Labour must not be trapped by the politics of national decline or revival

The tendency to view British politics as an expression of a deeply entrenched, long-gone past has not helped us understand how much has changed in recent times. We have just witnessed the Conservatives’ latest failed attempt to break with the Cameron-Osborne paradigm to which we have now returned. Labor is also tempted to return to the pre-2015 era. But there is no turning back, and new realities need new politics.

The transformation of the Tories into a May-Johnson-Truss Brexit Party was an extraordinary rejection of the New Labor and Cameroonian consensus. But more than that, it led to a whole new understanding of the state of the nation. On the one hand, there was a radical revival, portraying Britain as an innovation superpower, poised to break away from Europe and take its proper place in the world. It was suggested that Margaret Thatcher had reversed the historic decline of the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, there was a new understanding that much of the country had been left behind in these years and that a new national policy of “levelling” was needed. Brexit included all this and more.

At the heart of the Brexit project has always been a far-right Thatcheri program of privatisation, deregulation and free trade. Both Theresa May, and to a lesser extent Boris Johnson, countered this with a more interventionist and nationalist approach. But Trussism represented this radical, free-market Brexit in its purest form.

For economic liberals, Brexit was the vehicle for a much more ambitious revolution. “To finish the work Margaret Thatcher started” in the words of Leave supporter and former Chancellor Nigel Lawson. The UK economy, they emphasized, had stalled since the 2008 financial crisis. They were right about that. But their solution was very special and went well beyond Thatcher, New Labor and the Cameroons. They wanted even more inequality, even weaker unions, even less regulation of business, even more indulgence from the rich.

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You had to admire Liz Truss because she saw that not all was well and that Brexit (in her opinion) had not yet worked. Something radical had to be done and she did. This was not an attempt to recreate the “Barber boom” of 1972, but rather to fundamentally restructure the economy and society. And the Tories of Truss might have gotten away with it, as far as the markets are concerned, had they juxtaposed the cuts in government spending with their tax cuts. But political necessity trumped squaring finances.

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Yet there is also something deeper going on. The Brexiteers’ conservatism alienated most of British and international capitalism, not only by advocating a withdrawal from the EU, but also by ignoring the complexities of the global economy. This wing of conservatism has also been disrupted by the massive central bank interventions and ultra-easy monetary policies needed to cope with the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

[See also: Labour must not accept austerity 2.0 – there is an alternative]

Brexit was bad enough, but for central bankers and the markets, the current economic climate was not the time to threaten the fragile post-crash, post-Covid financial order. They did not reject Thatcherism, but rather a policy that jeopardized existing Thatcherism.

At the root of this is a remarkable change in British political discourse. It was only yesterday that the conversation was dominated by the UK’s scientific genius, the rollout of vaccines surpassing the world, the rapidly recovering economy and other such impulses. But after the ascent of Truss, this revival turned into declinism. Both are fatally wrong analyzes of the British plight.

Revivalism for obvious reasons, declinism because it wants to attribute British relative achievements, usually ill-specified, only to British shortcomings, not to the success of other countries, and because the explanations for failure are typically clichéd, wrong, and usually based on the distant past, rather than the present.

But a more accurate picture emerged of the UK: an economy that has grown more slowly since 2008 than any other G7 country except Italy, which is generally poorer than France or Germany, and which has some of the very poorest regions in the north. Western Europe. Moreover, and again suddenly, previous promises of funding for social care leveling and reform have evaporated.

Now we return to the austerity measures that shaped the political narrative in the pre-Brexit years. (We’ve also seen the start of a wider reappraisal of the dead end that is Brexit itself.)

While Labor has benefited from the collapse of Tory support, it is barely a thing of the opposition, and a return to the 2015 debates poses a threat to Labour. Under Keir Starmer, the emphasis was on the incompetence of Johnson and Truss. That strategy creates a problem when overly competent right-wing “adults” take charge, as they may be doing now.

Worse still, Labor has been far too tempted to stand for sound money, to go against the government with the market, and to go for growth, growth, growth without understanding its real impediments. There is a danger that Labor will again get stuck in the headlights of the New Labour/Cameron consensus, just as it is stuck with “making Brexit work” as support for Brexit collapses.

This isn’t 2015, but it isn’t 1997 either. The world has moved on. We’ve had fantastic Tory answers to the mess left behind in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019, which has now crashed and burned. But the mess remains, and there have been several new crises of the British state, economy and society. We need a whole new political discourse, not only to fight the Tory party, but also to face the serious challenges of decarbonisation, public health and rising poverty and misery.

The answers lie only in a new politics that understands what has gone wrong since 1979, not just since 2010, and which will necessarily be a politics based not on imaginary growth rates, but on real redistribution among those whose incomes are collapsing. We need transformation, not growth.

[See also: Who could replace Liz Truss as prime minister?]


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