Monday, 11 April 2016

UK Labour: can it think its way out of trouble?

Note: this piece first appeared in Disclaimer online, as 'Labour's Best Move Now? Stop Shouting, and Start Thinking' (8 April 2016).

The UK Labour Party does a lot of shouting these days. Its leadership does a lot of bellowing about cuts and austerity. About the undoubted cruelty and unfairness of many welfare state ‘reforms’ that appear designed only to humiliate and distress millions of people in real need. About Welsh steel and the decline of British manufacturing. About those ‘evil Tories’, always and forever fixated on privatising the National Health Service, slashing local services and cutting taxes for the wealthy while they salt away their own millions in offshore tax havens.

Meanwhile, those Labour people who are out of temper with the new-old age of Jeremy Corbyn spend their time shouting back, detailing with precision all the presentational and conceptual blunders of their leader’s darkly semi-comic turns in the spotlight, pointing out just how perilous their party’s position in local by-elections and opinion polls now is, how intellectually irrelevant Labour has become, how incoherent their spending plans can look, and overall what an unimpressive shower they resemble.

If the UK is to have the competent Opposition that it deserves, and Labour is to hang on as a competitive electoral force outside inner urban areas in England and Wales, all this will have to change. There’s no point shouting about those hated Tories if you don’t have a coherent plan about what you would do in their place; there is, on the other hand, equally little mileage in just laying into Mr Corbyn every time he puts a foot wrong. He’s never done anything like this in his life. He’s not very good at it. But in a few years, he’ll be gone. Even if he’s soon swapped for a like-for-like replacement in the shape of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, this moment will pass quickly. The few years of this Parliament are a blink of an eye in the history of Britain’s competitive two-party electoral system, which took on its final shape as long ago the beginning of the nineteenth century. He is a poor receptacle for Labour centrists’ frustration.

If they are to retain their shape into the 2020s, and say anything useful in the interim, Labour must look to nurture and renew its ideas – and build up some concrete policy proposals that stand four-square on deeper morals, feelings and emotions. The party’s refuseniks and dissidents, in particular, will have to do a lot more hard work. If you’re critical of Mr Corbyn, what would you do instead? If you don’t like John McDonnell, what would you say in his stead?

The different non-Corbynite factions in the Party can in shorthand best be understood as Milibandite, Brownite and Blairite fragments along the lines represented so unimpressively in the 2015 leadership election by Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – with perhaps a few already-unimpressed Left and Soft Left members already defecting from Mr Corbyn thrown in for good measure. What they all have in common is an iron-hard (and in all probability entirely correct) certainty that the party will be routed in a General Election if it continues along its present trajectory. But that won’t be enough to convince members to give one of ‘their’ candidates another shot at the leadership. It won’t rejuvenate the actual politics of choice and commitment on the Left, create a sense of excitement or commitment, or summon up a programme that will bring Labour people on board with a nuanced programme in keeping with the Party’s past history. Only new ideas from the mainstream of post-Second World War Labour’s social democratic past will do that.

So here’s a few suggestions for where they might go with this. Just for fun, as it were – a bit like watching Peter Snow push his by-election swingometer around all those years ago. Just to show what the Labour Centre and Right should be trying to articulate: a first stab at a new agenda for the future, rather than a New Labour past that most are genuinely (and rightly) proud of, but that ran out of steam at some point between the Second Iraq War and Brown’s tortuous time as Prime Minister.

Two areas for advance concern the worsening position of young people in this society. If you’re British and under 35, things look verygrim for you indeed. The high marginal rates that follow the taking on of student loans, very high house prices and extremely unfair intergenerational tax and benefit policies are combining to threaten the very viability of making a good and fulfilling life in the UK – especially in the South-East of England.

The last six years of Coalition and Conservative government have enormously privileged older Britons, to an extent that is now long past justified. Richer, older British citizens should now be asked to bear their part of a future Labour government’s deficit-reducing efforts. The Party should look urgently at abolishing the higher rates of pension tax relief, ameasure that would raise £6-7bn annually. The Chancellor, George Osborne, just backed away from just such a reform, a major strategic error in his and Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to build a so-called compassionate Conservatism. Such a move on Labour’s part would allow university students’ grant and bursaries to be brought back, and interest rates on loans to be reduced – a far more redistributive and progressive move than abolishing tuition fees. Much-missed Educational Maintenance Allowances could be restored; Further Education spending on post-16 training cease its ruinous retreat. This would at least constitute a start to redressing our ridiculous policy emphasis on older people, cynically built into our present political dispensation just because those people vote much more than young people do.

Any such concerted move against young people’s increasing economic and social isolation can, however, only work in conjunction with a truly vast shock-and-awe housing programme that would aim to double housebuilding output over two Parliaments and to redress the country’s now-historic imbalance of supply and demand. This will need a jump-start far beyond this government’s risible attempts at building up new ‘communities’, so obviously inadequate at growth points such as Ebbesfleet. An incoming Labour government should take a leaf out of their post-war colleagues’ book and build a new generation of high-density, high-quality New Towns (above), most of which would – this time – be returned to the private sector at maturity and help pay for the whole endeavour. The relative success of East London’s Olympic regeneration could be a model here.

Next should come an absolutely fundamental, cascading and massive transfer of power out of Whitehall and Westminster to Britain’s city-regions – again, a programme that in its range and ambition should dwarf the Northern Powerhouse that Mr Osborne has got away with claiming as his own for far too long. There should be hard and scarcely-reachable target for a fixed share of all government spending to be determined outside central government. Entirely new functions (small scale local energy production and grids; the development of public and private co-operatives; the further encouragement of grassroots participatory democracy; the localisation of skills training) should be encouraged among the new city-regional governments that are emerging. The best example of what this might mean would be to set Britain’s cities free on the US model, allowing cities to raise much more capital themselves via bonds, standing for instance behind the construction of a proper East-West link from Liverpool to Hull (especially between Manchester and Leeds) that would allow growth there truly to counterbalance London. Bristol needs a tram system and a proper rapid light rail network, and Southampton and Portsmouth need their own metro system – all along the lines that now seem to be taking shape in Cardiff and South Wales. A really massive housing drive is going to need a much denser public transport grid: localisation and regionalisation, far from fragmenting efforts, would be one way to provide it.

These are just three examples of how Labour might start manoeuvring around its present impasse, and start once more on the deployment of radical but practical ideas. Many more come to mind immediately: a properly integrated youth and youth justice service; a really decent elderly care service paid for via collective insurance, with payments from estates capped at far lower levels than they are now; a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the City, to help rebuild public trust in the banking system. Only with such new tools can Labour rebuild the sense of hope that Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair were able to embody in 1945, 1964 and 1997. Mr Corbyn seems to have very little sense of where he is going in this arena – he spends his time, instead, emitting a long wail of despair about capitalism. Mr McDonnell is trying much harder, surrounding himself with progressive economic advisers that are indeed thinking about how to foster productivity and growth in hard times. But that project, too, seems somehow too cramped and inadequate for the socialist task ahead. The two men’s opponents, both inside the party’s administrative machinery and the Parliamentary Labour Party, also seem bereft of novel plans and programmes, despite early signs of policy renaissance among Labour’s many ginger groups: while that remains the case, their internal opposition will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Basically, it is long past the time to stop shouting: to start summoning up a little bit of hope and a lot more thought. Will it happen? It seems unlikely for now. But until it does, only a long period of Conservative hegemony stretches ahead.