on the outsourcing of supply chains. This started to be a major theme of the Corbyn era but was never fully realised.

Covid has transformed the common sense on insourcing, from Ben Houchen’s turn to the state to Tony Blair, the premier Labour doyen of hyperglobalisation, advocating for the insourcing of facemask production. Now is the moment to seize on this discourse and to define it.

Two Tonys, Benn and Crosland, asked this same question when confronted by the IMF crisis of the 1970s, and both – with varying degrees of conviction, and indeed coherence – came up with the same answer, rather than give in to the IMF: a form of import control. Labour once again need to confront the questions they posed. As David Edgerton argues in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, Labour from the 1940s through to the 1970s was a distinctly nationalist party; its policies were concerned fundamentally with the fortunes of the national economy. Benn and Crosland, in their own ways, offered a defence of a politics built around a more productive and more egalitarian national economy. In contrast, Roy Jenkins and his allies increasingly moved away from the politics of the national economy and the nation state, pre-empting the Blairite embrace of hyperglobalisation.

What Crosland and to a larger degree Benn were attempting to do was to carve out a national economic interest amid a turn toward hyperglobalisation. Benn called for an economy based on a protectionism that would be sustained by the participation of the people, which could only be enabled through mass nationalisation.  Labour need to draw on the spirit of these ideas to face the dilemma they now face.

These two themes of jobs and energy are essential to the coalition-building that will be necessary for Labour to continue to be a national party.  Labour is endeavouring to speak to a country that has lost its cohesiveness, from the changing nature of work, to the decay of our high streets and the public realm, to the splintering of the union. Labour has to develop a national story of optimism and develop a common anger that is the barrier to that. Members of the frontbench have endeavoured to outline this story but it needs to be expanded.

The coalitions that are being formed around English and Welsh politics are not only being driven by class. Yet corporate greed, unaccountable international capital flows, and corporations who are co-opting the green agenda can be the theme that can offer a way to speak beyond the divide. Labour need to clearly define who and what is holding back the nation: corporate greed. At a moment when the Conservatives are embracing the idea of the undeserving business, Labour must seize the opportunity.

Labour must try and fuse the crises of our times – underemployment, pandemic and climate change – into one bold narrative: insourcing. Bringing jobs back home means that we can be less reliant on other nations but also corporations to fuel the challenges of our age. Why are we not using the resources that we have on this island to power our response to climate change? 

Dani Rodrik has differentiated between hyperglobalisation and globalisation. Globalisation was the settlement between 1940-1970, primarily concerned with setting import control to serve domestic economic priorities, whereas hyperglobalisation emerged in the midst of 1970s oil crisis where these controls were replaced and free trade pursued as an end in itself. We need to move beyond hyperglobalisation and form a new relationship with the world economy. Our agenda must not be set by the world economy, but we must reset our relationship with the world economy to work for us.

The profiteering of corporations and the crisis of climate change can ultimately only be  solved on an international scale. Labour must continue to call out the Tories on the international aid budget, and set out clearly that – in the age of pandemics and climate crisis – the security of everyone in Britain is dependent on the security of the world as a whole. Yet the power of insourcing is to say that this will make our hand stronger on the international stage. That only if we take a strong stance on corporations at home can we reshape the international economy as a whole. As Jon Wilson and Jon Kundnani have argued in Renewal, Labour do not need to make a trade-off between nationalism and internationalism, instead international cooperation is based on “national societies whose people are able to shape their own destinies”.

Where are the jobs to deliver this? The difficulty all parties will face is that behavioural change required for the policies they are all putting forward on climate change are going to be unpopular with many people. The Gilet Jeunes riots were in part fuelled by hikes in petrol prices. The Conservatives have repeatedly shied away from ending the fuel duty freeze. And their coalition – and the key swing voters who delivered their 2019 majority – are disproportionately reliant on car travel. The Conservatives just hope they don’t have to make any hard decision on this before an election; hence the likelihood that they will call an early one.

One of the ways to maintain consent for these policies is to try and reassure people that their livelihood will not be affected. The theme of insourcing could act as an opportunity to gain consent for what will be wide sweeping change to all our lives, but especially those deeply affected by the legacy of deindustrialisation, by the effects of austerity and by our geographically uneven recovery since 2008.

A way to frame this would be to offer the country a ‘British guarantee’, that a Labour government would found a new contract between the people and industry. A guarantee that British industry would prioritise British jobs and energy; that unlike the Conservatives, Labour would step in and acquire a golden share in companies that failed to live up to this guarantee.

Johnson’s ability to be both Hal and Falstaff, incorruptible optimist and corrupted good timer, is allowing him to cover a multitude of sins. It is a winning combination but one based on bluster and incoherence. Labour cannot cede the ground of an optimistic national story to the Conservatives.

There are no guarantees when it comes to Labour’s future. No heartland can be treated as a given. But Labour now has to call the Conservatives’ bluff when it comes to Brexit. Will our future be dictated by the world economy, or will we reset the terms?

Sam Pallis is a Labour councillor in Hackney and a PhD candidate in history.