With Boris Johnson, the Rules Have Changed. Now Labour’s Leadership Must Step Up

by Aaron Bastani

2 August 2019

Kevin Tynan Bowe/Flickr

For the first time since 2015, Jeremy Corbyn faces a Tory leader who understands the political zeitgeist. While Theresa May was always destined to be a one-issue prime minister, a supposedly safe pair of hands to clean up the mess she inherited, Boris Johnson is a political brand – TV persona first, policy-maker second. 

You don’t need a Tatler subscription to see the former Etonian is congruent with a genre of politics which is now mainstream. What’s more, his strengths dovetail with the limits of the Corbyn project. While the maths suggests the Tories will struggle to win a majority in any general election, Johnson does have a vision – and unlike Theresa May and David Cameron he views the Brexit vote as a cultural moment as much as a political revolt.

This is precisely the terrain where Labour has been weakest. While its default economism has proven powerful – think anti-austerity, scrapping fees and nationalising utilities in 2017 – its theory of change is limited to getting a socialist into Downing Street and moving the levers of Whitehall. There are notable exceptions to this, such as the call for workers to own equity in larger firms and regional investment banks, but these remain ancillary. 

Such a tendency also explains why the party hasn’t made more of the Preston Model, something which should have been central to its message in May’s local elections. Small business owners respond positively when the concept is explained to them, indeed the most common refrain I’ve been met with is “why don’t we do that already?”. Even if you don’t immediately win councils on the back of such policy – which you might – campaigning on a platform of municipal socialism would shift the terrain of local politics away from dog faeces and bins to include work, ownership and regional inequality. At its best this is precisely what Corbynism has achieved in recent years, and yet here it hesitates. Alongside its theory of change, this is because its policy agenda reflects the origins of the Corbyn leadership: an anti-austerity movement which began in 2010. While such an approach is sensible (after all the British state is highly centralised, and austerity remains ongoing despite 120,000 ‘excess deaths’) – Johnson’s ascent means socialists now need to go further. Much further.

It’s a similar story with the ambivalence surrounding constitutional reform. While it’s true that such concerns are normally marginal, and irrelevant to the broader public, these are not normal times. ‘Take Back Control’, the central message of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum, remains open to interpretation, while arguments around self-government and sovereignty have been entirely subverted by an anti-democratic, right wing agenda. What’s more, the fragmenting of the union has yet to find a holistic response from an institutionally powerful left. With Scotland drifting off from Westminster, Stormont closed for business and support for independence reaching record levels in Wales, you’d think a party potentially months from power would have a plan. And yet no.

By ‘plan’, I don’t mean a communications strategy, waffle about a nebulous set of ‘British values’ or the union being inherently progressive. Rather I mean a programme relevant to an electorate increasingly aware that the political as well as economic status quo is disintegrating. The rise of nationalism is well known – but dismay at existing institutions is overwhelming, with only 16% of the public thinking the House of Lords is fine as it is. And Labour’s plan to take politics back to the people? That must wait for a constitutional convention once they are in office. While this is better than nothing, it feels like plugging a gap rather than taking an opportunity.

Compare this to the embryonic politics of ‘Johnsonism’. More than an ideology or proposed set of solutions adapted to Britain’s crises, it should be understood as nothing more than a sui generis style of politics: public bonhomie, strict media management, policy by right wing clique. Importantly for Labour, however, it is also attended with a united front bench and a supportive chancellor who, unlike Philip Hammond, will spend large sums of money. Typical of right wing populists, Johnson presents himself as a man of action and decision, and because this is now combined with a proclivity to open the purse strings, Labour can’t evade the bigger questions on the future of the British state, economy and its future in Europe. In the background, the Brexit party presents itself as an anti-establishment insurgent, while the Liberal Democrats have rebranded as the party of change. Facing such conditions, Labour can’t repeatedly announce policies like water renationalisation – as welcome as that is. There’s a lot to be excited about if Labour gets the next six months right, but right now excitement is in short supply. This is partially a result of the holding pattern adopted since 2017, and the assumption that Labour is a government in waiting. That made sense for a year, but now it doesn’t.

We know Johnson has an eye for infrastructure as a means of promoting himself as a moderniser. The announcement of HS3 last weekend tells us this will be a likely feature of his premiership. Equally, expect moderate changes to things like Universal Credit as with the much-vaunted cap on immigration – which Johnson jettisoned on his first day on the job. There is even talk of drug decriminalisation, while throwing red meat to the party base in announcing 20,000 new police officers. 

Labour’s present agenda, tailor-made for the May and Cameron era, is yet to adapt to this. Remarkably there has been no voter registration drive since 2017, nor a sustained effort to expand the party’s membership. Four years after Corbyn took power it’s unclear to most newer members precisely what they can do to help. Meanwhile those members running for council positions are generally the same as before, with many unaware of what the role entails and the fact they can even stand. Progress with political education, which should go hand-in-hand with party democratisation, is glacial.

In the leadership’s defence, success on these fronts – while fighting elections and overseeing the left’s consolidation within the party –  would always be challenging in the febrile atmosphere concocted by the Labour right and media. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from that – such elements are generally best ignored. Going further, rather than saying it is down to members, which it is, the leadership should robustly defend party democratisation as a necessary precursor to reforming the British state and economy.

Until the necessary confidence to enact the above maintains, there will be a tendency towards ‘Miliband plus’ – a left variant of what might have been had Corbyn’s predecessor triumphed in 2015. To mitigate this, the leadership must do more to drive party democracy, embrace constitutional reform and take its economic agenda beyond an oppositional footing. An obvious means for that final aspect is the party creating its own ‘moonshots’ – mission-oriented goals like full decarbonisation within 15 years, free universal internet and bus services and the guarantee that anyone who needs a mental health assessment will get one within a month. These could redefine the space of what is politically possible and expose Johnson’s ersatz Keynesianism for what it is. 

If nothing else, the last week is proof that the magic money tree does indeed exist. This should be good news for the Labour leadership, but only if they move – and quickly. 

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