Let’s Bury Thatcherism in 2019

This year can be the end not just of austerity but of forty years of neoliberalism.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell speaks at last year's Labour Party conference. (Photo by Leon Neal / Getty Images.)

November’s report by the United Nations’ rapporteur on poverty and human rights should have been the final warning for this government. “Not just a disgrace, but a social calamity, and an economic disaster” was the view of Philip Alston, citing a “punitive, mean-spirited, and callous approach.”

With homelessness more than doubling between 2010 and 2017, the reality of rough sleeping and temporary accommodation ought to make government ministers ashamed at this time of year more than any other. How many times do the Tories need telling about the human suffering they have inflicted on our society?

Last year they were told to investigate 10,000 additional deaths in the first seven weeks of 2018, while hundreds of thousands waited in corridors and ambulances as the system creaked under the pressure of deliberate, callous underfunding. And despite the additional NHS funding in the longer term — “simply not enough” to address the fundamental challenges, according to the Health Foundation — I fear that the government’s failure to deal with the immediate pressures could mean yet another winter crisis in the next few months.

Austerity was always doomed to fail, but even the Conservatives can no longer paper over the cracks or blame everything on its usual scapegoats: the last Labour government or scroungers or immigrants.

Yet, in the face of people’s growing revulsion at the damage it is doing to our social fabric, the government staggers on — or at least it did at the time of writing. Clinging to office but not in power, riven with the contradictory demands of international capital and nationalism, we have seen in recent months a quite unprecedented loss of grip.

A government forced to accept wholesale opposition amendments to its flagship finance bill is not one which has the confidence even of parliament, let alone the confidence of an electorate shocked at the self-indulgent playing out of Conservative divisions on the world stage.

Labour’s Alternative

Europe has not always been a subject for unanimity on the left, of course. We only have to look through past issues of Tribune to find opposition to EEC membership in the 1970s and support for a more pro-European position in the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike the Conservatives, however, we can truly speak for Labour voters and constituencies across the country if we remain united against Theresa May’s attempts to bounce the UK into a bad Brexit deal.

Labour has been clear that if the government couldn’t get support for their deal, they should stand aside and call a general election to allow us to negotiate not just a transition deal but a collaborative future with Europe beyond that.

But of course, while Europe may be the most urgent question at the moment, it isn’t our only focus, as we build on last year’s manifesto and develop it further towards the next election and the transformative socialist government that we’re all fighting for.

Angela Rayner has laid the foundations for the mould-breaking National Education Service, which will bring education back under local democratic control by ending academy expansion and making good on our manifesto commitment to universal free childcare. As Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Margaret Greenwood has pledged an end to benefit sanctions and copper-fastened our party’s commitment to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit.

Rebecca Long-Bailey announced our commitment to a net zero emissions target by 2050, meaning that under a Labour government the UK would be on track to be the only developed country outside of Scandinavia to meet our international obligations, and we would do so while creating 400,000 well-paid green jobs in the process.

At conference I called for a new international settlement to address the challenges of international inequality, climate change, and the threat of trade wars. I also launched a consultation on the democratic management of public services, including detailed plans for public management of the water sector. We laid out radical plans to, yes, give workers seats on company boards but, more than that, part-ownership of big companies through Inclusive Ownership Funds, which will own 10 per cent of big companies after two terms of a Labour government.

The reality is that we cannot deliver the transformational change we want unless we take control of the key operations that we depend upon. In the hands of workers, customers, and elected representatives, water companies can be a source of investment and future-planning, as well as reducing bills by getting rid of enormous dividends.

With a nationally-owned grid infrastructure, we can — and will — transform our energy sector to provide the scale and the stable supply of low-carbon heat and light that we need for the long term. With a publicly-owned rail system and municipal bus companies we can build capacity and transition to a sustainable transport public system for the whole country.

A state-backed National Investment Bank, alongside regional development banks, will do what the private sector has failed to do: invest across the UK to deliver good jobs, thriving communities, and a more productive economy.

A New Consensus

None of this is possible unless we are prepared to fundamentally break with the dogma of recent history, that ‘private knows best’ and that toothless regulators can fix the failures of the market.

By being brave and confronting the conventional political wisdom, Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has brought a socialist government closer to becoming a reality. The right to question long-received truisms, and a calm firmness in the face of extraordinary hostility from all sides, has helped us build a mass party committed to changing the face of British politics.

The chorus of anger about the government’s economic policy, and the way it has torn communities apart, creates the basis for a majoritarian consensus which Labour under Jeremy Corbyn will build.

That consensus will come from right across a society so damaged by austerity: from the unemployed and those in receipt of benefits who have been demonised by the Tories, to the schools and hospitals we rely upon and the people who make them run, every person in this country reliant on a council service that has been decimated, or working in a job that pays too little with hours that are too long or too insecure.

I want especially to pay tribute to those thousands who opposed austerity even when we were told by the media, by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, yes, even by some on our own side that it was necessary or even a good idea and that we had to put up with it.

The thousands of Labour Party members and other activists who took part in industrial action against cuts and redundancies, disability rights activists who shone a light on government brutality and defeated them in court, campaigners up and down the country who fought to save libraries, those affected by our housing crisis who refused to stay quiet, and the many people beyond who saw injustice and spoke up about it, even when it wasn’t their own. We owe an enormous debt to the grassroots of our movement for fighting to keep those parts of our society that make it worth living in.

The political consensus which is coming together now and which will underpin the forthcoming socialist Labour government has the work that they have done over the past decade. Without the resistance to austerity offered by Tribune readers and thousands of others, we would never have the opportunity that we do now to offer a real alternative.

So, to address the huge challenges that our country and indeed our planet face, let’s make 2019 the final nail in the coffin of not just austerity but of forty years of neoliberalism.

Let’s deliver a Labour government that, yes, redistributes income and wealth from the few to the many. But let’s also deliver a Labour government that shifts real power into the hands of those who create that income and wealth. One that delivers a society that is radically transformed, radically fairer, more equal, and more democratic, based upon a prosperous economy which is economically and environmentally sustainable and where prosperity is shared by all.

We owe it to those in our movement whose fight has taken us to where we are now, and we owe it to those whose communities have been ripped apart and ignored for decades, but most urgently we owe it to those suffering from the punitive and callous policies of this government.

Forty years after Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, let’s bury Thatcherism for good in 2019.