Rebecca Long-Bailey delivered her first major speech of the campaign in her hometown of Salford today, in which she put forward her view of Labour’s ‘path to power’. Long-Bailey, who was one of the closest to Jeremy Corbyn of all the leadership contenders, has the not insignificant challenge of proving she has learnt the lessons of the 2019 election defeat without jettisoning all the positive elements of Corbynism – particularly the policy agenda, which she was integral to developing.
In Salford, she spoke compellingly of the defeats and setbacks that the labour movement has suffered throughout its long history – none of which has ever extinguished the power of the socialist message. In the wake of the defeat of 2019, we are, she argued, experiencing another such moment: ‘we must learn the lessons of our defeat, know our enemy and understand the challenges ahead’.
Those lessons now seem clear. The manifesto was too long and lacked a coherent message anywhere near as powerful as ‘for the many, not the few’ – as a result, the incredible policies contained within it were drowned out in the roars of ‘get Brexit done’. The party’s vacillation over its Brexit position didn’t help. The slow creep towards a second referendum position both lost the party support amongst leavers and undermined Jeremy’s image as a principled leader who would uphold his values even in the face of the strongest pressure. Long-Bailey will not say it, but after several years of constant media onslaught, Corbyn’s personal unpopularity was also a significant drag.
But she is right to say that the party cannot go into the next election fighting yesterday’s battles – this was one of the mistakes made in 2019. After a better than expected performance in 2017, there was a widespread assumption that Labour had won the argument on austerity. With our fully-costed manifesto, we didn’t bother trying to beat back the argument that the government can only spend as much as it earns. But this argument will never really be defeated – it is a common-sense position based on shared social values and peoples’ everyday experiences of indebtedness. Two more years of stagnant incomes, rising living costs and mounting debt will only have increased the power of the Tory message that Labour planned to spend the economy into the ground.
Long-Bailey’s response to this problem is her approach to ‘aspirational socialism’. Rather than a long shopping list of policies, she wants to couch Labour’s socialist agenda in aspirational terms that can be made to appeal to a majority of the electorate. Everyone wants a better life for themselves and their children, but with an unaffordable higher education system, a stagnant jobs market and a deep-seated housing crisis, a better life is often impossible to imagine.
This is no accident. The British economy is not broken – it is working quite well for those at the very top. ‘The elite’ as Long-Bailey put it today ‘hoards power to turn power into wealth and then wealth back into power.’ In 2008, the bankers were protected from the consequences of their actions whilst the cost of the crisis was heaped on ordinary people. The Duke of Westminster inherited a multi-billion-pound fortune without paying a penny of inheritance tax, whilst most young people struggle to imagine ever getting on the housing ladder. The big polluters, many of which have known about climate change for several decades, are in receipt of government subsidies whilst Britain’s flood defences remain woefully inadequate.
Developing a policy agenda around the idea of aspirational socialism means taking on those who monopolise power in our democracy in order to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of the aspirations of ordinary people. Taking on the interests of the landlord class by imposing rent controls and embarking on a massive programme of social housebuilding would help to solve the housing crisis. Taking on the interests of the bankers by properly regulating them, taxing them, and building a public banking system would help to breathe life into our stagnant economy. And taking on the interests of the fossil fuel executives by removing subsidies and imposing taxes on polluting activities would help to solve the climate crisis that threatens the very basis of life on earth.
Long-Bailey recognises that the only way to achieve an agenda like this is to build a democratic Labour Party, insulated from the pressures imposed on it by the British ruling class. Her agenda for party reform goes far beyond that of any of the other candidates. Keir Starmer’s agenda for Party reform is ominously vague – it has long been the ambition of those supporting his campaign on the right of the party to return to the days of New Labour when the membership was entirely shut out of the Party’s decision making processes. Members being convinced to support Starmer because of his ‘statesmanlike’ image (he’s a knight of the realm in a suit) will be shocked by the pace with which even the most moderate steps towards party democratisation are reversed.
Long-Bailey is an antidote to candidates like Starmer. She doesn’t look like a politician, she doesn’t sound like a politician and she sometimes doesn’t act like one either (the ‘ten out of ten’ comment being the most notable example). But that’s exactly why she’s best placed to defeat Boris Johnson – the arch-politician who has ridden to power on the back of a wave of disillusionment with politics. Long-Bailey’s authenticity, her integrity and her Salford roots are the perfect foil to Johnson’s opportunism, lies and Etonian upbringing. Just by being in the House of Commons, people like Long-Bailey expose the hypocrisy of everything Johnson’s ‘anti-establishment’ Bullingdon club Conservative Party stands for.
Long-Bailey is undoubtedly an underdog in the race – Starmer is way ahead when it comes to constituency nominations. But with two months left in the campaign, there is everything to play for. After strong performances in both of the leadership debates, this speech could just mark a turning point. Members who want a socialist, democratic Labour Party capable of beating Boris Johnson in 2024 should pay careful attention to Long-Bailey’s agenda – because she is the only candidate capable of delivering it.