Sprinkling some Obama magic?

The Fabian Society's Louise Bamfield gives her take on Alistair Darling's first Budget

Against most prior expectations, Alistair Darling has made the fight to end child poverty the big domestic news story from his first budget. Reaffirming the government’s commitment to ending child poverty in the UK, he announced significant new spending to help to meet its targets, if later than planned. An extra £765m in the coming financial year and £950m in 2009/10 is expected to take 250,000 more children out of poverty over the next few years.

Predictably, this renewed commitment has been given a cautious welcome by anti-poverty campaigners: they are reassured by the increased spending, but stress that it is still not enough to meet the 2010 target, to reduce child poverty by half since 1999. In fact, the proposed package is not even quite enough to meet the first target – to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004-5.

But the significance of the announcements should not stand or fall on the targets. Its real significance lies in what it tells us about how the government is planning its strategy up to the next general election.

There have tended to be two schools of thought within the Labour camp on the place that child poverty will play in the coming election. The idealists say we should look at the lessons from the US Presidential campaign and try and sprinkle some Obama magic on domestic policies – and that ending child poverty is the moral crusade that can inspire and reinvigorate Labour’s core voters.

Labour pragmatists, meanwhile, are sceptical about any such ‘core vote’ strategy. They doubt that child poverty is a vote winner – indeed, given the level of spending commitment needed to make substantial progress, it may even be a vote loser. As Labour has to play well in the South if it is to retain power, the more pressing need, they say, is to provide reassurance and tackle levels of discomfort in Southern constituencies.

Both the idealists and the sceptics are half right. After ten years of public service reform and quiet – even silent – redistribution, British voters are just as much in need of hope and inspiration as their American counterparts. But the pragmatists are also right to warn that child poverty is not yet a great crusading cause for our times, which can enthuse the wristband generation like tackling poverty in the poorest nations.

What Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have started to recognise, however, is that alongside the moral case, there are very strong strategic reasons for prioritising child poverty in the UK, even in the unpromising economic climate that threatens to derail other spending commitments. Up to now, David Cameron’s position has been to support calls to end child poverty, as a way of showing his party has changed, but without tying the Conservatives to any of the policies that are needed to make ending child poverty a reality. Today’s Budget shows Labour’s determination to hold the Conservatives to account on their warm words on child poverty and social justice, setting a child poverty trap for the Opposition: to put their money where their mouth is on child poverty – effectively, to ‘put up or shut up’.

Far more is at stake than scoring political points, of course. It is an uncomfortable truth that no government is in a position to end child poverty by 2020. We are too far away from the 2010 target for the impossibly ambitious goal of ending child poverty in a generation to be met. But although it won’t be achieved in one generation, now is not the time for hysterics or defeatism. As today’s Budget shows, sustained progress over time is crucial. And if in two generations, governments – both Labour and Conservative – have helped create the kind of society where no child grows up in poverty, where no child’s life chances are blighted by material want or social deprivation, future generations will draw hope and inspiration from that achievement.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times