The future of socialism is up to all of us

The Labour Party this week exuded confidence and unity. This is likely to be in marked contrast to the Conservatives as they head to Manchester a more broken and divided party than they have been since David Cameron assumed the leadership in 2005.

Anyone making political predictions in these febrile times is asking for trouble so I’m not going to go quite that far, but I will say that I think it unlikely that there will be another election before 2022. The Tories are in a tough but manageable position and will see no benefit from jeopardising that for a loss a lot more likely than it seemed the last time they risked it. They must also know that they would not be forgiven for another distraction from the increasingly fraught Brexit process (though one can imagine they might wish to pass the blame and the buck onto Labour for this unfolding disaster, they are so internally focused and blind on the broader implications of Brexit, they haven’t the gumption to make not owning it a priority). Now that the idea of a transition deal has been normalised, that would take us up to the due date for the next election. Finally, they are currently trailing in polls they led by enormous margins just a few months ago. Even were they to regain that lead – and they show little sign of understanding how to do that – they are now all too aware of just how precarious that can be.

Given these circumstances, I think the next election is quite some time away. I also think Labour has a good chance of getting into government at that election. A hung Parliament in which Labour is the largest party would not be too hard to achieve. A majority is not outside the realms of possibility. The triumphant mood of Labour this week may have been a little overblown, but the Party’s confidence will probably prove significantly more attractive to voters than the shambolic mess the Tories are in. If Labour can turn the momentum they have now into a commanding lead over the long haul, you have to assume it is at least likely that Corbyn will be heading to Downing Street.

A great deal of Labour’s time, effort and debate has been taken up over the last two years on the discussion of electability and wrangling about power structures within the Party. Both have their place in our dialogue. But Labour has a far more important, daunting and exhilarating challenge ahead if they are to keep the promise inherent in the Party’s bold shift leftwards.

Labour is currently promising nothing short of a complete change of economic model for the UK. That would be a hell of a challenge under the best of circumstances. Faced with the likely contraction of our economy post-Brexit, which will make any upfront investment needed to make this shift harder to come by, it’s going to be a bloody difficult ask.

Given the awful state of the post-crash economy, however, change is also a glittering prize. The crash was a catalyst for the austerity that has exposed the vast fissures of inequality in the UK and internationally. It has been cover for the running down of our public services and of the ways in which we support each other through the mechanism of the state.

Our current economic model has been built on improving the lives of one or two generations at the expense of all future generations to come. The vision of Thatcher’s ownership democracy, where all bought into capitalism because they had been gifted cheap capital by the state in the form of either right to buy or shares in once publicly owned utilities, has failed as it was always bound to fail. It has failed because the capital it produced was finite. The electoral bungs ran out. People who once benefitted were still grateful capitalists, but too many others were losers from a system that had been stacked against them since before they were born.

Labour in government addressed many of the symptoms of this. We rebuilt schools and hospitals and re-staffed them with record numbers of new nurses, doctors, teachers and other public sector workers. This was an investment in the future and nobody on the left should ever forget the worth of this. But it has proved too fragile, too easy to dismantle. Dealing with the symptoms of a malignant economy through taxing the winners and reinvesting is no longer enough. The economy itself must be reshaped.

Labour has fertile ground to redress systems of which many people are shut out. But to do so they will have to make some difficult choices. Because we could be in danger of either replicating the mistakes of the past, of quite rightly improving the lives of the generation suffering under the current system while not making the long-term changes that are needed to change things for all the generations to come. This will be hard politically. Current generations have a right to feel aggrieved and that aggrievement could easily translate into wanting the same short-term advantages that the generations before then had. That will be hard to challenge, but if it is not done now, in this moment, it will not be done.

We have as a party a short window of time to discover how this can be done. We all need to work together on the task. We need to work across the Party to think about what an alternative economics can and should look like and how it can be delivered. Not everyone will share the same vision, not everyone has the same vision of socialism and social democracy. But I would argue that everyone – from Progress members to those to the left of Momentum will have ideas about what isn’t working now, and how things can be changed. That’s why all of us got into politics after all. All good, ambitious ideas and plans should be welcomed. As should scrutiny and serious testing of all ideas. Not to damp them down, but to ensure they can be delivered.

If Labour can deliver practical socialism successfully in such a way that rewards, protects and satisfies the nebulous “many” it could result in both contagion and first mover advantage. If we are to build a successful Socialism for the 21st century, we will all need to put our shoulders to the wheel. For two years now, we have been discussing electability. Now we need to think about success beyond the winning of that first election -without ever taking our eyes from that all-important prize- to thinking about success in government. It will be by delivering a programme that works, that we will truly be the change we want to see.

Emma Burnell is Co-Editor of Open Labour – photograph from Wikimedia Commons

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