Watching the Labour leadership debate at this year’s Fabian Summer Conference, I was reminded of the HBO mega-series Game of Thrones. The battle for the kingdom of Westeros may be all-consuming to the rival leaders who will do anything to sit on the Iron Throne. But as viewers, we know that whoever wins this battle is about to face a much bigger challenge. For over the horizon, armies with fire-breathing dragons are massing. And to the north, the White Walkers are crossing the frozen wastes, their blue eyes glowing in the night. Winter, as they say, is coming. And while the great families of Westeros are preoccupied by the game of thrones, these threats loom ever larger.
I am not suggesting for a moment that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party are zombies who threaten to kill the English and steal their souls. Or that we are about to see a warrior princess land in Parliament Square on the back of a dragon (unless, of course, she has given the Metropolitan Police at least six days’ notice of her intention to hold a protest march).
No: the underlying message of Game of Thrones is simpler and more troubling.
We live in an unstable world, where the parochial concerns of British politics – both left and right – are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Labour may concentrate on domestic battles over marginal tax rates or school governance, but these issues are framed by the global challenges of poverty, inequality and political violence. Whole populations are on the move, some coming into the global marketplace for jobs and goods, others crashing out of it into war and starvation.
And all this is framed by the threat of man-made climate change. The kingdom of Westeros may ultimately be consumed by fire from the south or ice from the north. Global warming or global cooling: both will have devastating consequences for our planet. The candidates for the Labour leadership did not have much to say about the war for the Earth’s future. But this dwarfs all our other challenges, both domestic and global.
It is always very tempting to focus on battles. Most of the candidates agreed that Labour lost the election because it lost the battle for economic credibility. This sounds sensible. Of course Labour must be trusted on the economy if it is to win elections, and it must win elections if it is to win the important battles for a fairer and more cohesive society.
But economic credibility is not the same as having the right economic analysis. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. Credibility exists in the eye of the beholder. And beholders see what they want to see. Just as the political leaders of Westeros lack the courage to lift their eyes to the horizon, so our political leaders find it hard to engage with the reality of a planet where we may all have to adjust our expectations before we can find a sustainable way of living together.
The real challenge for Labour is not to establish economic ‘credibility’ with voters who do not want to think about these issues. It is to explain how we are going to bring a quarter of the world’s population out of absolute poverty without accelerating climate change. Unless you can answer that question, you cannot set out a credible vision for the British economy, education or immigration. The British economy will be buffeted by global forces – and the more unstable the world, the less predictable these forces, with potentially devastating consequences for our children and our society.
Labour has had the most positive impact on Britain and the world when it has built a new consensus – around health, welfare and education in the mid-20th century; around equalities and human rights at the turn of the twenty-first. The party must now build a new consensus around the need to address the drivers of global inequality and climate change. There is no point chasing credibility based on an inward-looking and short-term Conservative analysis. Labour will never win on these terms, and society will suffer.
On 12 September, either Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall will win the battle for the party leadership. On 7 May 2020, they might just win the battle for Number 10. But this victory will be meaningless unless they can answer the big questions facing us. If they are to win the battle for economic credibility, whoever leads Labour over the next five years must first show that they are able to win the war for our long-term future.