Corbyn is right to be angry over inequality and global poverty – but Labour will not win by pledging to smash the system


I agree with Jeremy Corbyn – things need to change. This government has failed to deliver for the British people. Wealth concentration and inequality – between generations, genders and parts of this country – are too great. We have created a system which prejudices the strong against the weak, the rich against the poor, the old against the young and the south against the north.

I agree with him that we should strive for transformational change and set ourselves the aspiration of creating a society based on fairness, which works for everyone.

But while I agree with much of the sentiment behind what he says, I fundamentally disagree with the way he presents it.    

In his first campaign speech last month Corbyn set a combative tone. He repeatedly referred to the “rigged system” and the cosy cartel of elites that run the country. Even if this is true, his opening gambit sounded more conspiracy theory than inspirational, more paternalistic than empowering. This approach will not win over the majority of Britons. And I’m sure that the irony of a major political party leader standing up and vowing to take on the establishment was lost on no one.

Rather than relying on such a negative tone, Labour should be setting a new narrative which inspires people to be part of building an aspirational vision for the country and makes them believe they can be an active part of achieving it. This narrative should encourage a shared sense of responsibility and give all people a stake in creating a better society that works for everyone. Yes, it needs to challenge the status quo, but it also needs to paint a clear picture of what we are trying to achieve, build bridges between communities, inspire hope and support businesses and individuals who are exemplary – providing evidence of an alternative way of doing things.

Change will not happen in Britain by breaking the system. No one will vote for a party that offers that. Instead as Oliver Lewis expertly argued for the Fabians, the majority of Britons are small “c” conservative. Most people value security and fairness. We have to bring the people along with our progressive ideas, presenting a coherent vision and moulding the status quo to changed needs.  

One model which can be used to define this vision is the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Adopted by all countries in the world in September 2015, the goals are an ambitious and potentially transformative framework designed to articulate a vision for the type of world we want to build collectively over the next 15 years. They resonate strongly with progressive values and provide an opportunity to radically transform the UK socially, economically and environmentally.

They cover many of the issues Corbyn outlines – poverty, inequality, sustainable production and consumption, decent work, justice, human rights and international tax co-operation – and are an opportunity to bring together in partnership different stakeholders to find joint solutions to highly interdependent issues. They can be a crucial tool in framing the kind of change Labour would like to see and Britain can accept.

For Labour the SDGs also provide an opportunity to highlight how the Conservative government has been failing to meet its own commitments and an opportunity to champion where Labour is already making a difference at national, regional and local level. 

I will always believe that Labour is best for the majority of people in this country – particularly as we experience rapid technological and demographic change which will affect our workplaces, communities and public services. The SDGs are a powerful framework around which to transform our society and build a shared narrative and coherent policy offering in this context.

Politicians have a duty to inspire, challenge and change. A balance needs to be struck between these elements. At present Corbyn’s approach does not achieve this balance. Yes, Labour’s campaign needs to challenge the way we think about the system and the urgency with which we need to tackle the injustice of inequality of wealth and power. Already, we are beginning to see shifts in the way people, businesses and governments think about these issues and their roles and responsibilities internationally. Labour can harness these shifts, seek ways to accelerate them and inspire people to work together in building a better country.

Ultimately, change happens in times of optimism – where people feel inspired by a shared vision, empowered with a sense of responsibility to enact that vision, and trust in the representatives they have elected to support them.

Jessica Toale is an international development specialist and former advisor to two shadow secretaries of state for international development. She is launching a new Fabian Society pamphlet, Our Shared Responsibility: Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in London tonight.

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