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The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly. The risk, which is highly visible here in Britain, is that the country returns to a familiar left/right battle. The familiarity is because such a contest dominated the 20th century. The risk is because in the 21st century such a contest debilitates rather than advances the nation.
This is at present crystallising around debates over austerity, welfare, immigration and Europe. Suddenly, parts of the political landscape that had been cast in shadow for some years, at least under New Labour and the first years of coalition government, are illuminated in sharp relief. The Conservative Party is back clothing itself in the mantle of fiscal responsibility, buttressed by moves against “benefit scroungers”, immigrants squeezing out British workers and – of course – Labour profligacy.
The Labour Party is back as the party opposing “Tory cuts”, highlighting the cruel consequences of the Conservative policies on welfare and representing the disadvantaged and vulnerable (the Lib Dems are in a bit of a fix, frankly).
For the Conservatives, this scenario is less menacing than it seems. They are now going to inspire loathing on the left. But they’re used to that. They’re back on the old territory of harsh reality, tough decisions, piercing the supposed veil of idealistic fantasy that prevents the left from governing sensibly. Compassionate Conservatism mattered when compassion was in vogue. But it isn’t now. Getting the house in order is.
For Labour, the opposite is true. This scenario is more menacing than it seems. The ease with which it can settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo, allying itself, even anchoring itself, to the interests that will passionately and often justly oppose what the government is doing, is so apparently rewarding, that the exercise of political will lies not in going there, but in resisting the temptation to go there.
So where should progressive politics position itself, not just in Britain but in Europe as a whole? How do we oppose smartly and govern sensibly?
The guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger. In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion. In the second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.
So, for Britain, start with an analysis of where we stand as a country. The financial crisis has not created the need for change; it has merely exposed it. Demographics – the age profile of our population – technology and globalisation all mean that the systems we created post-1945 have to change radically. This is so, irrespective of the financial catastrophe of 2008 and its aftermath.
Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis. In 2007/2008 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was under 1 per cent of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997. Over the whole 13 years, the debt-to-GDP ratio was better than the Conservative record from 1979-97. Of course there is a case for saying a tightening around 2005 would have been more prudent. But the effect of this pales into insignificance compared to the financial tsunami that occurred globally, starting with the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the US.
However, the crisis has occurred and no one can get permission to govern unless they deal with its reality. The more profound point is: even if it hadn’t happened, the case for fundamental reform of the postwar state is clear. For example:
What is driving the rise in housing benefit spending, and if it is the absence of housing, how do we build more?
How do we improve the skillset of those who are unemployed when the shortage of skills is the clearest barrier to employment?
How do we take the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought about?
What is the right balance between universal and means-tested help for pensioners?
How do we use technology to cut costs and drive change in our education, health, crime and immigration systems?
How do we focus on the really hard core of socially excluded families, separating them from those who are just temporarily down on their luck?
- What could the developments around DNA do to cut crime?
There are another 20 such questions, but they all involve this approach: a root-and-branch inquiry, from first principles, into where we spend money, and why.
On the economy, we should have one simple test: what produces growth and jobs? There is roughly $1trn (£650bn) of UK corporate reserves. What would give companies the confidence to invest it? What does a modern industrial strategy look like? How do we rebuild the financial sector? There is no need to provide every bit of detail. People don’t expect it. But they want to know where we’re coming from because that is a clue as to where we would go, if elected.
Sketch out the answers to these questions and you have a vision of the future. For progressives, that is of the absolute essence. The issue isn’t, and hasn’t been for at least 50 years, whether we believe in social justice. The issue is how progressive politics fulfils that mission as times, conditions and objective realities change around us. Having such a modern vision elevates the debate. It helps avoid the danger of tactical victories that lead to strategic defeats.
It means, for example, that we don’t tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending. It keeps us out of our comfort zone but on a centre ground that is ultimately both more satisfying and more productive for party and country.