With a general election potentially on the cards, one of the burning questions of British politics is: are progressives ready to take charge?
For the first time in a generation, the UK stands at a political crossroads, with the two major parties separated by a gulf in ideology and values, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour promising a fundamental reordering of politics and the economy. But what would this entail? And how can a radical government stand up to an establishment hostile to any redistribution of wealth and power?
We can attempt to answer these questions by looking at history. From UK governments under Clement Attlee to Margaret Thatcher, as well as foreign governments that have tried to bring about radical change, such as Mitterand in France, Allende in Chile and Syriza in Greece, there are several lessons that Corbyn might want to bear in mind.
For one, winning the election will be just the beginning of Corbyn’s challenges. Labour is promising to set up new public banks, impose rent controls and implement a green industrial strategy. In short, he is promising to radically democratise the economy, transferring power and ownership from asset-rich corporations to ordinary citizens. This will certainly court the ire of fossil fuel companies, property developers, landlords, and the City of London, and ire could easily extend beyond political opposition to economic warfare and capital flight.
The Thatcher revolution is perhaps the most instructive precedent for how a Corbyn government might respond to this reaction. Particularly fascinating is a little-known document called the Ridley Report – essentially the Conservative Party’s battle plan for privatisation. Like Corbyn, Thatcher knew that she would need to face down some of the most powerful interests in the British economy – in her case, the trade unions – if she was to rebuild it in her image. She commissioned detailed plans for how she would wage this war and win – from all-out confrontation with the miners to privatisation “by stealth” (Nicholas Ridley’s words) of popular institutions like the NHS. A Corbyn government will need its own hard-headed power analysis to succeed in implementing its programme.
The next challenge for Corbyn will be to follow through on his promises, something his predecessors know only too well. In 1974, newly-appointed secretary of state for industry Tony Benn met with his top civil servant, Anthony Part. Part said casually, as if it were a statement of the obvious: “I take it you are not going to implement the manifesto.” Benn was taken aback. “You must be joking,” he replied. And yet Part was ultimately proved right, as Benn became an increasingly isolated and embattled figure in Whitehall.
As Benn’s experience illustrates, a Corbyn government will not only face challenges from without, but also from within: the inertia and conservatism of the British state. As this anonymous civil servant has pointed out, the civil service is simply not designed to facilitate radical change – quite the opposite: its key function is to preserve continuity between governments. Many of its top officials are privately educated and have backgrounds in precisely the industries a Corbyn government has promised to take on.
More fundamentally, for decades political processes and personnel have been moulded around Thatcher’s mantra that the market knows best. Policy “evidence” relies heavily on orthodox economic models – the same models which failed to predict the financial crisis and which insist against all empirical evidence that tax cuts for the wealthy will benefit everyone. If a Corbyn government is serious about transforming the country, it will have to begin by transforming the state.
In the face of these hostile forces, a Corbyn government will need more than just its own plans and strategies. It will need to be backed by strong social movements, capable of providing a counterweight to the full force of the British establishment, and of holding it to account when it comes under pressure to water down its agenda.
John McDonnell has said “when we go into government, we all go into government together”. He understands that a Corbyn government cannot succeed simply by pulling the levers of Whitehall from the right over to the left, but rather by spreading power outwards to ordinary people.
The people need to be ready to receive this power. Social movements that have been used to remaining on the fringes of British politics must radically step up their game. We need spaces for popular education and discussion such as that provided by The World Transformed, the annual conference parallel to the Labour Party conference, that is fast becoming the most vibrant forum for left politics in the country. We need grassroots groups capable of reaching out into their communities and building power – like the tenants’ unions who have just forced the banning of no-fault evictions. And we need a pipeline of future leaders from diverse backgrounds, led by those who suffer most from our unjust system – a new cohort of progressive politicians and activists capable of reshaping British politics for a generation.
A few years ago, before Corbyn had been elected, a pro-independence Scottish activist said to me: “The thing you need to realise on the English left is that nobody is coming to save you.” He was right then and he’s right now. The point of the grassroots Labour movement is not to be the foot soldiers that get a Corbyn government elected: it’s the other way around. The point of electing a Corbyn government is to transfer power to citizens and social movements – to genuinely democratise our economy, our politics and our society.
Christine Berry is co-author of ‘People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government’ with Joe Guinan