“The peace must be won.” So stated Labour’s 1945 manifesto – a radical document, which introduced many of the social provisions we rely on today.
As the manifesto’s title, Let Us Face the Future, implied, its content was about how to rebuild after the second world war. Clement Attlee’s prospective government promised to right the social wrongs exposed by war – creating something better on ground that had been razed.
It would be too portentous to compare our current predicament to 1945. But the UK in 2021 faces a huge economic challenge as it recovers from the Covid-19 crisis – not to mention the fallout from a hard Brexit. There is a clear sense that something good must ultimately emerge.
Labour’s job under Keir Starmer is to seize this, from January onwards. He must promote an agenda which shares the hardship fairly – and explain in practical terms how a better society can be created afterwards. This will demand radical progressive policies on wealth inequality, regional inequality, housing, climate change, migration and automation – to name a few. With each there will be a chance to make fresh arguments in a new context.
Yet seeing our way through to these arguments – and being taken seriously – requires a major re-think about how we on the left approach politics. Attlee’s way of seeing the world – which allowed Labour to deliver the welfare state and the NHS – was the antithesis of the oppositionist, short-sighted and dogmatic nature of the Corbyn years.
The architects of the 1945 government avoided gestures. They knew you had to ‘stitch together’ coalitions – as we have to now. They understood that there was no policy which ‘the 99 per cent’ unanimously supported.
Three self-destructive instincts afflict the contemporary left, and stop us doing the same. The first of these views the political spectrum as a moral spectrum, with the left at the virtuous end. The second assumes the world’s problems are authored by a conniving ‘elite’. The third falsely recalls a spirit of ‘original socialism’, which modern life cannot live up to.
Even with Starmer in charge, these instincts hobble us. They stop Labour from understanding its opponents, understanding power or understanding change. They make us appear backward-looking and unserious. They hand the ‘natural party of government’ mantle to the Tories. In their worst form, each carries an extremist potential.
To create a better future after the coronavirus crisis, we need to ditch these modes of thought. There are a number of things the left should start 2021 by accepting: First, we live in a democracy and this demands pluralism. People have complex identities and life experiences, and their politics are informed by this. There are a range of respectable ideals people strive for as a result, and understanding this relies on giving others the benefit of the doubt.
It is also fair to say that few policies are inherently moral. Even if they are right at a given time, they must always be judged in context.
Those of us on the left must also remember that society’s problems are not usually deliberately authored. The power held by democratic governments, the media and big business is finite. If you cannot see someone pulling the strings, they probably are not.
To achieve our values, then, objectivity is more important than blind faith. And the left must also realise that although there have been advances and setbacks, there was no moment of ‘original socialism’ which was innately superior to today. Instead, the modern world relies on cooperation with other countries. We cannot cherry-pick the elements of the interconnected world which suit us. And if we derive our passion solely from fighting an enemy, an elite or a looming dystopia, then we stand for nothing.
Accepting the above makes us more, not less, likely to achieve left-wing goals. These points ought to be self-evident. They reflect both observable reality and the spirit of common sense and tolerance which you find in the average pub or café. You cannot function in a democracy without acknowledging these truths.
Yet they have come, in recent years, to seem wildly controversial in certain progressive circles – where it’s become fashionable, for example, to claim that ‘the mainstream media’ or ‘the deep state’ subvert our collective will.
In reviewing John Bew’s 2017 biography of Attlee, the US columnist Adam Gopnik wrote a passage which is worth quoting in full.
“The true progressive giants are radicals of the real – those who accept that democracy implies pluralism, and that a plural society is self-evidently made up of many people and kinds, only a few of them truly exploitative and criminal, most just pursuing their own version of the good life as tradition and conviction has offered it to them.”
Keir Starmer’s leadership so far has been true to the approach described. To change the country as fundamentally as Attlee did after the war, Labour as a whole must embrace this spirit of pluralism.