Forget incremental change: the left shouldn’t be afraid of thinking big

We have all craved a return to normality during the pandemic. As we emerge from this crisis, it’s tempting to think that big change is the last thing needed right now, and that we should instead be aiming for mere stability. But this analysis ignores the lessons from the events of the last decade. Unrestrained markets produced the financial crisis. A deep sense of our economy failing millions of people led to Brexit. And the effects of Covid-19 have been made significantly worse by the deprivation and inequality that characterise our country.

Each of these crises is a manifestation of underlying political, social and economic problems that have been intensifying for decades. They have each sounded an alarm about the way our economy and society are run, and we must now address their causes.

For this reason, a politics of modest incrementalism won’t meet the demands of the current moment. Through Brexit and the elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the right has sought to appropriate the scale of discontent and the traditional causes of the left: stagnant wages and underinvestment, the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs and regional inequalities.

But what’s needed to address the causes of these problems is in fact a rejection of the very ideas that have caused this discontent: dogmatic faith in markets, deregulation, exploitation masquerading as “flexibility” and the belief that wealth will trickle down. Despite claiming it has changed, the Conservative party is a long way from grasping the political direction or scale of such changes. Tories may say they will address the inequalities that scar our society, but there is a chasm between rhetoric and action. This is where the fight for the future lies.

Como Keir Starmer has rightly said, the left must not tinker around the edges. Though the financial crisis should have marked the end of an era of unfettered free markets, the left has struggled to define what a new settlement should look like or build a majority to get there. The basis of this new majority should be founded on addressing Britain’s deep economic fissures.

Many of the solutions are already out there. A Green New Deal, at scale, and learning from Joe Biden, to tackle the climate emergency, create and sustain millions of jobs and confront the deep injustices we face. A social housing revolution that would build millions of homes in the coming decades. Putting care for young and old people at the centre of our economy and society, with universal childcare and a properly financed social care system. An industrial policy to help business succeed and rewrite the rules of our economy, giving power and voice to workers. A radical devolution of power.

Going big on some of these ideas could offer genuine and transformational change, forming the basis of a new settlement that would allow Labor to build on the great things about our country – and create something better. Writing a new social contract to give everyone a stake and tackle the country’s deep inequalities, putting markets in their place as a servant and not a master, and renewing our democracy. If this sounds ambitious, it is meant to be.

Some will doubt whether you can ever persuade people that we need to have big change. Others will suggest that a more modest playbook is the wise electoral strategy. But this fundamentally misunderstands the challenges that social democratic parties face today compared with in the past. They now have competitors on their left, and those on the right who are seeking to appropriate centre-left economic rhetoric.

It’s only by setting out a bold, radical vision that Labour will speak to people’s experiences. The crises of the last decade have shown that for too many people, the country has not been working. Policies must be believable and credible – but this does not mean we need to sacrifice ambition.

The pandemic has demonstrated our collective sense of compassion and solidarity. It has also exposed a disconnect between these shared values and the reality of how our country is run. It’s time to reconnect the way we organise our economy and society with the values we hold. We can write a profoundly optimistic future as a country if we have the boldness to do so – and if we go big.

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