Editorial: McDonnell is wrong, this is not our moment

“This week”, John McDonnell wrote last week in the New Statesman, “the left finally defeated free market ideology”.
This, after a government just advocated for the deportation of NHS staff, just targeted international students, and is considering legislating for firms to publish a ‘list’ of foreign employees.

This isn’t a victory.

If there is even just a rhetorical death of neoliberalism, it isn’t socialism that’s replacing it – it’s nationalism.

That that nationalism has been partnered with economic paternalism, after the Conservatives seem to be partially acknowledging free market orthodoxy has been the biggest contributing factor to the disgruntlement we see today, and that Miliband may have just been a bit right, is less a ‘we told you so’ moment for the Left as it one that should make us feel deeply, deeply frightened. They have cannibalised our ideas, coupled it with xenophobia, and left us seemingly without purpose – and as a consequence lagging desperately behind in the polls and in no shape to defend those now under attack.

There is an urge, a deep-seated one, certainly, to shout ‘I told you so’ and laugh at the libertarians. There is also time after that to mutter at the naivety of liberal Tory Brexiteers who thought this was their moment, a moment to get ‘out, and into the world’.

There is also the consideration that, last May, if we just had better messaging, perhaps, we could have sold our economic vision better. There was an appetite for interventionism. We knew that. When we were interventionist, we were at our most popular

But consider these three points:
The first is obvious. This message is resonating alongside an explicitly xenophobic agenda, and because of it. It is economic interventionism and social conservatism in a symbiotic relationship. We haven’t won. Farage has won. The nativists have won. His and their language now dominates the airwaves, immigration and the drastic measures to reduce it overshadow the economics of this government to the extent that the government are willingly sacrificing Britain’s prosperity in favour of Hard Brexit and exemption from the single market and freedom of movement. More than that, the governments economics work off the presumptions of anti-immigration rhetoric. It is tackling an inequality not caused by neoliberalism’s market component, but its free movement component.

The reason their economic populism is popular is because it is part of a populism that not only wages war with an elite, but with a ‘metropolitan’ elite, one that is elite at least partially because it is tolerant of an ‘other’ that has been deemed the cause of inequality. Inequality is talked about not as working together against a common evil, but as ‘us’ versus ‘them’. You can’t decouple the fact the government talks about inequality then entertains the idea that inequality is caused by the immigrant down the road.

Ultimately, the government and the Right have made tackling inequality synonymous with tackling immigration.

You want the Left to win? Find a way to get the public to trust and believe in you, and focus their anger on an enemy of your own definition. So far, so little.

The second is that, if the Tories are now interventionists – what are we for? Gone are the moments in Parliament when we can put forward energy caps and see a poll boost. The Tories have done that. So what are we for? While we work that out, our voters are flocking to the Conservatives. We have no message, no purpose. They have stolen our message, the message that was most successful in resonating with the public between 2010 and 2015. Again, feel the urge to shout ‘we told you so’, but it achieves little. It appears petulant, complacent, and feels like a betrayal of those that will suffer that, other, significant aspect of this agenda.

The third is that, actually, this really isn’t the end of neoliberalism or free market ideology. It’s the end of free movement within it. Globalisation, perhaps, has been left in ruins. But Tory rhetoric is not Tory action. The Tories remain adherents of shrinking the state via social security cuts and Right to Buy. At most, it is the end of the liberal, not the neoliberal, consensus. The social liberalism heralded by Wilson has disintegrated. That is no victory.

This is not a moment for the Left’s victory lap. This is not our moment. If we are this complacent, it will be a moment to dig the Left’s grave. The left didn’t defeat the proponents of free market ideology – nationalism did. And it is the nationalists, not the Left, that will replace them.

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