Monday, 26 June 2017

The Politics of the Labour Manifesto

Ben Jackson

At the outset of the 2017 election campaign there seemed to be a good chance that the Labour Party would be broken – possibly irreparably – on the anvil of nationalism. After all, that was why Theresa May had called the election. Enormous credit is therefore due to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left for running an excellent campaign that capitalised on the abject weaknesses of the Conservatives and ultimately saved Labour from what many people – including me – thought would be a shattering historic defeat. After two years of bleak political news, the forces of conservatism in Britain have finally lost some ground. Much conventional wisdom now looks questionable as a result of the election, but I want to focus here on one point that raises some challenges for all parts of the Labour Party, including for Jeremy Corbyn and the left.

Corbyn himself said that Labour’s manifesto was the star of its campaign. It is widely agreed that the radical policies in the manifesto made a substantial impact on the election by offering a clear, positive vision of what a Labour government would do. Indeed, so successful was this vision that the Conservatives – whose positive political appeal for decades has been based on reducing direct taxes and handing out cut price houses – are now lamely accusing Labour of having bribed the voters. But what precisely did the Labour manifesto offer? Key measures in the manifesto included promises to increase income taxes on people earning over £80,000 a year; to introduce new workplace protections and rights; to bring energy, water, the Royal Mail and the railways back into public ownership; to invest in infrastructure; and to increase funding for public services, including for childcare, the NHS, and the abolition of university tuition fees. While there were some perfunctory gestures towards constitutional and democratic reform, and a more substantial but under-developed idea about promoting co-operative ownership structures, the heart of the manifesto was about strengthening the role of the state in reducing inequality and managing the economy.

One startling aspect of the success of this prospectus is that it essentially offered a fairly conventional social democratic politics of the sort that much of the professional elite and supporting intellectual network of the Labour Party has harboured grave doubts about since Labour left office in 2010 (and in some quarters even before then). Centre-left think tanks, commentators and academics have in recent years spent a lot of time worrying that ‘traditional’ social democracy required too much public spending or too great a role for the state, or lacked a patriotic rapport with Britishness and/or Englishness, or presented a deracinated metropolitan liberal perspective untethered to the parochial realities of working class life. While there was clearly something to these worries, some of this now looks overblown, in the sense that it underestimated both the volatility of the British political landscape and the strength of Labour’s traditional brand when given a sufficiently distinctive political focus. Although it would be foolish to feel certain about what will happen next, we can now see that the Conservative Party also faces fundamental challenges in holding together the electoral coalition constructed for it by Cameron and Osborne. In the wake of the European referendum, the Conservatives seem to have alienated a significant chunk of (predominantly younger) voters through their stance on Brexit while simultaneously repelling other voters through their policies on public services. As long as the Conservatives remain in government and have to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU, with all its attendant economic risks, then their voting coalition looks vulnerable to the sort of positioning Labour adopted during the 2017 campaign.

But it is paradoxical that the group in the Labour Party that actually had the courage to take a robust vision of social democracy to the country is one that has itself not been historically strongly attached to it. The stance of the Labour left has always been that social democracy is not enough. They have traditionally argued that a state-led welfare state lacks opportunities for popular participation and control, and that taxing and spending without democratising the ownership of capital will ultimately yield only limited gains. A fascinating aspect of the campaign is that it fell to Jeremy Corbyn to mount a potent defence of some of New Labour’s great achievements: high public spending on health and education; the Educational Maintenance Allowance; government investment in childcare and Sure Start; and a universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners. The crucial difference with New Labour was that, ever since the 1992 general election, Labour’s leaders have assumed that the party must be excruciatingly specific in its tax and spending commitments or it will face a fatal media and Conservative onslaught during the campaign. Although the 2017 manifesto proclaimed itself to be ‘fully costed’, the truth is that the tax and spending commitments of Labour in 2017 were not as focused and watertight as they had been at every general election since 1997. It is an interesting question as to why this was nowhere near as problematic for Labour as it might have been. One possibility is that it was simply another example of a dysfunctional and complacent Conservative campaign that failed to get to grips with its opponent. But another possibility – discussed by Helen Thompson in this issue – is that for the electorate economic credibility is beginning to mean something different in the context of an unprecedented period of monetary policy, in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, and as the grinding impact of public austerity hits home. For example, the existential challenge of how the British economy can succeed outside the EU may now simply be crowding out the more mundane debate on the deficit reduction timetable. In this environment a bold rather a minimalist economic and social policy package could therefore have greater electoral traction than in more cautious times.

Once the relief of the election result wears off, there will be a need for intellectual honesty rather than political posturing on all sides of Labour in order to work out how to build on 2017. Like the Conservatives, the Corbyn electoral coalition also looks vulnerable to fracture, particularly if Labour were to take office while Brexit negotiations are still underway. There is a lot to do, but Labour has already achieved what seemed impossible only a few months ago – not just avoiding a hopeless defeat but also putting the Conservatives in a severe, maybe even inescapable, political fix.


