It’s not new labour vs old labour. It’s about the creation of a new left that goes beyond both

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Politics & Society

The creation of a new left of a third kind, which goes beyond either ‘old’ or ‘new’, is something that’s being discussed, designed and built across the world – from the rise of Sanders in the US, to the splitting of the Pragmatic and Radical left into distinct parties across Europe: in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Outside of politics from the social enterprise sector, across the open source, linked data and blockchain world, even in the heart of the 'sharing economy' there's a big discussion around, and shift to, human-centred systems and approaches. The UK Labour party has an enviable position – the party has not (yet) split; there are nearly five years more of opposition to get this process right; and Jeremy Corbyn is so far beyond his fellow MPs on so many issues (albeit often in tune with voters, such as on rail nationalisation or Scotland on Trident) he can ensure the debate is wide-reaching. Every issue gets to be discussed from basic principles with a broad spectrum of views, so that even if the final-agreed policies are much more moderate, at least that won't have come from excluding a set of views at the start.

And it’s needed. We don’t want to continue disastrous support for neo-liberalsim that seems to only increase inequality (IMF) and seems to be moviing us only towards another banking crash, any more than we want to undergo military action that continues 15 years of escalating and losing the ‘war on terror’. Billions of pounds of our money has been spent to take thousands of soldiers lives, perhaps millions of civilian lives and our achievement is to have grown the opposition from a few hundred fighters in Afghanistan to tens of thousands, controlling millions of people across an area close to the size of Britain today. The ‘war on terror’ has been a disaster and it’s mostly been led by a well-intentioned but lazy, newspaper-friendly strategy. How promising to have a leader prepared not to fall into that trap. We would hope that even his oponents would welcome a wider debate around the effectiveness and consistency of British foreing policy that sells billions in arms to Saudi Arabia, which are possibly illegal.

"If Labour doesn’t find a politics that’s different from this then it’s forced into an eternal personality competition between the two party leaders, while accepting the false assumptions that neoliberalism is the best we can do for global, free trade."

Political evolution in the UK seems to have had clear steps forward. We know Blair and New Labour bridged Labour’s old socialist principles with the status quo of the 90s; the dominant ideology of free market capitalism and of globalisation, which for its ills, can promote peace, as Europe illustrates this past 60 years, maybe the most peaceful in its history. It's helpful for the emergent left to be honest about global capitalism's strengths: it's a methodology bigger than states & religions, promotes internationalism and, excluding the motives of the arms industry, prefers peace. But as the banking crash demonstrated, neoliberalim is flawed, sufficiently so that Osborne clings closer to Blair than Thatcher, and is described of having presented a Brown-like budget last year. The Conservatives once opposed the minimum wage, now they promise to raise it higher than anyone but the Greens were promising at the general election. Indeed the Conservatives remained unelectable until they too found a way to bridge their politics with Blairs, creating an effectively Blairite party. If Blair was Thatcher's greatest legacy as she suggested, perhaps Cameron is his. So now, if Labour doesn’t find a politics that’s clearly different from the Conservatives then it’s forced into an eternal personality competition between the two party leaders, while accepting the false assumptions that neoliberalism is the best we can do for global, free trade.

Nationalisation, as McDonnell was right to point out to Osborne during his autumn budget, is the norm for our trading partners: French public energy companies may power our homes, German state transport bids on our rail and bus franchises, and the Chinese state builds our infrastructure. So why is it illogical to consider this for the British economy? It seems a policy position blinded by historic political tribalism rather than logic. At the least, should the current crop of privatisations not be halted until a detailed study, a full life-cycle benefit analysis of state or public/mutual ownership of infrastructure assets has been made? National infrastructure provides income for the state, and doesn’t seem  to benefit as much from competition as, say, restaurants or cheese-makers might do. There is only one direct train line between London and Glasgow but there’s a thousand places you could go for lunch in either city. The concepts of Proudhon, amongst others, of keeping anything that verges towards a monopoly under public control, while allowing free market competition at all other levels seems a helpful hybrid of a free market, and the power of competition, with the benefits of state and public ownership.

"4.6 million people fall into this category, and the statistics show we are working longer, for less money, than ever – and with no welfare safety net."

And what of that strange empty space in welfare – the self-employed and microbusiness?  Corbyn referenced this in his campaign and it’s odd that the small, micro-business end of the economy has been so ignored by Labour until now. Without PAYE a self-employed worker is entitled to no statuary sick pay and no holiday pay. I spoke last week with a friend who runs a catering business in North London – he's just had twins, and with no statutory pay and huge work demands sees selling his company and getting a regular job as the only way to be a non-absent father. We’re stuck, relative to the rest of the working economy, in a hand-to-mouth existence – waiting on unpaid invoices or unpredictable work patterns means you can go from being comfortable to counting your pennies as you trek the aisles of Lidl in  a few weeks. It’s near-impossible to borrow money or get a mortgage. 4.6 million people fall into this category, and the statistics show we are working longer, for less money, than ever – and with no welfare safety net.

I mention this only to illustrate one of countless areas that are of concern to left and right – another example is the government's market restrictions on the wind industry which is making it uncompetitive against the rest of Europe – and where Labour could offer something new that appeals across the political spectrum.

So to those Labour MPs, members and staff who hadn’t expected Corbyn in place this long and are sweating he might never go, please consider how we the public see the job you are tasked with: it’s little short of trying to envision and begin to shape the future we all want to live in 20 years from now. Who leads Labour's general election campaign in 2020 seems a much less important question.

Indeed, why – after the crash, after Piketty, Cop21 Paris & two election defeats, and amidst the world's most rapid period of technical growth and network connectivity – should any other question be asked, beyond how do we get to a better world? How does politics work best now?

One that’s open and participatory, clean and green, that’s free and safe, where child hunger or discrimination are viewed as unacceptable anywhere in the world. A place where machines turn out not to be a job-killing nightmare, but a way to let us have more time for relaxing, being with family, learning, creativity and health. Where 100% renewable energy makes growth in digital innovation and the online economy sustainable and ecologically non-harmful. 

Neoliberalism, as analysed by Piketty and so forth, will not get us there. What will? This is Labour's task. Coyrbyn's three policy pillars as they seem to have emerged – of anti-austerity, bottom-up democracy and a more ethical, peace-making foreign polcy – seems a decent first step, while the group of experts – from Piketty to Pettifor – assembled to advise shadow-chancellor John McDonnell offer just the sort of expertise desperately needed.

But if the party wastes this time squabbling and thinking only of an election nearly five years away, in a different world to this one, then it will become less and less relevant. The splits that have defined Greece, Spain and Portugal's new left will become more appealing, and new members - like my Dad, who has just rejoined the Labour Party after 30 years - will step away. However, answer the question – with us, who are trying to answer it too – and Labour, the left, and indeed our society and economy – could be reborn.