The early weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership have seen a range of voices on the left urge conciliation with the political centre as a means to impede his progress. The strategies proposed have varied—from the ‘progressive alliance’ that was in favour in early 2017 to a more clear-cut ‘Remain alliance’ and even a national unity government. But probably the most high profile was Paul Mason’s call for a ‘popular front,’ modelled on the one advocated in these pages by Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps in the late 1930s.
In his article, Mason clarifies what a modern popular front would look like. “We need,” he wrote, “a one-off electoral arrangement between parties of the left and centre aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit and removing Johnson from Downing Street.” Claiming the mantle of Bevan and Cripps—“the Corbynistas of their day”—he argues that Labour activists must “listen to the polls, the professionals and above all the historians” if they want to beat Boris Johnson and prevent no deal.
Unlike Mason, who avoids mentioning the necessary conclusion of such an alliance, Stafford Cripps was clear about what a British popular front would mean. “Any idea of real Socialism,” he wrote in 1938, “will have to be put aside for the present.” The popular front would accept “the abandonment for the time being of the hope of working class control” in pursuit of the broadest possible alliance against fascism and war.
Cripps’ turn was understandable. By 1938, Europe was on fire. Italy had been a fascist dictatorship for more than a decade. The Nazis had destroyed the once-powerful German labour movement and were intensifying their campaign of racial persecution. In the same month Cripps wrote those lines, the army of the Spanish Republic was being routed on the Aragon front by Franco’s nationalist insurgency, with the assistance of Hitler and Mussolini’s bombers.
If you had lived to see the workers’ movement in each of these countries smashed, trade unions outlawed, and socialists sent to camps or murdered en masse, it’s easy to understand why you would say it was a moment for rearguard action–even if that meant abandoning much of the left’s programme. The end of democracy and the outbreak of world war were immediate threats.
Now is not such a moment. That can be acknowledged without underestimating the seriousness of a no deal Brexit led by the right, or the threat posed by the rise of hardline right-wing governments across the West and beyond in recent years. Meeting these challenges with a watering down of Labour’s programme would, in fact, be a historic mistake.
The ghouls that now dominate the domestic and international political arenas emerged from an abyss: an economic crisis followed by a decade of cuts, stagnation and growing inequality. The longer the crisis went, the deeper the disillusionment became. As the right found itself unable to govern through moderation, it was either overtaken by–or found common cause with–those lurking on its fringes. Unfortunately, this has allowed it to wear the cloak of anti-establishment politics at the very moment hatred of the political class reached a fever pitch.
Breaking this cycle of desperation will require fundamental changes. It will mean a confrontation with the increasingly concentrated economic forces that have wrecked millions of lives in the last decade. It will mean redistributing wealth and taking the basic necessities of life out of the grip of the market. And it will mean changing politics itself–reviving the idea that it can be used to improve working people’s lives and putting an end to the notion that democracy must stop at the economy’s edge.
In truth, Labour’s 2017 manifesto was only a small step in this direction. But it was a hugely welcome one. After so many years in which the British political landscape was devoid of a bold offer to make the lives of the majority better, finally there was a manifesto that promised to use the levers of the state to tackle inequality, strengthen the social fabric and drive up living standards.
That manifesto was only possible because of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership, which placed policies like nationalisation, meaningful investment, workers’ ownership, and repeal of the trade union acts on the table again after an era when they were unthinkable. And yet, the condition for any popular front—as made clear by centrists from the Lib Dems to the various stripes of Change UK—is that Corbyn be replaced as Labour leader.
This is not, in the first instance, about his personality or his leadership style. It is not even about Brexit. It is ideological. When Jo Swinson was elected as Lib Dem leader, one of the first things she did was defend her party’s austerity record. When Change UK split, its leading figures came out in favour of cuts and privatisation. These people don’t dislike left-wing policies because Jeremy Corbyn is supporting them. They would dislike them no matter who proposed them.
The political centre’s hostility to socialism can be seen clearly in the debates over a ‘national unity’ government. Widely proposed as the silver bullet to avoid a no deal Brexit, centrist commentators insist it is only possible if the Leader of the Opposition stands aside for a more acceptable face. This, at least, clarifies their position: preventing Jeremy Corbyn getting into number 10 is more important than stopping a no deal. It’s hard to see how the left could lead any popular front on those terms.
It’s understandable that this moment—with a hardline right-wing cabinet leading a no deal Brexit—would provoke fear in the left. But casting around for allies among the ‘progressive’ establishment rather than meeting the challenge with our own programme would be a fatal error.
It would be exactly the response Boris Johnson and his team want. Their opening gambit has been to project confidence. Britain, we were told in Johnson’s opening address to parliament, was going to be the greatest place in the world. Brexit would be a success—through “the kind of national effort the British people have made before and will make again.” “Our United Kingdom will be secure, our union of nations beyond question, our democracy robust, our future clean, green, prosperous, united, confident and ambitious.”
When the Labour benches mocked this, he chided them for their “negativity.” The intention was obvious: to contrast the government’s confidence with an opposition that will spend most of its time between here and November warning about the dangers of no deal. While Labour aligns with the political centre and closes ranks around the status quo, Boris Johnson can then be the figure offering an alternative—all while avoiding substantive debate about the contrasts between his vision of the future and the highly popular one presented by the Labour Party.
