openDemocracyUK: Opinion

To grab this moment, the next Labour leader will need humility

Coronavirus changes everything.

Clive Lewis
4 April 2020, 7.00am
Clive Lewis

Naomi Klein has persuaded her publishers to slash the price of ‘the Shock Doctrine’, her iconic book about disaster capitalism. But if I were her agent, I’d be encouraging her to smash out a new chapter of her more recent work, ‘This Changes Everything’.

The climate crisis, she argues, is a civilisational wake-up call. It shows that we need deep, systemic change. As the title proclaims, it changes everything.

Unfortunately, those making the decisions these past 40 years convinced themselves that hitting the snooze button was a viable option. Covid-19 has smashed that slumbering notion.

I can’t help but feel that Labour hit the same snooze button when it came to our leadership contest. As someone who tried and failed to take part in it, I’ll concede I’m not an impartial commentator. And yet I’d happily contest that our campaign covered more policy in a week than some did throughout the entire process.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

But that is the past. Surely the present has put a rocket up that agonising, pedestrian, three months of introspection?

The epoch the Labour leadership contest began in has all but disappeared. The new one we’re entering has yet to be defined. Political orthodoxy, already on the move under both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, is shifting again, this time tectonically. How we shape its destination is now the only question that should concern any progressive, including the next leader of the Labour Party.

Why? Because the progressive ‘sunlit uplands’ many commentators feel inevitable are anything but. History is clear on this: darker pastures are also possible. The balance of global power and wealth is still, despite the past fortnight, stacked in the hands of corporations, banks and the super-wealthy.

We’re still preyed upon by the same gilded economic interests that devoured so much over the past 40 years and led to the rise of Trump, nationalism and ultimately the national scandal that was this government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Our political and economic elites understand all too well that moments of crisis are their chance to rush through unpopular policies.

This then is a race. The most important one any of us will ever take part in. At stake, the future of society, the planet and the human race.

In the period after the economic collapse of 2008, the armoury of social-democracy wasn’t found simply wanting, it had been veritably emptied more completely than a supermarket toilet-roll shelf. Its parties’ embrace of neoliberalism and the so-called third-way was so complete, they gifted the right the chance to rewrite history. In their version, the blame for the paradigm shifting crash, fell not on the planet busting economic policies of the preceding 30 years, but rather the emaciated remnants of the post-war consensus. Austerity was born.

But history doesn’t have to repeat itself. This isn’t 2008 and this time, progressives haven’t been sleeping at the wheel. Instead we’ve seen a flourishing of radically alternative ideas that have been shaped not just by the defeats of the past 40 years but also the scientific reality-check Naomi Klein and others have been warning of for so long now. Whether the work of the Green New Deal group, the desire for radical democratic reform, Universal Basic Income and Services or radical reform of the media and the challenge of ‘surveillance capitalism’, the left has regrouped and replenished its armoury of radical 21st century ideas. Ideas fit for the challenge. Not just of the future, but for the here and now.

Now then is the time to be bold and imaginative in our pursuit and application of these ideas. Now is the time to stop reacting and to be strategic. It means building alliances and consensus across the entirety of the progressive political spectrum. Labour showed this was possible in another new epoch, that of the 1945 post-war world. Beveridge, the architect of the modern welfare state, was a liberal. Keynes, and the Bretton Woods system of international finance that saw the global south develop faster and more equitably than it has since the 1970s, a radical liberal. Bevan, a socialist, founded the NHS – the very institution that is all that now stands between us and a biblical pandemic.

None of the progressive traditions they hailed from had a monopoly on wisdom. Instead we as the labour-movement built alliances, learned from others and in so doing built a consensus across trade unions, civil society and the public at large.

That is what we must do again. This is not the time for Labourism. It wasn’t before the crisis and it most certainly isn’t now. Time for all progressives, whether in the Labour Party, Green Party, Liberal Democrats, National Parties and beyond to reach out in alliance and grab this once in a lifetime opportunity. Only then can we match the scale and complexity of the challenges we face.

To admit this truth and act upon it requires humility. A quality the next leader of the Labour Party will surely need.

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