Commentary: Labour Together's Labour's Covenant.

AuthorStafford, James

James Stafford

Jonathan Rutherford's summation of two years of Labour Together seminars on the theme of 'National Renewal' promises a 'Plan for National Reconstruction'. (1) This is an ambitious goal, and one that his pamphlet does not quite deliver on. What it offers instead is a refreshed version of the communitarian vision of Labour politics that has become mainstream among large sections of the PLP and its intellectual penumbra since 2010, and which has been supercharged by the apparent desertion of key party constituencies in the 2016 referendum and 2019 general election.

In Labour's Covenant, this communitarianism is given new weight and a more radical edge through the incorporation of some of the most compelling new frameworks for understanding the ongoing crisis in Britain's politics and political economy: Brett Christophers' diagnosis of 'rentier capitalism'; the Foundational Economy Collective's advocacy of a refocusing of 'industrial policy' on the 'everyday economy' of care, retail, hospitality, food and basic utilities; David Edgerton's sweeping historical narrative of the rise and fall of a British 'nation' conceived primarily in terms of a 'national' (post-imperial, pre-European) economy.

Labour's Covenant builds on intellectual developments begun in the Miliband years, but demands a far more radical set of changes to Britain's political economy than those envisioned by Miliband. Abandoning that era's reticence about the direct use of state power, it talks of the re-shoring of significant manufacturing capacity; the raising of wages and labour standards in the 'everyday economy'; new approaches to farming and environmental stewardship; and the rapid reduction of regional inequality, including through a network of state-backed regional banks.

As Tom Barker observes in his contribution, below, achieving any of this in policy terms would be difficult in its own right. Achieving it in political terms presents a different set of problems entirely, and it's these I'd like to address here.

In one of the strongest sections of the pamphlet, Rutherford diagnoses the economic strategy of the Johnson government as a 'potpourri of high spending and liberal market policies', unequal to the challenge of 'national renewal': 'freeports, more infrastructure, planning deregulation, relocation of civil service jobs, research and development investments, a focus on towns'.

The fact is, however, that Johnson's kind of economic policy, one that simultaneously serves the interests of extractive capital and car-driving, peri-urban homeowners, is an extremely effective device for securing electoral support in our era of anomic pandemic politics. Going beyond Conservative corporate welfare to a more fundamental restructuring of Britain's political economy requires challenging powerful interests: the City of London, employer associations and property developers foremost among them; the institutional conservatism of the Treasury not far behind. It also requires us to address the question of ownership in the British economy-something which, given the frequency with which national capital is mentioned in Edgerton's work on the national economy, is conspicuous by its absence from Rutherford's pamphlet.

The difficulties of doing all of this against the backdrop of a political-media common sense that regards 'business'-British or not-as the authoritative voice on national economic welfare similarly go unaddressed. Yet they are formidable. We only have to look across the Atlantic to sense danger: two successive quarters of above-trend inflation, blamed by resentful employers on the temporary boost to worker power afforded by a successful pandemic stimulus, have gone a long way towards undoing Biden's domestic economic programme for the foreseeable future.

The Labour Party of 1945 had its own media ecosystem and, via the trade union movement...

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