Note: An earlier version of this commentary appeared on the Renewal blog, 21 June 2017, and can be seen here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Explaining the resurgence of nationalism in politics

Colin Crouch

Theresa May’s claim that the Conservative party is the true representative of working people at the wrong end of society’s inequalities is surreal, but it does locate her within a distinct political tradition. Understanding that tradition is therefore vital to understanding where the United Kingdom might be heading under her leadership. Since she is just one of a number of similar politicians dotted around the advanced world at the present time, this is not just an issue confined to one country. There is Donald Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the People’s Party in Denmark.

May’s claim is surreal, because the Conservative Party continues to be primarily the party that represents wealthier people and opposes strongly redistributive taxation. May herself does not claim to be an egalitarian. She presents herself as the defender of ordinary working people, just managing families, those living in neglected regions, etc., without challenging the overall framework of inequality within which the problems of these variously categorized groups is defined. She also plans to use Brexit to achieve a ‘Singapore’ status for the UK. Singapore – apart from being barely democratic - is a tax haven that provides very little public social policy for its citizens. A similar stance is adopted by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP, like May, insists that it represents the ordinary working people who have been ignored and spurned by the elite. But it believes in lower taxation for the wealthy (and presumably therefore reduced social policy and public infrastructure spending), and (again like May) the revival of grammar schools, which notably reduce the educational chances of children from lower and middle-income families. Much the same can be said for Donald Trump. He speaks passionately about the neglected working class, who have suffered at the hands of an elite; but his policies include cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating the financial markets, the behaviour of the operators in which were among the main causes of the discontents of many US workers.

There is nothing new in conservative politicians arguing that lower- and middle-income people can thrive only if entrepreneurs, company directors and the rich in general are allowed to run ahead of the pack, creating wealth that will eventually trickle down to everyone else. But that appeal stresses a shared interest among elite and mass. What is distinctive about May, Trump, Le Pen and the rest is their rhetorical attacks on elites, which are nevertheless combined with a defence of authority and tradition.

The paradox is resolved by the nature of the sins for which elites are criticized: they are not attacked for being rich, but for allegedly siding with various kinds of foreigner – foreign countries, immigrants, ethnic minorities – against native, national working families. It is in fact only a certain kind of elite that is being attacked: the adjective ‘liberal’ is usually attached to the noun.

The stance of May (or Le Pen or Orbán) would be impossible without the European Union and immigrants being available to stand as the enemies, favoured by liberal elites, of native British (French, Hungarian) people. Mexicans, Moslems, the Chinese and Germans similarly enable Trump to reconcile his own contradictory position. Xenophobia is essential to the ability of this kind of politics to square the circle of its rhetorical support for both traditionalism and ‘ordinary working people’.

These politicians are distinctive, but they are not historically unique, and they do belong to a recognizable tradition, though it is one which, because of the tension within it, tends to be unstable, making only occasional visits to the political scene. Its last major appearance was as Nazism and fascism. These too combined appeals to traditionalism with criticism of elites, using an intense nationalism and the identification of foreign enemies and ethnic minorities to square the circle. This is not to argue that this political position is always fascist. Distinctive of Nazism and fascism was an official commitment to aggressive war and physical violence; accusations of fascism can only be launched at occupants of this political position when they move to such a stance. However, the association of xenophobia with fascism restrained mainstream right-wing politicians from exploiting it for decades after the Second World War.

Several developments have come together to change this and encourage conservative – and some social democratic and neoliberal – politicians to enter formerly forbidden territory. First is the collapse of true conservatism. Almost no-one defends traditionalism any more. Its religious base having almost disappeared (in Europe though not in the USA and Islamic lands), established conservative parties have become committed to change, both neoliberal economic change and social liberal changes in gender, sexuality and other areas of life. The class identities of industrial society that supported conservatism, liberalism and socialism alike have declined alongside industrialism itself. But tradition as defence of The Nation has acquired new prominence through the separate but related phenomena of globalization, immigration, waves of refugees and Islamic terrorism.

People with a strong interest in politics find it hard to understand that a large majority of their fellow citizens feels touched deeply by politics only when a social identity that is important to them has clear political implications. Class and religion used to provide such links, especially when they were the focus of struggles over inclusion and exclusion. If one knows one is a member of a class (or religion) that is being excluded from citizenship rights, or which is benefiting from privileges from which certain others are or could be excluded, then one knows whose side one is on in the major political struggles of the day. Nation and ethnicity provide further social identities of this kind. As class and religion decline, while globalization increases the salience of nation and ethnicity, these latter leap to a new, potent salience, reaching across classes. Can a commitment to liberal values and enjoyment of the benefits of multiculturalism rival them and provide them with a serious antagonist in the politics of the 21st century?

You can read Colin Crouch's article 'Neoliberalism, Nationalism and the Decline of Political Traditions' here.