Labour's Path Is A Difficult, But Absolutely Necessary, One

29/09/2016 17:23
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I made a very deliberate decision to become involved in politics. For a very long time I'd wanted to do something that had an impact, something that helped. For a time, that was religion: I went on missionary trips, did some volunteering and prayed a fair old bit. Yet it never felt like enough: there was just too much wrong with the world and I couldn't stand it. I became an agnostic and then no longer had that outlet. It slowly dawned on me that if we were ever going to do more than slap a plaster on the world's wounds, we needed to tackle these issues by the root. Begrudgingly, I began to accept this meant getting involved in politics.

This rather late revelation, however, has meant that for the whole time I've been politically engaged, the Tories have held power. A desire for investment in public services, substantial action on climate change and a more equal economy were fringe opinions. I found a home in the Green Party, a party that I still have huge respect for, but my choices were stark: support a party that could only return one MP, or join a party welded to a system that propagated inequality and climate change. Then along came Jeremy Corbyn.

The man is far from perfect. From appearances on Iranian TV channels that are complicit in torture, to a string of leadership gaffes, Corbyn has plenty of flaws. I do not see Corbyn as a messianic figure leading us to the utopia of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but I do recognise he has started both a cultural shift in British politics and a movement to go with it. I did not leave the Greens when he was first elected a year ago because a movement has to be about more than one man, otherwise demagoguery follows. Following increased majority support from the membership, and huge influxes of new members, however, it's become clear to me that this movement is now the most significant one the British left has seen in decades, and represents the last, best hope my generation has of seeing an equal and sustainable world.

Corbyn wants to renationalise the railways: nationalised railways are common across Europe, would give us a chance to reduce soaring train prices for commuters and are supported by a majority of the public. He wants to scrap Trident, potentially saving up to £100 billion, taking a brave step towards a world without weapons of mass destruction and joining 99% of countries around the world that don't have any either (including Germany, Canada and Japan). He wants to scrap tuition fees, liberating students from unsustainable debt and eradicating damaging marketisation from our universities, something some of our closest neighbours (Scotland and Germany) have done recently too. He is willing to call out a biased media, challenge an entrenched political and financial elite and take the radical action needed to stop planetary catastrophe.

There's nothing impossible about any of these proposals: the money is there and in fact numerous societies around the world are doing them already. It is, rather, a question of political will. We could massively invest in renewables but choose instead to pour money into bad-for-consumers-bad-for-the-planet projects like Hinkley Point C and subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of almost £10 billion every single year. We could enforce a living wage across the country and clamp down on tax avoidance, but instead allow companies to pay poverty wages and force our welfare bill up. We could scrap Trident and give the money to the NHS instead, but we don't, because these things aren't political priorities. The money exists in our system to tackle the problems we face, it's just in the wrong hands and our leaders lack the will to change that. Jeremy, at least, is willing to tackle these vested interests.

Political will also means, of course, that we need to bring the public with us. It doesn't mean, however, what this is often mistranslated as: constantly capitulating to public opinion. Political parties are one of the key institutions in British society for shaping public opinion: when parties stop trying to do this and instead try to chase public opinion, society stands still. On top of this, evidence from my field of research, political engagement, suggests that the big decline in voter turnout between '92 and 2001 coincided with an increasingly market-style, centralised bureaucracy developing in the main parties, in which media discipline and the party line became sacrosanct, leading to decreasing ideological difference between parties (based off electoral calculation rather than genuine passion) and a sense that politicians and parties weren't being 'genuine'. In short, when parties aren't fighting passionately for a policy, but instead saying what they think is most likely to win them a vote, the general culture it breeds is disillusionment. Our role as a party is to debate, convince and challenge, not to go with what is popular.

For some of Corbyn's policies, as we have seen, the public is already there: nationalised railways, a more progressive tax system, investment in health and education and job creation are all well-supported by sizable majorities of the British public. Other areas of policy are less so, and both the party and the leader are not doing well in the polls. Despite the protestations of many on the left, this is not solely to do with the coup: Labour MP's tearing into the party on national TV for months on end has certainly not helped, but things weren't great before-hand either, and if we're to turn this around we need to first recognise these facts.

This doesn't mean we abandon these difficult conversations: it means we embrace them. To resurrect Corbyn and Labour in the polls and to convince the public of some of our more controversial policies, we need a narrative. Policy is great, but voters very rarely vote based on policy. We need a narrative that ties it all together, that explains the story of Britain so far and provides a vision for what Britain might look like under a Corbyn-led Labour government, a vision that speaks to people but also exudes confidence and competence.

This has to tap into emotions and values: these are the life-blood of political decision making. A good start would be in reclaiming a sense of English nationalism: history is replete (to differing degrees) of examples, from James Connolly to Nicola Sturgeon of a more inclusive form of national sentiment being welded to progressive politics, rather than the narrow, exclusive form UKIP espouse and that by refusing to engage with it the left have ceded to them. Post-Brexit the political landscape is highly malleable and there are a lot of angry and disillusioned voters out there: offering a positive form of nationalism, one that takes pride in Britain's proud history, from the innovation and freedom that birthed the Industrial Revolution, to the political tradition that makes Westminster the mother of parliaments to the history of strong welfare provision and free health care, as well as a diverse and welcoming country is one of many ways Labour can provide that attractive narrative.

Welding this sort of positive telling of British nationalism, to help garner support for investment in public services, job creation schemes and a less-exclusionary rhetoric when it comes to immigration is but one example of many ways Labour can sell radical policy in a relatable way. And it's perfectly doable: look at opinion polls on a variety of issues across British history and you'll see public opinion can be changed on almost any policy, sometimes quite rapidly.

Building on Corbyn's reputation as a trust-worthy politician, one who has the smallest expenses claims and speaks his mind, can be important in reviving him in the polls: trust plays a big role in civic society, political engagement and willingness to support government intervention. On its own though, this wont be enough: Labour needs to take on the economic dogma paraded in parliament and the press pulpit if we are to convince voters that Corbyn and the party are economically competent, a key task that Labour under Miliband has made harder by ceding ground to austerity advocates and the Tory narrative of the recession. None of this is easy, but it is absolutely vital.

It is vital because of an important point moderates have failed to grasp: we no longer have the luxury of moderation. Three gigantic problems that face the world: declining political engagement, spiralling inequality and escalating climate change, all unfortunately come with a rapidly diminishing time frame in which for us to act. When the richest 67 people in the world own as much wealth as the rest of us combined, when the planet is set for nearly double the amount of warming as scientific consensus deems bearable for human societies and electorates across the western world are increasingly hostile to their governments, moderation just isn't going to cut it. We desperately need a government willing to tackle the stranglehold a few a have been allowed to wield over power and wealth, and use the resources gained from this to reduce inequality and halt climate change. We have no choice: we have to win these arguments, and we have to win them now.