Lift our heads, look to the horizon, remember what we’re fighting for

Sonny Leong

I was impressed by Keir Starmer’s speech last week, and especially welcomed his recognition of the importance of business working with government to secure the British economy. His plans to provide start-up loans for 100,000 new businesses across every region of the country would unleash the potential of a whole generation of entrepreneurs, stimulating growth in poorer regions and creating jobs where people live, rather than forcing them to migrate to bigger cities for work. 

A Labour Party that aims to strategically invest in business for the long term to improve people’s lives and address regional inequalities, as opposed to throwing billions at unaccountable crony  contracts, is a government-in-waiting. 

Keir has begun to make the necessary changes to the culture, direction and public perception of  Labour, under the incredibly difficult conditions that the pandemic has created during his first year in the role. He must lead the unenviable and incredibly difficult journey back to government, faced with critics both inside and outside the party. 

Jake Richards’ recent article reminded me of how the only Labour leader to win a general  election since 1974 described the brutal grind of the most difficult job in politics – that of leader  of the opposition. “Every day drags,” Tony Blair said. “Every week a fresh anxiety or event or  statement disturbs the careful orchestration of the march from impotence to power.”

As well as facing the daily skirmishes and weekly battles, we in the Labour Party must lift our heads to the horizon and remind ourselves of what we are fighting for, what we are marching towards. What would it feel like to live in a social democratic, progressive Labour Britain in 2030? How would Britain look as we approached 2040, after 15 years of Labour in power?

In 1997, the Conservative Party was further away from power than they have probably ever been and New Labour was riding high. That same year, William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob, published The Sovereign Individual, predicting the information revolution that was about to transform the way in which people, businesses and governments would interact with each other.

Alastair Campbell read it 20 years later and realised how closely it corresponded with the tactics of the powerful and wealthy men behind Vote Leave. The book argues, Campbell says, that for these powerful sovereign individuals “there are huge opportunities from upheaval, and  in particular from the weakening of nation-states, the decline of welfare, the death (as Rees-Mogg wills it) of social democracy”. This is a chilling description of the Brexit that Johnson’s UKIP-tainted Conservative party has just delivered for the nation, the disruptive consequences of which many citizens and businesses are only just beginning to fully understand.

15 years later, in 2012, five right-wing backbench and then little-known Conservative MPs wrote Britannia Unchained, a radical treatise on what they believed was wrong with Britain and the British and after the ‘excesses’ of the New Labour government and the financial crash. They believe that, to become internationally competitive in the 21st century, Britain must become a low-tax, small-state, low-regulation country of self-dependent individuals. The state is always a malign drag, holding back the potential of right-wing economic liberalism. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, the start of the economic salvation of Britain, didn’t go far enough. British people, lazy and work-shy, are “the worst idlers in the world”.

As a Labour supporter, the book makes for unpleasant reading. Why is it important? Because four of its five authors are now some of the most powerful politicians in government. Priti Patel is Home Secretary, Dominic Raab is Foreign Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng runs is Business Secretary and Liz Truss is International Trade Secretary, currently tasked with striking trade deals that will define the relationship of ‘Global Britain’ with the rest of the world.

Their government has not so much walked away from David Cameron’s compassionate conservatism as sprinted willingly onto the toxic ground of division, populism and nationalism long prepared  by UKIP. Boris Johnson has a comfortable majority and ‘got Brexit done’. The Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ who brought down Margaret Thatcher and fatally damaged John Major have their Brexit now. Nostalgic nationalists dressed as patriots, alongside the traditionalists who regret the end (and the truth) of Empire, are igniting Trumpian culture wars between communities.

The English exceptionalists who conflate the piratical ‘might over right’ spirit of the buccaneers and privateers want to build Singapore-on-Thames. Traditional ‘One Nation Tories’, typified by  people like Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, are now on the fringes of their  own party. The right-wing Conservative voices of the European Research Group currently  morphing into the Covid Recovery Group (both names tragically oxymoronic), have the power  and opportunity to reshape the country for a generation.  

The hard-right vision of Britain imagined in The Sovereign Individual and Britannia Unchained has already started to materialise under this Conservative government. There is an urgent need for Labour voices to propose a bold alternative to this neoliberal nightmare.

I am kickstarting this process of ‘red-sky’ thinking by bringing some leading Labour voices  together to imagine what a progressive Labour Britain could look like. It is not enough simply to reject the future Britannia Unchained offers. As we emerge from the pandemic, individuals,  communities and organisations are fundamentally reconsidering the assumptions that have  previously driven our working patterns, lifestyles and measures of success. Labour must be part  of this conversation – listening and leading, asking questions and providing answers.

We need ideas that address the challenges of twenty-first century Britain, not those created to  address a society that fast disappearing into history. Ideas that spring from Labour’s core values,  but appeal way beyond our traditional supporter base. A vision of Britain that inspires people from towns and villages, from demographic groups and regions of the country that have not voted for Labour for more than a decade.

Let’s imagine a Labour Britain that improves the lives of all individuals, not just enriches the  sovereign few. Let’s look to countries other than Singapore for our inspiration. Let’s be brave and radical in seeking out ideas, people and organisations who understand the international and existential challenges that will face the world in the next three decades. 

Let’s create a better, fairer, positive vision of Labour Britain. A shared destination on the horizon to which we can raise our eyes for inspiration on the long, hard journey back to government. And let’s start now.

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