The Labour party’s 125-year anniversary is two years away. By then, it will have held power for just 33 of those years. The ambition to build a socialist commonwealth – a new Jerusalem – has not been realised, nor is there any prospect of such an outcome in the next 125 years. Tory England – its riches, its schools, its social influence, its press, the inequalities over which it presides, its stranglehold over what is considered political common sense – remains as powerful as it was under prime minister Lord Salisbury in 1900. As an exercise in political futility, there is little to match it. It is often said that the Conservatives are one of the most longstanding and successful parties in the world. What is less said is that it has been given a free pass for more than a century by its opponents.
For a leader of the Labour party named after its founder, this is not only galling – it cannot be allowed to continue. For Britain does have a great progressive tradition independent of socialism, largely rooted in the best of “new liberalism”, common law and our early embrace of democracy. Moreover, our core values – fairness, tolerance, kindness, openness, admiration for those who dare, championing the underdog – are also fundamentally progressive. The political problem for the liberal left is that it has never marshalled these forces successfully into a sustained political project or party. Instead of uniting in the manner of US Democrats, British progressivism has been fatally divided between a largely workers’ party committed to utopian socialism, at least in its rhetoric, and a middle-class party that so hankers after Conservative acceptance it has only a weak progressive spine. Throw in a first-past-the-post voting system and the past 125 years is explained.
In this respect, Keir Starmer is shaping up to be a potentially transformational Labour leader. Like the socialist economic historian Richard Tawney or intellectual Labour MP Anthony Crosland, his outlook is driven by strong ethical and moral beliefs – an ethical socialism defined by values, not by non-negotiable doctrines. That opens the door to a more audacious, if unspoken, project: to reinvent the Labour party as a means to bring together an inclusive British progressive coalition. The socialist left must certainly be a member – it brings muscularity – but it can never again be allowed to define the progressive project. No more spasms of Bennism, Footism, Corbynism or the leftism that undermined Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle’s efforts to bring the law into industrial relations, and later the attempt to launch industrial democracy, and whose destruction so set the stage for Thatcherism. No more free passes to the right: hence, the strong opposition to reinstating an unrepentant Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP.
Starmer’s detractors on the left see this as betrayal and a compromise with neoliberalism – the longstanding trope that Tawney described as “the infantile disease of left-wingism” back in the 1930s, “absurd exhibitions of self-righteous sectarianism”. His critics argue that, for all his success in offering reassurance, he lacks a big idea or an overriding intellectual framework. But the big idea is right in front of them. It is to launch a progressive revolution and recast Britain – something that Tony Blair talked about but from whose implications he ultimately shrank.
There are far-reaching ambitions. The overhaul of the British constitution to make the House of Lords a second elected chamber representing our nations, cities and regions, as promised by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future and endorsed by Starmer, would have been welcomed by liberal progressives Gladstone, Lloyd George or Asquith, as would further empowering our constituent nations and local government. It’s a programme of constitutional reform that has eluded the country throughout Labour’s history. It will happen under Starmer. And that is where it starts.
Framing the next Labour government’s aims as five national missions is another crucial downpayment on creating a broad-based progressive coalition. Aiming to have the fastest sustained growth in the G7 and to be a clean energy superpower are not throwaway commitments. Neither can or should they be executed by the state alone, but, rather, in partnership with business, finance and workforces, where necessary ensuring there is a public body to fill key gaps, such as the proposed Great British Energy corporation. Expect more such innovative institutions, such as the proposed sovereign wealth fund to take stakes in green and hi-tech startups and promote new industries. It is part of the annual £28bn capital spending commitment on backing the green transition – not trivial.
The mission to build a 21st-century NHS is equally far-reaching, especially the commitment to make personal wellbeing one of the prisms through which all policy should be judged. It is a migration from a welfare to a wellbeing state, reinforced by the commitments to banning zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, and ensuring all workers from day one are entitled to sick pay, paid holidays and parental leave. Fair pay agreements are to be a new part of the labour landscape. The Beveridge report – one of the great expressions of new liberal progressive thinking – argued that a fair labour market was a key adjunct to effective social and health policy.
Starmer is going down the same route. The mission to promote opportunity, to meet social philosopher John Rawls’s criteria that a just society is one in which it does not matter where and to whom you are born, is also a big commitment – again, progressive and liberal in its roots. Labour has never tackled private schools’ charitable status; Starmer aims to do what none of his predecessors accomplished. To complete the picture, there is the mission to halve serious violent crime, involving stronger communities and more social cohesion as much as a reformed police force.
None of this is small or conservative. It is also a moment when the Tory stranglehold is slipping, a key reason why this pro-European wants to capitalise on the opening. So no second political front on Europe, at least yet.
Working on a forthcoming book – How the Right Broke Britain: And How to Put it Back Together Again – I am struck time and again by how the Labour party has been at its strongest when it reaches out beyond its base to recast a reflex socialism beset by doctrinal divisions into a more broad-based progressivism closer to Britain’s heartbeat. In their different ways, Attlee, Wilson and Blair all pulled off the trick. Keir Starmer is finding a way to do the same.
China's burgeoning space program plans to place astronauts on the moon before 2030 and expand the country's orbiting space station, officials said Monday.Monda
The AI hype cycle has birthed innumerable boosters. An unlikely member of this group is Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Siebel.Since selling his first company t
This ad for togs on display in Paris has proved controversial because of its AI-generated imagery, 29 April, 2023. Photo: AFP/ Amaury Cornu Public