Amid the furore over selections, leadership rules and the party’s democracy review, another crucial area for the party is attracting worryingly little attention. Labour have only made a couple of big policy announcements this year which come across as very much preliminary ideas. Proposals like McDonnell’s planned wage-earner funds and free bus passes for the young are exceptional policies, but they are also pretty much the only ones of their kind to be announced since autumn 2017.
There are sure to be a raft of new policies at this year’s conference and they will likely set the tone of the next Labour manifesto. They will be decisive in establishing whether Labour’s direction is the populist reinterpretation of social democracy, seen in For The Many, Not The Few, or that plus some more tenacious socialist-inspired goals.
The ownership fund proposals recently set out by McDonnell suggest that the party are seeking to go for the latter option, but the need to also flesh out existing policies like the National Education Service could well tempt the party to stick to familiar grounds. From the outside this looked to be the approach during the period when Labour was at its lowest in the polls, effectively reheating old policies from the Miliband era. I’d guess that this was not a coincidence. Corbyn’s popularity has repeatedly peaked and troughed along the lines of how strident, or cautious, the party’s agenda has been and there is a clear lesson there.
The exact flavour of a more bold approach isn’t immediately obvious, but there are many good places to start. One is the Preston Model, which offers the beginnings of a tangible approach, with the city’s local authority currently championing co-operatives, insourcing and more community-oriented accountable forms of economic activity. It offers a vision of services and utilities that are directly accountable at the local level and in which ordinary people can participate. This is in clear contrast to the older bureaucratic model of nationalisation established in the post-war era and embraced by many centrist Conservatives from the ’40s to the ’70s.
Another is the, perhaps inadvertent, digging up of some of the ideas and thought around Bennism, with a renewed focus on industrial democracy, taming big finance and predatory lending and co-operative economic policies. Within them, they contain the realisation that orthodox social democracy has, typically, failed to deal with the feelings of relative powerless experienced by the many. These ideas sit well with the ideas flourishing in Preston, even though some of them won’t attract that much enthusiasm from Corbynsceptic Members of Parliament.
The party should also find solace in the public repeatedly showing an appetite for economic policies which were unthinkable four or five years ago. The public would prefer most basic services and utilities to be taken out of private ownership, from electricity and gas to the defence and aerospace industries. Past polling showed a surprising openness to pay ratios between top and bottom earners and an unexpected interest in Universal Basic Income as a policy. For these reasons it should be obvious that the party can afford to choose to be bold, for the sake of delivering root and branch change for working class people this would be the right choice.
From fostering the blossoming of a pretty vast co-operative sector, to laying out plans for publicly owned utilities run along participatory democratic lines or turning toward the unaccountability of finance, there is a wealth of ideas out there. Putting them forward and discussing them is necessary to pursue the left’s mission, and to prevent internal issues from continuingly dominating.
Labour can choose between the dream of a better world represented by the 1945 manifesto and the Bevanite platform of the 1950s or, instead, the more cautious demands of social democracy. Both are good, but while we stand at a critical juncture, boldness and tenacity will be critical. Labour can choose to read the public mood, build on its gains and offer an inspiring alternative.