Ready for government?

Author:Stafford, James

Labour transformed the electoral map in June. Though the Conservatives form the largest party in the House of Commons, Labour has turned many safe Tory seats into marginals, loosening Theresa May's grip on her own parliamentary party. Labour now needs a relatively small swing--just 3.57 per cent--to win a majority of one at the next election. (1) With Jeremy Corbyn receiving deserved praise for an energetic and astute campaign, there are now spaces of possibility in contemporary British politics that are unique in the developed world. The prospects are exhilarating; but the volume of work needed to prepare the party for government remains formidable. In this issue, we offer our contribution, focusing on Labour's new voters, European policy, the public sector, and the challenges posed by emergent forms of capitalism.

Our starting point is Labour's 2017 manifesto, widely credited as the key to the transformation of the party's fortunes. The manifesto was powerful because, as our new Commissioning Editor Lise Butler noted on our blog, it was 'concrete, policyfocused, and forward-looking'. It was the product of a shift in party culture enabled by Corbyn's two leadership campaigns, which tore apart the inward-looking, defensive analyses of the intellectual and philosophical strands of Labour's history that absorbed so much energy within the party under Ed Miliband. (2)

There was also, however, a contradiction between the manifesto and the past politics of the Labour leadership. As our former editor Ben Jackson has pointed out, the 'heart of the manifesto was about strengthening the role of the state in reducing inequality and managing the economy'. This was a traditional social-democratic prospectus, defending the substantive achievements of the Blair/Brown years--Education Maintenance Allowance, winter fuel payments for all pensioners, high spending on the NHS and education. The Labour left, however, have historically demanded more than that: democratic and participatory control of the economy and of the state and public services. (3) While the manifesto mentioned constitutional and democratic reform, as well as new support for co-operatives and worker ownership, these were areas that were relatively underplayed in the campaign.

As such, Labour's overall direction remains unclear. The rhetoric is of fundamental change and a break with neoliberalism, but across wide areas of policy, from the welfare state and public services to Europe and economic reform, there is an urgent need to clarify what that will mean in practice. Building on the promise of 2017 will also require acknowledgement of the significant dangers facing the party. One lies in the electoral volatility that could make it difficult to hold onto--and build on--the coalition of voters Labour assembled in 2017. The other, of course, lies in Brexit.

British society and the election

A common line of analysis since the election has held that Corbyn's voters were divided between two main camps--students and young people, on the one hand, and the working classes in areas hit by deindustrialisation, on the other--which would ultimately prove irreconcilable. This is because, the argument goes, the former group loves the EU and the latter hates it. In fact, as articles in this issue by Lorenza Antonucci and Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker demonstrate, this analysis doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Corbyn's coalition of support works with the grain of the huge social changes that have swept British society in the past fifty years, and unites important emerging social formations.

British society has been profoundly transformed since the 1950s by huge changes: deindustrialisation (which, in terms of jobs, began in 1955), the expansion of the public sector, the decline of deference, and important waves of migration, first from the 'new Commonwealth' and latterly from the EU. In the last thirty years, as Jennings and Stoker point out, the increasing numbers of young people going to university have further transformed the social landscape, adding another dimension to generational divides.

We are currently in a moment of profound economic change--driven by technology above all, by globalisation, financialisation, and post-Fordist production processes. This is creating (as all such moments of major economic reorganisation do) winners and losers at a dizzying rate. But it's not simply the case that some areas are 'left behind' by globalisation and deindustrialisation, while others flourish; even in a city like London that is economically dynamic, the pace of change generates significant social problems. The low-cost service economy that has sprung up to service those at the top of our highly unequal society has generated a growing group of Londoners who see powerfully the need for better political solutions. Precarious workers in economically dynamic urban areas have something important in common with the residents of areas hard hit by deindustrialisation. Corbyn is uniting these groups behind a promise that things can get better, not worse.

It has been widely noted that class--as pollsters typically measure it, based on occupation and...

To continue reading

Request your trial