In some ways the Covid-19 pandemic has masked the realities of the challenge facing the left; in other ways it has exposed it. For almost four years Brexit tore apart the UK: whether it was geographical, social or political, where you stood on the European Union was a fundamental issue.
Whilst it was the Tory Party that seemed most at odds over Leave or Remain, Labour’s ‘too little, too late’ position on a second referendum and failure to campaign sufficiently vigorously in its heartland ‘red wall’ seats for the benefits of a transformed EU membership cost it dear.
There was always going to be an entrenched right wing seeking to undermine Corbyn at every turn. The 2017 election result helped subdue but not silence those critics. Some may well have preferred to see a Corbyn-led party lose. The party inquiry needs to report on this rapidly.
Despite the talk of building a real Labour base in the ‘left behind’ communities, the teams of community organisers did not succeed in strengthening party organisation or make the cultural transformations needed. When it came to the 2019 General election, the base crumbled.
Many also argue that factionalism on both right and left has damaged the party. Peter Kenyon argues that we need to get beyond this internecine conflict and acknowledge the reality that Starmer is the best hope for a Labour government.
Tom Miller and Paul Teasdale echo and expand this view in different ways. Corbyn and McDonnell do have a positive legacy. The party rediscovered its democratic socialist politics and values: internationalism, trade union action, social ownership, a humane welfare system. The voice of party members was again being heard. Conference meant something beyond a stage-managed media circus. However, democratic reforms begun were stalled; policies on immigration, defence of migrants and free movement were works in progress, as were workplace democracy and transforming the world of work.
Meanwhile, under cover of English nationalism and a populist rhetoric, the Tories regrouped and spun a narrative that connected to a sufficient number of disenchanted voters. However, as Sandy Martin explains, 43% of the vote is hardly a ringing democratic mandate. Electoral reform and transformation of our antiquated institutions and constitution is urgently needed.
Covid-19 has also obscured two other epochal challenges facing our societies and the left in particular: climate crisis and the searing inequalities scarring Britain and the world. Ann Pettifor explains why a Green New Deal is essential for the future of working people, Britain and the planet. It is not only an environmental crisis but at root an economic catastrophe: inequality and privatised, market-led economics are a disaster for everyone. She sets out a persuasive case for change.
Coronavirus has also illustrated the malign effect of outsourcing on our health and social care systems. Dexter Whitfield unfolds an argument for a new deal covering integrated health and care and a socially-led environment and industrial plan. Prem Sikka unmasks the grubby face of crony capitalism where failed contracts for PPE are but the tip of an iceberg of corrupt diversion of billions to Tory corporate mates without proper tendering or scrutiny.
The incompetence of this government has been highlighted over the summer in the school exams results fiasco. Dave Lister unpicks the rolling disaster that is Tory education policy, whether its algorithms on exams, lack of support for school safety measures on reopening, callousness on food vouchers—the road is littered with U-turns. Instead of taking responsibility, Johnson’s ministers blame Ofqual, Public Health England, the scientists… anyone but themselves.
Education and health have not been the only areas of failure. Johnson’s wrecking ball is now at work in planning and housing. Duncan Bowie reports on the Jenrick plan to tear up the Labour 1947 Act town planning framework and remove local authority and people’s rights to scrutinise development proposals, giving the green light to profiteering property developers. Little social housing will result. Becky Ross explains that while homeless people were given a short respite, with LAs part-funded to provide hotel and other accommodation, this support has now been withdrawn alongside protection for tenants. We will see an escalation of evictions and homelessness.
Preston Council, with its Community Wealth Fund, provides a ray of light in the darkening realm of local councils’ ability to meet local needs in the face of continuing resource cuts. Inequality and racism have also featured during the Covid-19 pandemic with BAME communities being hard hit. Poverty and racism explain much of this. In celebrating the work of Stuart Hall, Don Flynn demonstrates how this pioneer of cultural politics helped lay the groundwork for Black Lives Matter. While Paul Garver analyses the prospects for unseating Trump and Glyn Ford looks at the growing US-China conflict, it is clear that the world desperately needs leaders with vision, humanity and a willingness to work cooperatively.
Labour’s new leadership has had but a few months in the most difficult circumstances to continue the fight for a new Britain and a safer world. Starmer has made mistakes, but the ten election pledges provide a radical campaign platform. They include common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; abolition of Universal Credit; increasing income tax on the top 5%; reversing Tory cuts in corporation tax and clamping down on tax avoidance; abolition of tuition fees; an end to illegal wars; strengthening workplace rights; defending free movement when we leave the EU and closing detention centres like Yarls Wood; ending NHS outsourcing; a Clean Air Act and a Green New Deal.
With a tsunami of unemployment (two million by year end), Brexit (with a probable no deal trade implosion), the climate crisis and a possible second wave of Covid-19, Labour needs to be quick-footed and smart, holding the Tories’ feet to the fire while unfolding a radical alternative and strengthening the Labour coalition. Democratic socialists should be working for that aim.