The future of the left since 1884

Common sense

Confident Labour ministers can bring people with them, writes Emma Burnell.



At the 2017 election it became clear that Labour and the organisations that campaigned alongside it – such as Momentum and the unions – were able to speak to the country much more effectively than Theresa May. While the Tories managed to scrape together more seats, they did so while on a downward trajectory. They lost their impetus and Labour piled on vote share – a radical turnaround from what had happened at the local elections only a few short weeks before.

The election showed a hunger for change, that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership rightly tapped into. The truth is that unless Brexit is an almost unimaginable and immediate success (and I don’t think even its most fervent believers are expecting that), then there will still be that hunger come the next election. Labour will find it easier to mobilise support by being in opposition, by being at its most radical and by the disposition of the party from the leadership to the base. We want radicalism, we want to campaign for change.

The complication lies in what to do with a Labour victory and at least five years of Labour government. How do radicals, having spent years in opposition both to the Tories and to their own government, comport themselves once they are in power? How do they govern radically, while convincing the country of their policies? How do they implement changes that see them re-elected and that change the country not just for now, but for good?

There is a temptation in government to go one of two ways. New Labour politicians exercised extreme caution in their language so that even when they implemented good, socially democratic changes, they undersold them – perhaps even mis-sold them. They didn’t make a confident case in their language or demeanor. One of the key Corbynite critiques of New Labour is its lack of radicalism, and while this is contestable on some areas of policy (not least child and pensioner poverty, where visceral differences were made in people’s lived experiences), it is pretty undeniable when it comes to New Labour’s presentation of those policies.

The other temptation is to retain the language of the underdog, even as you take power. The left has a diagnosis of inequality that includes not just wealth but power too. It is always fighting against an unequal system, and as such it is naturally uncomfortable when it comes to claiming the mantle of power. We speak of taking power only to give it away, and we must do just that. Both by devolving power to localities and communities, but also by ensuring that our government is driven by the will of the people, not imposing its will upon them. But to give something away you have to first be confident in your ownership of it.

Corbyn’s Labour will come under attack from the right wing press and vested corporate interests who will want to undermine its programme of government. A defensive pose would be a natural one. But it is never a good position to lead a country from. There will be – in among the din – important critiques that do need to be listened to. No leader is perfect, no government gets everything right. The country will need to be led, but through persuasion, not obstinance.

A successful Corbyn government will have the opportunity to implement policies New Labour never thought it could, but new ministers must make the case for them: they must make the changes they want to implement seem not just desirable to their most ardent supporters but natural to the country as a whole. Not simply by employing left wing rhetoric and hoping it is soaring enough to carry the day, nor by knowing they have the votes in parliament to carry the day anyway.

Political success comes when the people come with you. Look at how embedded our culture of free healthcare is, for example. Thatcher could never – try as she might – kill off the NHS for good, because the argument for it has been fought and won. Labour make the argument for the NHS constantly not because the party needed to campaign on this alone, but because it reminds the country of the radical common sense the entire project embodies. Sixty years on, ordinary voters don’t remember the opposition to its creation because the argument seems too alien. That is because it was made well in the first place.

As Labour politicians seek to change the economic paradigm in the UK, rejecting the neoliberal consensus of the past 40 years, they cannot do so by expecting the flaws in the system to be their only argument. Nor can they simply make a case for reverting to what came before.

Instead, Labour must learn from the success of both Thatcher and Attlee in convincing the people that radical change was simply common sense.

In part, this will be done through results. But to achieve those results and for them to be accepted as the end product of Labour policy and not simply cyclical economics, Labour must project the confidence of power, the reassurance of government and the ability to listen and to lead.

It will be Labour’s policies that change the country. But it will be how Labour makes the argument for those policies that will embed those changes for good. This could be a once in a generation opportunity to change the story of the country, as long
as we know how to tell it.

Emma Burnell

Emma Burnell is the Director of Political Human and Co-editor of Open Labour.


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