The British public demanding more radical policies than ever in response to the coronavirus crisis but the Labour Party is nowhere to be found. A recent poll for YouGov showed 72% of people support the creation of a jobs guarantee scheme “where the government makes sure that everyone who can work has a job”; 50% support a universal basic income, “where the government makes sure everyone has an income, without a means test or a requirement to work”; and nearly three quarters support rent controls.
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has stated outright that the party will not be supporting calls for a UBI, and has moved to water down Labour’s policy position on the suspension of rents during the crisis, arguing instead that rents should be deferred. The Co-Operative Party is now outflanking Starmer from the left by demanding that tax-avoiding companies shouldn’t be granted access to state funds during the crisis.
Even before the pandemic took hold, dissatisfaction with the economic status quo was widespread. After a decade of wage stagnation, rising private debt and mounting environmental breakdown, just 2 per cent of people stated that they did not think the British economy was in need of fundamental reform in a poll for IPPR and YouGov.
There has been a great deal of talk among liberals of the impact economic stagnation is having on the ‘social contract’ that underpins liberal democracy. According to liberal mythology, citizens have agreed to hand over a certain amount of power and wealth in exchange for the order and prosperity provided by the ruling classes. If people do not expect their lives to get better in the near future, then why should they continue to support the status quo?
The real issue that concerns liberals is not, of course, the breakdown of some fictional social contract. The issue is that working people will only tolerate a certain level of oppression and exploitation. Past a certain point, they will begin to fight back. And the fragile edifice of liberal democracy cannot withstand too much popular challenge, as has been made evident in recent years.
Socialists, on the other hand, have tended to assume that moments of capitalist crisis are moments when the system is at its weakest, and therefore most amenable to challenge. Over the past several decades, when capitalism in the Global North has seemed at its most stable, there has been a tendency to sit back and wait for the inevitable collapse that will prove our pronouncements about the fragility of capitalism correct. Nowhere was this clearer than in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, when predictions about the end of capitalism were far more forthcoming than any socialist strategy as to how it might be replaced.
In fact, while crises can and do frequently destabilise the status quo, they do not always lend themselves to the kind of organising required to generate any fundamental socioeconomic shifts. Crises can often beget a kind of conservatism whereby people sit tight and wait for things to return to normal. It is only after a long period of stagnation, characterised by successive crises, that support for the system wanes enough to catalyse popular revolt.
The question the left faces is, then, how to transform the widespread support for economic and political change into a movement that is capable of effecting a real challenge to the power relations that undergird global capitalism. Corbynism represented an attempt to do this – to take an inarticulate but instinctive resistance to the consolidation of wealth and power by the ruling classes in the wake of the financial crisis and transform it into a political movement capable of transforming society.
But as James Schneider argues in a piece for my forthcoming edited collection for Verso, Futures of Socialism, the challenge the Corbynite left found itself facing was historically unique. Whereas previously the Labour left has lent on external support to push the Party left, under Corbyn the left was forced to ‘occupy the gap’ between the strength of the Labour left and the relative weakness of the UK’s progressive forces – from the labour movement, to the tenants’ movement, to the environmental movement.
Socialists must focus on organising to rebuild our collective strength so that when this crisis finally does end, we will have the capacity to resist the inevitable retrenchment that is likely to follow and demand an economic reconstruction along socialist lines. A major part of our efforts must be focused on organising within the Labour Party to protect and expand the gains made under Corbyn – in terms of policy, internal democracy and personnel.
Public support for policies like UBI and rent controls does suggest that cracks are beginning to appear in the edifice of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism – the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But in the gap between the crumbling of the old world and the potential birth of the new, class struggle is the force that shapes history. Socialists must organise to ensure that we are prepared for the deepening struggle over the future of our planet that will re-commence when this crisis is over.