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Left Behind: How Labour Abandoned Economic Populism to the Tories

For the past year, Labour's leadership has distanced itself from the party's popular economic policies – only to see them picked up by a cynical Tory government with no intention of bringing them to reality.

Higher corporate tax rates on the most profitable companies. A green industrial revolution. A new national infrastructure bank to channel capital to the regions. Investment-led growth to fuel the economy of the future. A change in the Bank of England’s mandate to incorporate environmental sustainability. Moving parts of HM Treasury to the North. Even government financial support for community ownership to preserve pubs and other local assets. And on and on. If you closed your eyes for a moment, it was almost possible to imagine that it was John McDonnell and not Rishi Sunak delivering the Chancellor’s 2021 spring Budget statement.

Of course, soundbites are no substitute for actual policies, and the economic programme set forth by the Conservative government is only a thin, pale shadow of that laid out in Labour’s 2019 manifesto. The Conservatives will never deliver even a fraction of the changes that are necessary to truly transform the British economy so that it works for the many, not just the few. As McDonnell himself reacted on Twitter, ‘Sunak steals my rhetoric but no substance.’

The problem is that, absent a genuine alternative waiting in the wings, the Tories may not need to deliver all that much beyond clever rhetorical positioning. The political threat is a real one. As was evident from Keir Starmer’s quavering response to Sunak at the despatch box, Labour on its current course simply has no reply to such an obvious smash-and-grab raid. The party is subject to a slow-motion policy heist of spectacular proportions, being carried out in broad daylight.

Labour has only itself to blame. That the Tories are able to steal so many of Labour’s clothes (on investment, green jobs, economic transformation, regional rebalancing) while simultaneously wearing their own traditional garb (on tax breaks for businesses, for example, or post-Brexit trade) is testament to the degree to which the current leadership, despite pledges to the contrary, has simply walked away from the economic programme developed between 2015 and 2019. Left out with the trash, the Tories have been able to riffle through these transformative policies, snatching the splashy headline commitments for themselves without taking up any of the real policy substance and structural economic changes they entail.

On the previous occasion Starmer squared off against Boris Johnson at PMQs, it was on the heels of his underwhelming speech on the economy, resulting in Johnson’s mockery that the Budget would do ‘far more than the paltry agenda’ called for by the Labour leader. This embarrassing state of affairs was only possible because Starmer’s widely-trailed speech effectively abandoned most of Labour’s previous economic programme, containing only two meagre policy proposals — a new ‘British recovery bond’ (when there is no reason to pay a premium to cash-rich savers) that would be used to finance start-up loans for 100,000 new businesses. (As it turns out, the Tories have put forward a new retail savings offer of their own, but more shrewdly packaged as a ‘green bond’, helping present the government as forward-looking and building the economy of the future, while Starmer’s proposal reeks of nostalgia for the Blitz and even his promotional graphics look like a Coronation biscuit tin.)

Meanwhile, Labour under Starmer seems intent on walking into every political trap the Tories set. Leaked in advance, Sunak’s corporation tax increase was vehemently opposed by the Labour frontbench on the basis of a kind of ‘bastard Keynesianism’ so unsophisticated that it cannot conceive of the possibility of being fiscally expansionary and levying taxes on excess profits at the same time. As has so often been the case in the past year, in staking out their ground against Sunak, the opponent Starmer’s team had in mind was seemingly less the government than the Labour left.

When Sunak revealed the actual detail of the increases, which will not take effect until the other side of the pandemic and will exempt small businesses through a new small profits rate, he effectively outmanoeuvred Labour on economic populism, allowing the government to pose as both ‘responsible’ and ‘fair’, targeting only the profits of larger, more profitable companies that have done well out of the crisis. Polls show overwhelming public support for such a position. But the Starmerites are so intent on waging factional political warfare against the Left that they repeatedly cut off their nose to spite their face.

The real danger we are facing is not fiscal but political consolidation. With this Budget, Johnson and Sunak have signalled their intent to consolidate the national-populist political bloc they assembled in 2019 around a new political settlement — one that seeks to be simultaneously state-interventionist and hyper-capitalist, cementing the support of the ‘Red Wall’ Labour heartlands that fell in 2019 with a programme of government spending and investment, however limited when set against real needs after decades of neglect. These areas of the country have been buffeted by successive waves of deindustrialisation and disinvestment and destabilisation, with whole communities and regions held back or thrown away. That the Tories think they can retain their support on the cheap is testament to the fact that, to all intents and purposes, they are currently facing no real opposition.

Had Sunak’s statement been answered by McDonnell, armed with the substantive weight of Labour’s economic programme, the Chancellor would have been unlikely to have escaped so unscathed. The coronavirus crisis should have tested this government, with its cronyism and incompetence and mendacity, to destruction, given the death toll and the devastating scale of the economic damage that has been allowed to occur. This budget debate should have been marked by a political battle royale over the nature of the recovery—of who is being taken care of and made whole by government economic policy, and who is being left behind—and a clash of visions over the future economic direction of the country and what it would really mean to ‘build back better’. Instead, the Tories have been left the field to themselves, gifted an opposition seemingly intent on divesting itself of the very solutions and policy positions it should be presenting as an alternative.

Unless something changes soon, the risk is that the Conservatives will be given a clear run at defining the terrain of politics and economics in Britain for a long time to come. Chameleon-like, they are currently being allowed to occupy the entire waterfront of contradictory economic policy positions, from fiscal rectitude to economic populism.

‘That which we are, we are,’ quoted Sunak at one point during the budget statement, in an unexpected turn to poetry. The line is from Tennyson, from Ulysses, and it goes on:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Amidst all the disorientation and demoralisation on the left, and in the face of a Tory government on the offensive and a defeatist Labour leadership, it’s a sentiment we might borrow back from Sunak in return and make good use of ourselves.