Richard Rawles argues that rather than commitments to specific policies, what the country needs to see from Labour is a sense of hope and purpose directed towards creating a better society. Vision, boldness and moral clarity matter more right now than adherence to manifesto promises from past elections.
In a time of unparalleled anxiety, in the new-normal context of lots and lots of social media debate, and after a very fractious few years of politics in general and labour politics in particular, it’s not very surprising that there is a lot of worry and dissatisfaction from some quarters about the party’s leadership and direction under the new Starmer regime.
I think some complaints are misguided. Starmer clearly did not sack Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet as part of an attempted “purge” of the left; he asked her to take down an unwise tweet and eventually sacked her when she refused. While it’s natural that people feel anxious about possible watering-down of policy in various areas, especially the Green New Deal and taxation of wealth, some of this may well be as much about sensible caution in committing to a manifesto several years in advance as about a shift of policy or values as such. Starmer’s “nonsense… moment…” response to the BLM movement was clearly misjudged and he said as much himself. There will always be room for argument about finding the right place between furious and constructive opposition, especially in circumstances like these.
In many ways I think the main thing we need from the top of the Labour Party right now is not spending commitments for a manifesto years down the line, and perhaps not even particular commitments to specific policies at all, but a bigger and broader sense of commitment to the view that “back to normal” is not anything like enough. Britain is a deeply dissatisfied and uncomfortable nation, as many things but not least the whole Brexit situation show us. We have seen that right-populism is taking hold to a degree not previously seen. The left needs to work at the level of emotion and imagination — not by bullshitting, nor by making impossible promises, but by showing we are committed to rebuilding this country in a way that’s shaped around the human needs of all of us, and recognising that those needs include not only money and housing but also time, fairness, empowerment, recognition and respect.
Earlier in this horrible, depressing, terrifying plague there was a sense that it must be followed by something different that we could be proud of. In particular there was a feeling that we needed a settlement and a reckoning that acknowledged the new realisation of who our real “key workers” are: the people keeping us fed, caring for the sick and elderly, delivering essential goods and services to us, keeping the show on the road, many of them in underpaid, undervalued and insecure employment. The responses of governments around the world (including the UK’s and Scotland’s rather poor reactions to the crisis) seemed to embody a sense that we needed to work in a direction that recognised collective action and the common good as well as the workings of “the market”.
This mood and this movement is something we need to see from Labour. We need to be the people of hope, not just for recovery but for growth; and that growth must be not only in GDP but also in more moral qualities. We need to talk about becoming a more human-shaped economy and society, where people are valued and respected for their contribution to our common life, including people like checkout staff, delivery drivers, carers, hospital cleaners — people that are not only underpaid but looked down upon now. I saw a social media anecdote (perhaps a fiction, but that’s not really the point) recently where a barista asked her customer to put on a mask, and the customer replied “why? there’s nobody here…” The person serving the coffee was not real to that person. When we are a better society this story would not sound sadly plausible, but absurd and outrageous.
It feels as if people are exhausted and depressed and ground down by the constant anxieties and difficulties of the new situation even as unemployment soars and the economy falls off a cliff. But a sense of hope and purpose directed towards this better society is what I think we need from the Labour Party. We need a sense of vision and boldness and moral clarity, as well as competence and forensic questioning of the government.
A lot of the analogies between the pandemic and a war are tosh. But one analogy might be a productive one: however we get out of this mess, let’s have a sense of hope from Labour, as in 1945, that our message is “Now let’s win the peace!”.