Defining the Possible

Labour's transformative policies had huge popular appeal - but without a credible promise to change how politics works, too few people believed we could deliver them, argues Jon Trickett.

After this month’s general election, Britain now has a government resolved to use the power of the state in order to drive through a right-wing shift.

Of course, the state itself has long been colonised by powerful corporations and normally operates in the interests of big money. The question is how should Labour react to these new circumstances – and how we should build a majoritarian political project to fight back.

Our task is two fold. First, we need to oppose Boris Johnson, using all means possible in order to resist his political project. Second, though, we also must advocate the renewal of the country in a way which unites rather than divides, and which offers a new economy, social justice and democratic reform. 

The blizzard of discrete tax-and-spend policies which lack any connecting narrative or national story did not work at the election. Nor could it, without showing how we could build a new economy capable of both increasing our nation’s productive capacity – in a planet-friendly way – and ensuring that everyone can benefit from this increased capacity.

A truly imaginative new economic offer is needed. As it happens, with artificial intelligence and robotics just around the corner there is no doubt that such an economy is within our grasp. The struggle to link these transformative technologies to new relations of production ought to be part of the story which the Left can own. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We need to reflect on our orientation at the time of the election. Labour’s concern about impoverished public services, gross inequality and class stratification was surely correct. 

Some will say that our view that we need a transformative approach to our social and economic structures was too left-wing. There will always be revisionists in Labour’s family who will argue this case. They are wrong – and there can be no going back.

It is clear that many millions of people share the view that we need a substantial change. How else can we explain the fact that over 17 million people voted to leave the EU?

A sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo has been incubating for a long time. It is most deeply rooted in those areas which have suffered most from global economic changes and which are geographically peripheral to the metropolitan growth nodes of the new economy.

Recent data published by Inequality Briefing suggests the scale of the problem, placing 9 in 10 of the most impoverished regions in the whole of Northern Europe in the UK. Meanwhile, London ranks as the most prosperous place in the same region.

Too many people in too many communities experience a loss of agency; the power to control their own lives, to make a difference, and to have a voice which can make itself heard. Instead, they sense they’re in a place where changes happen to them.

The communities which I represent lost their coal mines 35 years ago. Their raison d’etre was stripped away. Of the 533 English constituencies, mine is the 529th worst in terms of social mobility. Children born here this Christmas can have little expectation of making progress in their lives.

Loss of purpose leads to a sense of alienation and emotional responses such as anger and a deep sense of existential angst. The Right have understood this loss of agency. It explains Brexit slogans about ‘taking back control.’ Of course, these  working-class communities will not recover any control with a Tory government.

Sadly, the Remainer contingent in British politics failed to understand the emotional appeal of the referendum result for so many places. Instead, they sought to overturn the result in an apparent further twist of the knife by a social elite (well represented in the Labour Party) which had never appeared to listen to or understand the ‘held back’ regions.

Given that the party was seen as tilting towards rejection of the votes of millions, it can hardly be surprising if those millions were suspicious of everything else we said, even though – taken on their own – our policies were so popular that in some cases even Boris Johnson was forced to try to adopt them.

Where next, then? Let me focus on one area, which was in the Labour manifesto at my request but which was barely mentioned in the campaign. This is the subject of political reform.

When faith is lost in politics, there is little chance for a project of hope to break through. The reason is obvious: if the people do not believe that politics works for them then they cannot have any faith that it will deliver the change they want to see.

Ironically, the Tories understood this. Their whole approach carried the underlying message that Boris Johnson would tackle a Parliament which had been frozen in indecision and failing to improve lives for years. It was striking, too, that in the Queen’s Speech after the election they suggested that the country now had a ‘people’s parliament.’

Their messaging responded to a powerful sense among millions of people that politics needed to change and to be made accountable once again. It is tragic that those same millions will now discover that this message of change was false, and another five years of Tory rule will do little but further entrench the power of the social elite.

Labour’s high command did not make enough of the need to change our politics. This was a vital part of persuading the voters that we could transform our economy. 

In this context, then, there are three policy areas we need to reflect on. Each will require humility and a listening ear.

First, there must be no going back to New Labour where the alienation from so many communities began. Rather we must retain our central drive towards a transformation of our economic structures. 

This doesn’t mean that we should be complacent and sit on our current policy offer. It will need to be reviewed in the light of events. And any review must be rooted in a clearer understanding of working-class and ‘held back’ areas. Never again should we present ourselves as knowing better than millions of our erstwhile supporters.

Second, we need a connecting national story which explains who we are and where we are heading. This will require us to demonstrate how we will empower communities throughout the country and restore agency to those whose lives are subject to impersonal, often global economic forces. 

None of this new national story need mean nostalgia about imperial Britain. The future is in internationalism, on the one hand, and localism on the other, bound together by an articulation of the principles of solidarity.

Thirdly, we need to tackle the wholly dysfunctional, remote and incomprehensible political structures which are manipulated by the country’s elite. We need a careful process of building power structures outside the metropolitan centre.

We should explore an approach to progressive federalism, with regional devolution in England alongside devomax for the nation. Of course, this does not mean that there is an equivalence between the English regions and the national cultures of Wales or Scotland, for example. 

But further devolution can begin to wrest power from those places it is concentrated, which have done so much to further the deep and bitter divides that animate our politics.

Finally, on processes. Our movement failed to deliver the structural and cultural changes in our own organisations which Corbynism had promised.

We still have a Labour movement which bears the imprint of its 19th century roots. We remain hierarchical and bureaucratic in character. In a modern, networked society we must do better than that.

Take the way in which we determine policy. Why couldn’t we engage directly with our membership, with trades unionists and the wider public in new and inventive ways?

And when it comes to our relationships at neighbourhood level between our trades union and party branches and the wider population, a less party-driven but more dynamic and grassroots community organising approach is the way forward.

Even in this darkest hour, acting with care, but equally with resolve and determination, we can be optimistic that we can build a political project capable of delivering change. Our task must be to develop a transformative offer, credible in content, but rooted in the everyday lives of millions of working people.