The past few weeks of British politics have been very strange indeed. As one of the hottest summers on record drew to a close, a wave of militant strike action propelled union leaders on to the national stage for the first time in decades. A new mass movement to combat the cost of living crisis attracted tens of thousands of supporters within days. With Britain facing an imminent recession, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng announced tax cuts for the rich in a “fiscal event” that felt like a surreal exercise in looting the country.
It’s clear that nobody in the political mainstream is offering solutions that are remotely up to the task of dealing with the climate crisis, the imminent recession or the spiralling costs of energy bills and other basic essentials. The new Conservative leadership has a policy agenda that would have seemed like satire or science fiction in the 1980s, while Labour has become so preoccupied with its factional war against the left that it seems not to care that Jeremy Corbyn’s core policy programme always enjoyed broad popular support.
Both frontbenches have put forward wholly inadequate proposals that come nowhere close to resolving Britain’s fundamental problems. Corporations, developers, landlords, banks and their respective shareholders have been accumulating power and wealth at the expense of every other social constituency since the end of the 1970s. As a result, almost every institution, from the House of Commons to the local primary school, has been hollowed-out, starved of resources and lacks the authority to fulfil its social purpose. Younger generations have been left with a future far more grim than the past their parents enjoyed.
The sense of drift and perpetual crisis this has created is not a novel phenomenon. It has been developing at least since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when politicians, opinion-makers, thinktanks and lobbyists first began to lose their ability to secure support for the policy agenda that had defined the preceding two decades in the UK and US. Until the financial crisis, public complacency had been bought largely with the promise of private luxury. The public were only ever partially content with neoliberalism, and only content with it at all as long as cheap credit and cheap manufactured goods from China could guarantee them a relatively luxurious lifestyle.
From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, politicians and opinion-shapers became increasingly detached from the lived experience of most voters and workers and increasingly committed to pushing forward a deregulatory agenda, with only slight variations in attitudes to issues such as public spending and social liberalisation. The “professionalisation” of politics in the 1980s and 1990s, documented by political scientists such as Peter Allen and Ron Formisano, saw PR consultants such as George Stephanopoulos and Peter Mandelson achieve unprecedented levels of influence over policy and strategy.
Of course there were significant differences between the policies of Tony Blair and David Cameron, but they shared many fundamental assumptions about what could be changed and what couldn’t. The most consistent assumption was that voters should be treated primarily as consumers rather than as citizens or workers. They should get to choose their schools and hospitals, but have little say over how those services are funded or run. They should be incentivised by the tax, benefit and banking systems to behave like aspirational entrepreneurs, rather than improving their lot through collective institutions such as unions.
After 2008, the number of people who could still be offered ever-expanding overdrafts and relatively affordable mortgages began to shrink. It has been contracting ever since. This hasn’t stopped our politicians from clinging on to an outmoded worldview. The right wing of the Labour party spent most of the Corbyn years in a state of apoplectic panic at the thought of a social democratic government being elected. Now that they’ve effectively neutralised the left, at least in England, what other solutions do they have to offer? Labour has been doing well in the polls against a Tory government in meltdown, but Keir Starmer and his allies seem unable to follow the example of Joe Biden, who has at least tried to bring the progressive left on side and offer it some hope of meaningful social reform. In the UK, while the Tories are stuck in the 1980s, Labour seems stuck in an imaginary 1990s. This doesn’t bode well for any prospective government.
The historical moment in which most of these politicians grew up is clearly over. One of the defining features of that period was the marginalisation of the organised left and the labour movement, and the general timidity of almost all union leaders. But the huge popularity of the Enough is Enough campaign, and union leaders like Dave Ward and Mick Lynch, shows those days are gone. In Sharon Graham, the leader of Unite, a major British union has arguably the most militant leader since Arthur Scargill. The historical conditions for a significant shift towards a more progressive and redistributive politics have not been this favourable for decades.
Yet despite the upswell of public support for striking workers, the Labour leadership has chosen to pursue the votes of conservative, home-owning retirees who switched to the Tories in 2019. While it is true that their votes are particularly valuable in our absurdly unrepresentative electoral system, Labour is playing a dangerous game by distancing itself from these dynamic social forces. The party has explicitly turned its back on all forms of union militancy and on the movement that Corbyn’s leadership inspired. That movement generated many innovative policy ideas, all of which could contribute to resolving our current crises, but none of which are taken seriously by Starmer or his team. The leadership’s recent attempts to scrap a motion in support of a “Green New Deal” from the annual Labour national conference is merely the latest example of this turn.
At a time when radical solutions have never been more in demand, when organised labour is on the march and more popular than it has been for a generation, there is every chance that more dangerous ideas will find an audience if none of these radical demands are met. The last time Britain experienced a comparable sense of dislocation and drift, it opened the door to the authoritarianism of Margaret Thatcher’s first parliamentary term. If demands for progressive change continue to be obstructed by a political class that can only react to such demands with panic, derision and hostility, then disillusioned voters are likely to turn to far more dangerous forms of populism.
Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams are the authors of Hegemony Now, published by Verso.