Playing the long game: Corbyn, Labour and the next consensus

By David Bates

Travelling home from work a few weeks ago, I spotted a bus shelter advertisement for the National Living Wage. The poster’s bold block text announced its introduction with a simple, memorable slogan – “A Step Up For Britain” – and on top stood the image of a waitress, a symbol of those “hard working people” who “just want to get on” so beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What a depressing sign of the times, I thought: a sign of emboldened Conservative confidence and purpose, of growing Tory hegemony, and an audacious raid into deepest Labour territory. But what else does this tell us about the present conjuncture, and what at this moment can we do about it?

It got me thinking about public opinion and the nature of the political “centre ground” – in other words about the role of consensus and “common sense” in recent British politics. It also reinforced many of the ideas I’d recently encountered in Ken Spears’ excellent analysis of Conservative strategy, The Osborne Supremacy. According to Spears, the modern Conservative Party has taken its cue from New Labour in performing what Stuart Hall once called a “double shuffle” – that is, brazenly appropriating elements of their opponents’ ideas, rhetoric and policies in order to gain and maintain electoral support beyond their traditional base.

Ideological incursions into enemy territory by political parties are nothing new, of course. Far from it, in fact: they’re an intrinsic feature of democracy. Compromise is hardwired into the system, and the much fabled “centre ground” requires constant attention. You can pacify your opponent by incorporating popular aspects of their politics into your own, or if the balance of forces is right, compel your opponent to do the same. That is how democratic politics works.

Nor is the shifting of the middle ground the task of governments alone – all kinds of forces need to be marshalled in the construction of new “common sense” perceptions on which politics can be built. In this respect much of Osborne’s work was done for him by the Daily Mail and the Taxpayers’ Alliance well before he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In these austere times, I often think about the situation faced by my grandparents in the 1930s: then the centre ground encompassed a widespread belief in the primacy of free markets and balanced budgets, and saw party leaders join forces in a National Government to slash support for the poor and unemployed (sound familiar?). Those who argued against it (like Corbyn forebear George Lansbury) spent a decade in the political wilderness.

Yet as Paul Addison famously recounts in The Road to 1945, this settlement was itself violently overthrown by the unifying experience of Total War from 1939 to 1945. In its place came a new political compromise based on a new common sense, informed by the collectivist ideals of full employment, nationalisation and trade union power. Attlee and co. did not come from the left wing of the Labour party so much as the centre ground shifted leftwards under their feet, and they responded accordingly.

Even now, the Attlee governments of 1945-51 – and the thirty year consensus they ushered in – cast a long shadow over Labour politics, but it is imperative that we understand how the historical conditions from which that consensus arose have now long since disappeared. A fascinating study of counter-hegemony from which we might learn is the three-decade long struggle to overturn the post-war settlement that is recounted in the BBC Four series Tory! Tory! Tory!. We see how even the Thatcherites’ struggle for hegemony began with a pitch to the middle ground, for example with Thatcher in 1976 actually denying claims that the Tories were hostile to trade unions and instead praising organised labour for its role in protecting and representing “the interests of people at work.” Not until she was in a position of profound electoral strength was she able to modify her stance and act on it.

I suspect that the settlement that is being constructed now is an extension of the neoliberal one which has existed since the 1980s (minus New Labour’s modestly redistributive tendencies) but on a more decentralised, devolved, localised basis. With the Living Wage and the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda, it feels to me like there is a new dynamic at work, and the stage is set for a new localist phase of neoliberalism in which the market (and thereby popular Tory appeal) is extended to places that were previously out of reach.

How can we posit our own vision of this new localist consensus, beginning with a pitch to public opinion as it currently stands? It may be argued that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable as Prime Minister, but his leadership has opened up a space for thinking and debate in the Party that I don’t believe would have happened under Cooper, Kendall or Burnham, and though it may be Corbyn’s as-yet-unknown successor who ultimately benefits, it’s a debate that is crucially important for Labour’s future.

You can see it in Liam Byrne’s recent conversion to a politics which rails against inequality and calls for a new “inclusive capitalism”, and the fact that “workers’ rights” are now considered even in the pages of Progress. You can see it in renewed talk of democratic workers’ control married to an appreciation of the importance of small and medium-sized businesses in the modern British economy.   And most importantly you can also see it in the calls for a socialist modernity by a plethora of left-wing writers (including here on Open Labour) based on what the brilliant Yanis Varoufakis recently described as “the cool breeze of decentralised green technologies”. Varoufakis also suggests that we need to ditch the language of anti-austerity, and the fixation on spending cuts, and replace them with a coherent message on stimulating economic growth through an active, enterprising industrial policy. He is, in my view, spot on.

Here on my own doorstep in Stockton, a portent of the future may well be seen in the success of the burgeoning e-commerce firm VisualSoft, a company at the cutting edge of both modern technology and workers’ rights and wellbeing. It is galling that Stockton South’s Conservative MP has been able to identify himself with what the company represents – it’s about time Labour staked a claim on this positive vision of the future as well.

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