A warning from 2008: Do not assume Corona leads to a new progressive moment

by Jake Richards

Keir Starmer has been elected leader of the Labour Party amidst crisis. His priority, rightly, is to show that the country now has a credible and coherent Leader of the Opposition who is willing to work with the Government during the outbreak of Covid-19. However, Starmer and the newly appointed Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, will already be beginning to assess how the crisis will affect the broader political environment.

It is tempting to assume the zeitgeist of the corona outbreak will be progressive. A Conservative government has embraced the most interventionist state economic programme since the war, essentially nationalising a closed-down economy, whilst rough sleeping has been wiped out and hospitals created seemingly overnight. Images and videos of the public applauding our NHS workers have gone viral. A new appreciation for ‘key workers’ in the ‘real economy’ — rubbish collectors, those in the food supply chain, delivery drivers — has emerged. The sense of community spirit combined with the anger at examples of scurrilous businesses taking advantage of taxpayers or employees is more evidence that this is a ‘moment of the left’.

Already, articles by left-wing thinkers are heralding ‘capitalism’s gravest challenge’, the transformation of the private sector and a new popular outcry for ‘big government’.

There was a similar sense after the 2008 financial crash and government intervention around the world ended an ideological reverence to self-correcting markets. In the 12 years since, the Conservatives have won four General Elections, the UK has left the European Union, and in America, India, Brazil and Russia (and elsewhere) we have witnessed the rise of a nationalist populism many thought was confined to the 20th Century. Indeed, although the immediate response to Covid-19 has been statist in a progressive sense, it is easy to envisage a reactionary, isolationist response developing in relation to our borders and trade soon developing.

Whilst a new active state during the crisis offers Labour an array of policy options, the new leader should proceed with caution. Labour has just suffered a devastating defeat on a platform arguing for a massively expanded Government — with nationalisation of key industries, free broadband for all and the development of a universal basic income. Focus groups and polling undertaken after the election revealed voters simply did not believe many of Labour’s policies (however popular on paper) were realistic or welcome as a package. The unpopularity of a universal basic income was striking — suggesting a deep reverence to personal responsibility and work, and a suspicion of ‘free handouts’.

The space for arguing for a larger state is there. Johnson’s Conservatives have adopted a policy of borrowing to invest hugely in public services (after 10 years of austerity). Over the past decade, Labour have been good at arguing for a more interventionist state and losing elections. The left is only successful when combining a progressive argument for the role of the state and societal action, tempered by an understanding and appreciation that ultimately other agents are just as important in bringing about change.

The echo of JF Kennedy’s exclamation (‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’) should always ring loudly for progressives. The power of a new social contract is that state action is combined with a demand for responsibility from individuals, businesses and Government itself to a greater notion of the common good.

All successful proponents of progressive politics have been able to communicate this. Bill Clinton spoke of a ‘New Covenant’ in the build-up to his election victory in 1992, and it was a theme that framed his presidency and the policy programme for eight years in office — ‘a solemn agreement between the people and their government, based no simply on what each of us can take, but what all of us must give to our nation’. Tony Blair, always looking admiringly at Clinton from across the Atlantic, stated that as Prime Minister ‘rights and responsibilities have always been at the heart of my politics’. Harold Wilson used the prism of a ‘new social contract’ to overcome the political challenges of his time — it was his description of cutting a deal with the TUC to ensure a programme of voluntary wage restraint. A deal, contract or covenant — with rights and responsibilities on both sides — implies a sense of fairness that is appreciated by the voters.

More recently in France, President Macron spoke of a ‘new contract for the nation’ in the midst of the ‘gilets jaune’ crisis, announcing new measures to raise the minimum wage and cut taxes for the lowest paid workers. This was an addendum to his far-reaching reforms stifling trade union powers and cutting public sector pensions. His poll ratings recovered dramatically from that nadir.

The policy agenda of Blair, Clinton, or Macron is not the answer to today’s problems. There is a necessity for a far more muscular state to build a national care service, to solve the housing crisis, to tackle in-work poverty and to rebuild the economy from the depths of the incipient recession. But the political and policy framing– especially from those on the left — must be couched by an appreciation that the state, and spending, alone is not the answer to all social ills.

The Covid-19 outbreak may well herald a new era of state action, but it will not change the fundamental rules of politics.

Jake Richards is a barrister

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5 Responses to “A warning from 2008: Do not assume Corona leads to a new progressive moment”

  1. Alf says:

    The Blairites will demand social security cuts and attacks on the disabled and unemployed just like last time. The socialists must fight back on their behalf.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Alf maybe you could draw up a graph of what a blaitite is so we can define them
    I’d need to know if Lord falconer in Corbyns first cabinet, backed Andy bunham rather than Liz Kendall is
    Barry gardener, nick brown, Angela Smith,Dawn butler, David Lammy loyal to Blair ans cobyn were
    Ken Livingstone when he backed Ed balls for leader, Denis healey and Keir starmer rather than Diane Abbott Michael foot, or RLB
    He said upto the 2015 election that ed mi,iband winning was the last chance in his life tie for a truely socialist government, then when he lost he said Ed miliband was a Blairites
    Also can a brexiter be a blieite,ans is Laura Parker Paul Mason and other labour remainer s who backed Starmer, Blairites?

  3. John P reid says:

    Looking back when I backed Andy burnham 1st Ed 2nd in 2010 my view was there was still stuff to be said for the new labour triangulation of working class votes and younger metropolitans

    When Ed went for the 35% strategy and was obviously gonna lose
    It was quietly relieved that his failure would humiliate the student politics who were criticising The new labour way of a cross section of Tory votes and the working class
    But I didn’t have a burning aspiration for power until blue labour suggested socialist ideas on nationalisation and co-ops guild and municipal socialism
    Just there were fringe issues that I’d hoped new labour would’ve implemented that we never got round too Like labour fielding Candidates in Northern Ireland, corporate manslaughter to apply to the MOD, making abortion more easier or anonymity for rape accused and heterosexual civil partnerships

    But now.With identity politics has taken over labour and labour doesn’t have a clue of the scale of the defeat, I’d long for a labour government now, but the Closing down of debate
    And the loss of our civil liberties
    It’s clear the party won’t accept that it hasn’t a clue why it lost the red wall and how to get it back
    But The current front bench appear to be in going against Corbynism aren’t saying there’s a viable alternative proposition to neo liberalism with guild or municipal socialism
    But still I tested in appearing opposing the Tories in being even more pro identity politics than the liberal tories
    Id say stay in the party
    You have to be in it to change it even if it is
    The lesser of 2 evils

  4. Anne says:

    Circumstances do change political landscapes. For example, Churchill was a good leader for the SWW but following this a Labour Government was voted in with a manifesto of the welfare state. Covid 19 has highlighted how people value the NHS and the inadequacies of the social care provision. It is showing the goodness in our communities with many rising to the challenge of helping our neighbours but it is also showing the massive inadequacies in our society between the haves and the have nots. It is much easier to cope with the lock down when you live in a nice house with a garden than if you live in a high rise flat caring for young children, or if you have a secure employment contract than if you are on a zero hours contract with currently no money coming in for the foreseeable future.

  5. John P reid says:

    Anyone got a hour to spare could do worse than this youtube.com/channel/UCQRGV3Yy6C-OKsrkQVdVjtw

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