Now is not the time for Labour to be timid — or socialists silent
“For the past 13 years people have been obliged to live their lives at the mercy of this irrational force called the market… If the market system becomes an agent of speculation and stagnation instead of an engine for prosperity, then it is time for governments to act.”
Not my words. They were spoken to our conference 31 years ago by the newly elected Labour leader John Smith. He was speaking following one of the all too frequent crashes of British Capitalism – Black Wednesday. I got to know him reasonably well. He came from a different current of the Party from me. But he was recognisably Labour – to his bootstraps. Socialists often tell me they feel stranded after the defeat of 2019. There has been a drive to marginalise radicalism and silence dissent. Left-of-centre social democrats in the party also speak in hushed voices or have lapsed into silence. Let’s not withdraw into a kind of depressed passivity.
As we approach next year’s general election, the Labour leadership has launched a wide-ranging consultation about our offer to the country. Our voices should be heard.
Britain needs a change of direction. Tory Britain is languishing at the bottom of international economic growth comparisons.
We have a profound story to tell about the state of the British economy but look at the argument that is currently being made. A few months ago, Keir Starmer told the CBI “my Labour Government will care – must care – as much about raising productivity everywhere, as we have done in the past about redistribution.” It is correct to highlight the need for economic growth but is it right to counterpose it to redistribution? No. Our case is that over recent decades, Britain’s growth in wealth has been decoupled from the growth of incomes for working people. As Britain got richer, too many got poorer. Growth does not necessarily deliver radsocial justice. That has been the core element in Labour’s DNA ever since it came into existence.
The economy isn’t working for the very communities that Labour needs to win an election. We can do better than free-market capitalism. Gordon Brown once remarked that the ‘town square is more than just a marketplace’.
Now is not the time for timidity. Organised labour is on the move, neoliberalism is in decline and the Tories are in a tailspin. Only a radical, transformative offer can deliver the change we need. But the usual argument against this is that our policies amount to the ‘utopian thinking of the socialists’ rather than the ‘hard-headed pragmatism’ of the Labour Right.
The current wave of strikes illustrates a wider malaise. When you look at opinion polls you can see there is public support for a raft of radical economic policies:
Every one of these policies have been endorsed by the Labour Party Conference. As the leadership looks around for election winning proposals, why not revisit these policies?
It’s not a definitive list, but it can win votes. They are popular, affordable and agreed.
Our task is surely less about reassuring the Establishment that nothing much can change and more about rousing the voters with a commitment that it will. The public are angry about Tory sleaze and incompetence, but they are also receptive to a radicalism that can get the country out of its slump. We need to be more than simply competent managers of the existing broken system. We must build a new settlement built on social justice.
With public wind in our sails, and a bold manifesto, we can campaign inside and outside parliament to ensure a Labour government implements the policies and sticks to a radical course.
Some will say that this is a pipe-dream – that the Labour leadership isn’t listening. But we ought not to allow ourselves to become passive observers. We must rediscover our voice.
It was after all perhaps Labour’s greatest prime minister Clement Atlee who suggested that we should challenge the practice of “leaving control in private hands to be used primarily for the private advantage of a few.” Failure to pursue this thought would leave the underlying causes of social justice unresolved.
We stand on the shoulders of the giants who created the movement for socialism back in the 19th century in the face of a hurricane of hostility. We need to show we are their worthy successors.
This article was first published in Labour List on 21 April 2023