Friday, 9 September 2016

How to revitalise the British Left

This piece in the Guardian by John Harris is pretty good as diagnosis. You'll have guessed a lot of what he has to say before he says it, but he says it well and with good details. For example, after reminding us that the Labour Party was always thought to be the 'party of the working man', he tells us this:

"In Plymouth, I watched a woman answer the door to a Labour canvasser with the words: “I’m a grafter – you ain’t doing nothing for me.” I spoke to a man in the north-eastern steeltown of Redcar who told me he would never vote Labour “because I work”. In the bellwether seat of Nuneaton, two women told me that Ed Miliband would probably win the election because “all the people on benefits” were going to vote for him. As these people saw it, Labour was no longer the “party of work”."

It seems that a great aim of the Cameron/Osborne government has been achieved, namely to paint Labour as the party of people on benefits (and their noblesse oblige-motivated rich supporters). 

But Harris' prescriptions are rubbish. I've got much better ones below.

Harris says this:

"... beyond the old gospel of hard graft and the dignity of labour, any modern centre-left politics has to surely speak powerfully to elements of people’s lives – as citizens, carers, friends and parents – which it has long underplayed, and for which the incessant demands of modern capitalism leave little room. People on the left should be thinking about extending maternity and paternity leave and allowing its reprise when children are older; reviving adult education (often for its own sake, not just in terms of “reskilling”); assisting people in the creation of neighbourhood support networks that might belatedly answer the decline of the extended family; and, most obviously, enabling people to shorten their working week – think about a three-day weekend, and you begin to get a flavour of the left politics of the future."

The reality is that (a) far from being exciting new thoughts, these are exactly the sorts of things that the metropolitan left are constantly thinking about and (b) they are not 'beyond' the gospel of hard graft and dignity of labour, but seem antithetical to them. If the problem is people on zero-hours contracts, the solution is not a 3-day weekend: the 3-day weekend is the problem. And as for these neighbourhood support networks ... does he mean reversing the smoking ban and re-opening pubs? Council-sponsored book clubs? Was it for this that the Jarrow Marchers marched?

Let's go back to basics. The Left says this: the State can help you and the State will help you. People believe that about the NHS, which is why health is good territory for Labour. They sort of believe it about education. They don't believe it about immigration. They believe it about law and order and national defence, but they prefer it if right-wing people are setting the priorities. So what else can the State do to help you? 
- A new National Service, mostly not military, which guarantees (nay, compels - universality, community, solidarity, fraternity - this is what the Left is all about!) full-time regular paid employment for 1-2 years for all 18 year olds. They would be building new infrastructure, renewable energy, nicer prisons, etc, while learning practical skills and gaining self-respect. Only the State can do this.
- A commitment to train as many new British nurses as there currently are foreign ones in the NHS. That policy is (a) all about how lovely the NHS is plus (b) we are offering you British nurses to look after you and jobs for your children, in one fell swoop. Only the State can do this.
- Universal provision of free state nurseries. Not vouchers or subsidies that go to private companies, but state-run nurseries just like state schools. Partly staffed by willing 18 year olds on National Service (see above) but also by other new state employees who are therefore likely to regard the state as a Good Thing. You can sell this as supporting working mothers and single mothers - but also as a great educational leap forward. Again, only the State can do this.
- Expand state nursing homes and care homes. Point out that this will cut NHS costs by removing 'bed-blockers'. Use the phrase 'cradle to grave'. Also, use the word 'security'.
- Build a lot more council houses. (There is plenty for these National Service people to be getting on with.) Make them fancy new schemes on 10 year fixed leases or partial ownership or something like that if you want, but they will basically be shiny new council houses. 'New homes with new security of tenure' - try arguing against that, Tories! And bear in mind that no one would complain about immigrants jumping the queue for council houses if there were no queue in the first place.  It doesn't need to be said: only the State can do this.

Sure these policies are all expensive. But they are hard to oppose on other grounds. And here is the story you tell to support them. In the near future, robots will replace a lot of the heavy-lifting and driving jobs we have at the moment. That will produce big returns to capital - which we will tax. We might even end up nationalising Uber (why shouldn't driverless cars be a public utility? Once the technology is in place, it is just like buses or the tube, surely - and no one objects to them being in public hands). But the jobs of the future will be high-tech (hence our nursery education) and/or hands-on (nurses, care homes). We promise to create those jobs and invest for the future. For the British working man and woman of today, we offer work building the infrastructure for tomorrow; for the British working man and woman of tomorrow, we offer the jobs that that infrastructure will support. Can we afford that investment - of course we can! We can't afford not to do it.

That is how to create an exciting new left-wing vision of the future. It tells you what the State is for and why you need to have a left-wing party in charge of it. It builds on New Labour, but it is also true to Old Labour. It is also a very post-Brexit vision, full of things that rules on state aid, freedom of movement and competition law would prevent - so it has the advantage of making Brexit work for the Left, of taking ownership of the majority's decision rather than whining about it. So there you go, Labour Party - you're welcome.

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