Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative party conference on Wednesday was full of hot air and tediously empty phrases. And yet, amid all the bluster, there was something else in the mix: change.
It was entirely unsubstantiated and undeliverable. It came from the leader of a party that not only caused the country’s past and present hardships, but is also bereft of actual policies to tackle them. But still, the sense of change burst out of Johnson’s dramatic statement: “We’re going to deal with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before, and I mean the long-term structural weakness in the UK economy.”
What the prime minister tapped into is the public appetite – yes, even among Conservative voters – for big, systemic change of the sort that only leftists usually talk about. That much is clear from new polling by Opinium for the grassroots group New Economy Organisers Network (I occasionally do media-training work for them). It shows the public skews far more to the left than the Labour leadership imagines, judging by Keir Starmer’s positioning at his own party conference last week. There is 57% support for a four-day week, 70% support for rent caps, 69% for a universal basic income, 63% favour increasing sick pay, 68% back a wealth tax, and a majority want the government to finance the transition to low-carbon heating and upgrade insulation in homes.
Demand for bold action shouldn’t surprise us. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the terrible cost of a crumbling welfare state and a workforce that cannot afford to be sick. Many of our society’s most important workers are still paid the least, while dealing with the worst working conditions. Alongside the effects of Covid-19, we’re seeing the terrible consequences of not tackling the climate emergency in more frequent floods, wildfires and hurricanes across the world. Meanwhile, an economic system that tolerates insecure jobs, spiralling living costs and plunging wages is intolerable for everyone forced to work within it. The moment requires big, bold policies.
What’s more surprising is that the Conservative leader seems to get this – albeit emptily, rhetorically – while the self-styled moderates leading Labour do not. The party’s current reluctance to champion progressive policy comes despite Labour gaining electoral ground in 2017 on a patently left platform and in the face of a report on the 2019 defeat put together from a broad spectrum of views, which stated that leftwing policies were not the problem. At some point you have to wonder if it isn’t concern for electoral popularity so much as blinkered ideology that is driving Labour’s centrist-throwback approach.
Even more bewildering is that Labour is stuck in a 1990s mode of tinkering around the edges of a market that knows best, just as progressive parties from the US to Germany to Norway are shifting leftwards – economically at least – and winning. After all, if a long-time moderate such as Joe Biden can commit to radical spending plans, surely Starmer can follow suit? In discussion with Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell last week, the leftwing former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders explained why the US president had opted to work with the socialist movement within the Democrat party: “He was prepared to think big, not small, and he understood the only way we bring people into the political process is by talking about the pain that they are now experiencing. We cannot continue to ignore that.” We are witnessing a global left realignment, tapping into a public clamour for economic overhaul: there is a great opportunity for big and important change, but Labour is missing it.
Political commentators often remark that people like ideas from the left, but won’t vote for them once shown the price tag. This snarky theory pushes the fallacy that costed, popular policies are inevitably unaffordable. Strangely, it’s never reeled out over support for entirely unbudgeted proposals, such as more immigration controls – even when the actual, crippling cost of ending freedom of movement is staring right at us in the form of a fuel crisis, staffing shortages and empty supermarket shelves. But this tendency to dismiss viable, progressive economic redistribution as unworkable simply perpetuates the sense that real change will never come, while leaving the way clear for a chauvinist right to scapegoat migrants instead.
Such fatalism over progressive economics is a terrible fuel to pump into our political system. It destroys faith in democracy and promotes nativists and authoritarians. And if Labour does not harness the public demand for bold economic change, the populist right will. Boris Johnson already has.