‘Go to hell, you old bastard’
New Labour is dead. Jeremy Corybyn’s 59.5% of the vote in the first round of the Labour leadership election is as revolutionary as Tony Blair’s 57% in 1994. Even if Corbyn loses the 2020 general election, is deposed or resigns, the membership and supporter-based electoral system makes it impossible for leadership candidates to ignore or dismiss principled leftism as ‘Old Labour’ or return to the days of Blair. This is a disaster for aspiring politicians who chose the New Labour parliamentary advisor path to elected office over the trade unionist, activist, or community development alternative. Unless they all quickly adopt Breton caps and find work at Oxfam, they’ll fast become the manky strays of the political world, surviving off scraps from Blairite think tanks.
With the election of Corbyn signalling the end of New Labour, it’s now possible for Labour to achieve what it has struggled to do since 1979: provide a credible answer to Thatcherism. New Labour wasn’t a modern social democratic response but more a string of focus group-tested, voter-friendly strategic positions that remained within the free market economic structures created by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. Any real gains in poverty reduction were built on sand already partially subsided by Iraq, easily kicked down by Tory beach bullies, and washed away with the tide of public opinion.
A key challenge of this answer is to reclaim from Thatcherism the concept of freedom to control your own destiny. Corbyn’s association with 1980s radical Labour hero Tony Benn is indicative that this is understood. Both have advocated a more participatory, democratic ‘socialism from below’ rather than ‘socialism from above’ in which government solves all problems and synonymous with welfare state. This could prove an appealing, relevant answer to Thatcherism in post-GFC Britain rather than the 1980s. Such a vision of freedom would require being equally critical of big government and big corporate. Where the role of government would be to set electorally-mandated minimum, universal standards while communities and the public are empowered with greater political and economic decision-making powers. Where ministerial and public servant-based policy development is balanced with strong mechanisms for public participation – something even the Conservatives have experimented with through patient participation in NHS policy development. With local authorities and users of health, education, housing, transport, and employment and economic development services having greater control over ability to raise revenue, spending, and approaches. Where companies would be required to have worker representation on boards and there is a greater role for worker and consumer-owned enterprises. Rather than Corbyn as a saviour who will solve our problems for us, there is an opportunity to empower people with a real freedoms and opportunities in their lives.