This fits with Johnson aide Dominic Cummings’ writings on political strategy, which often emphasise challenging your opponents on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. It’s no surprise, then, that he intends to frame the next election as ‘the people versus the politicians,’ stealing Labour’s anti-establishment clothes. Cummings understands the power of Corbyn’s narrative: taking on the rich and big corporations in defence of the public interest. And he knows that being seen to line up beside the centrist establishment would “destroy the Corbyn project.”
That’s what he’s betting Labour will do. And why the Tories are now parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn—with announcements about investments in the north of England and the NHS. All of this is intended to set the terrain for a campaign where the Tories, despite governing disastrously for the last ten years, are the change candidates while Labour, having lined up beside the hated political establishment, the CBI, the major newspapers and god knows who else in its ‘popular front,’ is cast to represent an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.
It is pretty difficult to see how such an election could be won. But this does not have to be the terrain. Instead of a strategy of retreat, Labour could go on the attack.
For decades, the Tories have built their political reputation as a safe pair of hands on the economy. Not anymore. Socialism will bankrupt Britain, they said. It will lead to a run on the pound. There will be capital flight. The deficit will explode. Now, the same economists they wheeled out to tell us these things say the very same about the government’s centrepiece economic policy.
The Tories have abandoned an incredibly powerful ideological weapon against the left, and Labour should take advantage. It should respond to Boris Johnson’s ‘boosterism’ by going beyond the 2017 manifesto—offering the people of this country life-changing policies in work, healthcare, education and housing, and daring the Tories to match their ambition.
Don’t just respond to Boris Johnson’s NHS announcement by pointing out it isn’t new money. Take him to task. In 2017, Labour pledged just a 2% increase in NHS spending year-on-year. In 2018, it increased this to 5%. Let’s go farther—pledge to close the £8 billion annual funding gap. And make that real for people: tell them when and where there will be a slashing of waiting times, a hiring of staff, the abolition of fees, the reversing of privatisation. Tell people how many crumbling hospitals will be fixed, how many wards will reopen.
But don’t just defend the NHS–extend it. If it is drawing inspiration from Nye Bevan, Labour should restore his vision of the health service. Abolish prescription charges and take on the pharmaceutical companies who drain the lifeblood from public healthcare. Finish what Bevan couldn’t: make the NHS fully comprehensive, bring GPs, dentists, opticians, even pharmacies in-house, make their services free at the point of use. Do the same for social care. And go beyond Bevan, too, with a holistic vision of healthcare that establishes parity between physical and mental health.
Labour should be more ambitious across the board. At present, the party is promising 100,000 new “genuinely affordable” council and housing association homes per year. This would be an improvement—but it won’t solve the housing crisis. If far more council housing than this could be built in the aftermath of both World Wars, if the Tories could build 300,000 per year in the 1950s, then a socialist-led Labour Party can commit to more ambitious targets.
The party should announce a plan to fundamentally change housing in Britain. Bring in politically and aesthetically ambitious architects and planners to produce a vision of what town and city living could look like in a future where 20 or 30% of all housing is under public control. And in doing so, begin to break the cycle which has seen housing become a speculative asset for the investor class. Restore it to its place as a right for all people.
Labour’s inclusive ownership funds were another step forward. But is a transfer of 1% equity to workers per year, for a maximum of 10% after a decade, really enough? Labour should scrap that cap. In 2012, John McDonnell proposed a radical, one-off wealth tax of 20% to stem the tide of austerity. It’s time to dust off ideas such like that, and press them into mainstream debate. And use new, bolder revenue raising to fund investments in an expanded National Education Service, as well as reverse definitively the Tories’ cuts to welfare. And it’s not just ‘punitive’ benefit sanctions that should go—the whole regime should come to an end.
Go to the communities cynically targeted by Boris Johnson’s boosterism, postindustrial areas that have been abandoned in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Tyneside, Wales, Scotland. Tell them that the Labour Party will turn the lights back on with a Green New Deal that creates thousands of secure, well-paying jobs and leads the world in solving the urgent climate crisis. Don’t wait for the franchises of the rail network to expire—take them back into public ownership immediately, and establish a single national body that owns the infrastructure and runs the service to invest in state-of-the-art rail that extends to every corner of the country.
If the Tories want to spend between £30 and 90 billion a year driving the British economy off a cliff with a no deal Brexit, Labour should make clear what the country could afford to do instead. It should offer to lead the necessary coalition to block a no deal—but make absolutely clear it will do so only under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and with a radical policy platform until an election. If the Lib Dems, the Change UK grouplets, or anyone else tries to impede it, let them say what policies they disagree with—and why opposing them is worth crashing out on October 31st.
This is not the time to be defensive, or seek shelter from the storm in the embrace of a discredited establishment. Now is the time for Labour to take decisive action, improve millions of lives and cast the ghouls of the new right-wing movements back into the abyss they came from.
Cripps and Bevan may have been associated with the popular front in 1938. But they founded Tribune from the Unity campaign, which recognised that only a united working class movement with a programme capable of breaking through the economic malaise could stop a rising right before it placed democracy under threat. Its first editorial called for a ‘spirit of attack’ in the movement to fulfil this ambition.
That is the spirit we need today. We are not yet in the 1930s, we have the democratic space to change course and address popular frustrations before they drag history into darkness. But we need to be brave to do it. If we’re going to resurrect a Tribune slogan, let it be this one: For Victory and Socialism.