From the archive: Labour’s emerging argument for people power
An interesting article in Rupert Murdoch’s Times on Wednesday from Jeremy Corbyn in which the Labour leader argued that ‘Power to the people can tackle climate change’ (£).
It points towards the kinds of arguments that Labour should be making to carve out a positive and distinctive economic, social and political alternative, attack the current Government, and move beyond the kind of reactive and defensive stance it’s been in since Corbyn was elected.
First, it’s good to see Labour’s Corbyn attempting to engage with the mainstream media. It isn’t the best written piece (as one commenter put it sarcastically: “I can’t make head or tail of this article. I’ve read it twice. Perhaps the Times can provide a cogent summary?”). But it does contain the seeds of some important arguments that Labour could and should make more use of.
Here’s a taste of the article, in which Corbyn argues that Britain must empower citizen suppliers and direct private investment into green technology:
“[W]e must use our imaginations to ask: what would our world look like if we allow global temperatures to rise by 2-3C? …Events such as the flooding in Cumbria this week will become more frequent… Moreover, if we do not turn back this government’s austerity drive, our weakened public services will not be able to cope with the consequences of such events. Despite Cameron’s pledge that “money is no object” in dealing with flooding, savage cuts to public services and flood defences have left people vulnerable. Yet again, this government has failed to deliver on its promises.”
This is good: linking austerity to what people are experiencing today, and holding the Government to account for broken promises.
“We must imagine this world not because it is a remote possibility, but because unless world leaders are more ambitious in their aims – both in Paris and beyond – this will be the world that humanity has created for itself. …However perilously close we may be to this world, we must also imagine the world we want to create. That world is a more equal world, a more just world, and a world in which where you live is based on the quality of the air you breathe.”
Although it might read as a bit touchy-feely to some, again this is good: many of our political leaders do lack ambition and long-term vision – it’s one of the major reasons for people’s disaffection with the political class. Here’s Corbyn (or his writer) using what may be a common negative perception of him – a bit of a dreamer, a bit of an idealist – as a strength.
“It is a world in which businesses are producing products and services we cannot yet imagine, but with lower energy and operating costs. …To do that, we need a state that invests. We need an entrepreneurial, nimble state that neither wages war with markets nor bows in their presence, but shapes them. It is the rules set out by the state that allows markets to flourish. This means we can shape competitive markets and shape the goods they produce, so that we can all start making the right choices for our future.”
Okay, despite the abstract/academic tone, this is important and suggests the developing influence of Corbyn’s group of economic advisors.
Firstly, it reinforces Labour’s developing argument about ‘investment vs. austerity’, in this case the potential for green jobs and industry that the current Government is throwing away.
Secondly, shaping markets represents a real ‘third way’ (to use a much discredited term) that Labour should do much more to exploit. A much, much broader range of audiences – left, right and centre – get that deregulated markets aren’t delivering what we want. Instead of prattling on about ‘neoliberalism’ (and sounding like you’re waiting around for the end of capitalism), let’s talk about the need for better markets and how the Tories are ideologically unable in creating them. Linking this to practical outcomes – cheaper energy in this case – is also crucial.
“But governments should not be the only actors on the stage; they cannot achieve this world alone. All of us must remake the material world, together. We must be confident in the technology we have and the technology we can invent. We must get organised, harnessing the extraordinary powers of connectivity humanity has developed for itself. All of this must be driven by democracy in the production of energy, following Germany’s lead, in which an energy market previously dominated by four big corporations has been transformed into one with two million citizen-suppliers.”
Here’s another theme that Labour could run on and apply across the economy and society, that of ‘people power’: distributed responses to big, long-term problems (‘we’re all in it together’, indeed).
With David Cameron’s big society having turned to dust (it was always somewhat disingenuous anyway), this theme could help to present Corbyn’s Labour as (another) third way between the Tories’ big business and the old left’s big statism.
Let’s not stop at the localisation of the production and consumption of energy though. Why not public services, in the form of locally-owned public services, social enterprises, mutuals etc? A much more localised economy (why does every high street in Britain have the same chain shops on it)? Housing policy, with local authorities and areas given the resources and powers to create better, stronger communities? And so on. Enough of Tory corporate, state-backed domination and uniformity.
“I was elected on a message of hope. Call for the world you want; do not accept the one you have. This is a world we can create for ourselves: through our collective efforts, through democracy and investment.”
Corbyn here reuses the one line that really stood out from his party conference speech: “You don’t have to take what you’re given.” Optimism is crucial. Left or right, I think voters want and desire a positive vision for the future. Take this further though. Make it real to people in simple, understandable ways. And as with exploiting the public/media perception of Jeremy Corbyn as a bit of an idealist, if you’re seen as an outsider then turn it into a positive: explain how the closed political class has and is failing us, and how you’re different, how you want to break it open.
This could also appeal to the many young people looking for a genuinely new politics that speaks to their futures, not the past.
I’ve been critical of Corbyn’s ability (or apparent interest) in putting forward a positive, distinctive but practical argument recently. Yes, his Times article is too abstract, scattered with the kind of academic intellectual language that afflicts the left and stops it from communicating more clearly. And yet there’s a lot in here (too much for one article) that Labour should build on.
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