Time for Labour to be radical

Keir Starmer’s party lacks an inspiring programme for office. It could learn from the moral clarity that emerged after crises of the past

January 16, 2023
Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour is more dominant in the polls than at any point for at least a quarter of a century, but we are no nearer to knowing what it will do differently in office. Keir Starmer’s warning that “we won’t be able to spend our way out of their mess” should not preclude discussions of an alternative future and the values that will shape it. Periods of national crisis or the aftermath of war have triggered Labour’s radicalism in the past, often inspired by moral arguments over the state of the nation. The current crisis may not be as extreme as the horrors of the early 20th century, but the country is divided, living standards are falling, core infrastructure is failing and there is a growing schism between the political class and the people. The moral degeneration of the body politic under the current Conservative government on the back of cronyism, dishonesty and privilege contrasts with the sacrifices of ordinary key workers during the Covid pandemic, many of whom have been on strike in recent weeks. This should be fertile terrain for the Labour party.

The experience of the First World War reinforced the ethical dimension to the political ideals of the Labour party which, following the extension of the franchise to more working men and the first women in 1918, transformed itself from a federation of societies into a national party. In The Aims of Labour Arthur Henderson, at that time party secretary, envisaged a “new order” of freedom, fraternity and democracy built on the “wonderful spirit of loyalty and remarkable fortitude, courage, and determination throughout the period of the war”. In “Some Reflections of a Soldier”, RH Tawney, Labour’s most eloquent socialist thinker, warned of the “veil of falsehood” imposed by politicians and newspapers which obscured the latent desire for change and democratic renewal. Before the war Tawney had taught the first Workers’ Educational Association classes. He believed educational reform was necessary to meet individual aspirations made urgent by wartime sacrifice, while the endurance of factory workers demonstrated that industry should serve communities rather than the “riches and advancements of individuals”.

The Second World War prompted George Orwell to argue that the old class-ridden system of snobbery and privilege, “ruled largely by the old and the silly”, would not survive. The inequities of private capitalism undermined the public interest while, as with the First World War, (and the Covid crisis) there was unequal sacrifice. “The bombed-out populations of the East End go hungry and homeless while wealthier victims simply step into their cars and flee to comfortable country houses,” Orwell noted in The Lion and the Unicorn. He recognised that British workers would endure wartime suffering only if there was “some kind of proof that a better life is ahead for themselves and their children.” Labour’s 1945 programme, authored by Michael Young, the leading thinker and visionary of the post-war left, put into practice Orwell’s view that radical social change was needed.

The Covid pandemic was not a war, but it was a period of national crisis which brought loss of life, personal suffering and a desire for a new settlement to rescue the health service and restore the political system more broadly. It occurred at a time when the country, following the EU referendum, was at its most divided for generations. Yet the Labour party has been remarkably unambitious in its response, biding time by managing its internal conflicts and looking on as the Tory party implodes. This has put it on the road to electoral success, but short of a long-term project of renewal.

Some elements of the Labour leadership have been more audacious in arguing that “Take Back Control”, an idea borrowed from the Brexit campaign, can reinvigorate Labour with a sense of moral purpose. In her recent book, All In, shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy argues that both the Brexit vote and the handling of the Covid pandemic reflected a widespread feeling that power had become remote, unaccountable and unevenly distributed. From her visits to hospitals, care centres, and towns and regions deemed as “left behind”, it was evident that the burden had not been equally shared, resulting in clear winners and losers. This provoked anger and what she perceived as a “desire for agency and control, and… a stake in the system”. At the same time, she also witnessed ethical values of reciprocity, solidarity and common endeavour as people fought to defend their communities. 

Much has been said about the economic problems Labour will face in office and we are yet to see what “Take Back Control” proposals mean in practice. To be more than an empty, media-friendly slogan it will need to side with those who have suffered the most in a national crisis. That should be a moral prerequisite to taking power. “We ought to perpetuate in peace the idealism of war”, Tawney argued 100 years ago. Labour needs to harness both the anger and aspirations of the people if it is serious about rebuilding the country.