How the left can win in Britain

Forget policy; focus on narrative: hammer the banks, reframe security, and other notes on how the left can win back Britain.

Colin Leys
13 June 2016

Jeremy Corbyn, wikimedia

The basic problem is how Labour can win the 2020 election, or at least gain some more seats in it, but do so from a political standpoint that it will take a generation to make hegemonic.

The limited scope for left policies in a highly-indebted country

We must begin by recognising that there are severe limits to the progressive policies which global capital will tolerate. As many analysts have concluded, and Wolfgang Streek has most conclusively shown, in the globalised capitalist economy the real arbiters of policy in all highly-indebted nation-states (such as the UK) are the owners of large sums of investible capital.[1] Global ‘investors’ (read: money lenders) in effect constitute parallel electorates to the registered voters; governments of all parties must constantly retain their ‘confidence’ by not adopting policies they think might lose them money. The alternative is revealed in exceptional times: if ‘investors’ decide that their interest requires it they don’t hesitate to render elected governments impotent, as in Greece in 2015 (or even have them overthrown, as threatened by an un-named British general if Corbyn becomes prime minister).[2] But in normal times, depending on the size and nature of the national economy concerned, its trade relationships and strategic importance, etc, an elected national government normally has some leeway. Elections bestow some political legitimacy, which makes for political stability, and stability is of some concern to ‘investors’. But the leeway enjoyed by a newly-elected social democratic government is never very wide, and in the case of the UK it is especially narrow, for two reasons:

a) the manufacturing sector is weak, giving rise to an extremely large balance of payments deficit on current account, which can be sustained only so long as it is offset by foreign owners of capital being willing to deposit sufficient funds in the UK;

b) this is reinforced by the special role of the City of London, a global financial centre whose foreign exchange earnings are large enough to prevent the payments gap being so wide that the country would effectively be bankrupt.

Both these factors mean that the interests of the financial sector are seen as so vital that even mildly ‘left’ measures – such as, say, restoring free university education, on the lines of other European countries, or limiting foreign ownership of ‘strategic’ industries to prevent the loss of domestic jobs (also common in other OECD countries), or adopting the EU’s proposed Financial Transaction Tax – are seen as risking investors’ confidence and therefore as too dangerous to contemplate.

The ideological task

A Labour government would nonetheless have at least some scope for implementing reforms of that kind, along with a radical reform of the tax system and a countercyclical fiscal policy, if it was elected with an overall majority on the basis of that kind of platform. But that means first overcoming the hegemony of neoliberal thinking, which everyone sees the need for but which has not yet been seriously begun. What does that involve?

As Stuart Hall pointed out, no hegemony is ever complete, and voters operate with contradictory ideas and feelings. On the one hand people have been endlessly incited to see themselves as mini-businesses rather than workers, their houses as assets rather than homes, a university degree as an investment rather than an education, and so on. On the other the same people support a free health service for all, see the privatised utilities as a rip-off, deeply distrust bankers, despise professional politicians and are offended by gross inequalities of income and wealth. Overcoming neoliberal hegemony means working to strengthen the second, solidaristic and experience-based set of perceptions and feelings, and to weaken the first, individualistic, ideology-based set by showing the fallacies they rest on.

Breaking the ideological mould step 1: the banking-Conservative complex

The two problems – the limited leeway afforded by ‘market sentiment’ and the power of neoliberal ideology – are linked, in that most voters are materially, as well as ideologically, dependent on economic prosperity, in the form of jobs and mortgages and pension funds, and will not vote for anything that can be labelled as threatening it. As things stand, this means almost any measure the left may propose, thanks to the myth of Labour’s so-called profligacy. Nothing Labour says about the economy will get a serious hearing until the potency of this myth is broken, making this an essential first step in the ideological shift that is needed.

The reality is that between 1997 and 2007 Labour reduced the national debt from 50% of GDP to 45%, well below the levels of Germany, France and Canada. But while this was happening the banks were gambling with the country’s economic safety, and lost. Some became bankrupt and all came close to it. The big increase in the national debt under Labour from 2008 to 2010 was due to the government having to borrow over a trillion pounds – equivalent to two thirds of the annual national income – to lend to the banks, to cover their bad debts and save their shareholders’ fortunes. And because the banks had plunged the global economy into recession, tax revenue also fell sharply, so still more money had to be borrowed to plug the budget gap. The failure of the past Labour leadership to burn these basic facts into the public consciousness is not simply down to the political bias of the media. It is also a failure of the Labour leadership. Every time a senior Labour figure is quoted as acknowledging that the party needs to ‘recover the voters’ trust’ they implicitly endorse the myth instead of attacking it.

And the story is not just about bankers’ irresponsibility. It is about dishonesty and criminal activity on a barely believable scale. Besides exacting a bailout of £1.162 trillion[3] from the taxpaying public, between 2007 and 2010 the banks rigged LIBOR, (the London Inter Bank Offered Rate), costing untold billions to parties to transactions around the world that are based on LIBOR; the governor of the Bank of England called it criminal fraud.[4] They also rigged foreign exchange rates, which had similar massive costs for the victims – British pensioners, to take just one example, are estimated to have lost over £7bn a year over a decade or more.[5] For these two crimes the banks were fined a total of some £20bn, a minute fraction of the losses caused. Standard Chartered did $250bn dollars’ worth of illegal trading with Iran in the US, for which it was fined $627m; HSBC had done the same but also engaged in large-scale laundering of Mexican drug money, and was fined $1.92bn. The banks also stole, in effect, well over £30bn from their own British customers by fraudulent sales of PPI, which they are still being forced to repay, and for which they have been fined only relatively modest sums (including fines for delaying repayments).

All this happened while Labour was in office under a leadership committed to an ‘open economy’ and ‘light regulation’ – policies the Conservatives fully endorsed at the time. But Labour’s leadership is now on a different track, while the Conservatives remain on the old one. The crash led to widespread demands for serious regulation of the City, including a break-up of banks deemed too big to be allowed to fail, or at least a separation of retail banking from investment banking. Under George Osborne these demands have been successfully resisted and diluted, and rooting out dishonesty in the financial sector has essentially been brought to an end. Martin Wheatley, brought in under the coalition in 2011 to clean up bank misconduct, was dismissed as head of the Financial Conduct Authority by Osborne in 2015 following complaints from the banks. No British banker has been prosecuted for any of the crimes the banks committed. No HSBC board member has been obliged to resign, in spite of having admitted large scale money laundering in the US.[6] Bonuses paid to bankers in the UK since the crisis began in 2007 total over £100bn.[7] There is no suggestion that banking culture has significantly changed.

The fact that voters distrust Labour rather than the Conservatives as managers of the economy is thus a remarkable achievement of political spin, not least when bankers are widely regarded as greedy and arrogant, and when bankers provide half the Conservative party’s income.[8] The banks’ record in causing the crash and being bailed out by the taxpayers, their corrupt profiteering culture and the protection they get from the Conservatives, should be the starting-point of the drive to force open new ideological space for the left, challenging the neoliberal hegemony where it is most obviously vulnerable and making it possible to win support for progressive policies that ‘the markets’ would have to tolerate.

Breaking the ideological mould step 2: principles before policies

But focussing on what policies will win electoral support risks becoming lost again in the ideological territory that the neoliberals have been shaping and controlling ever since Thatcher won the Conservative leadership in 1975. The key lesson to be learned from her political success is that between 1975 and her election victory in 1979 she did not spend her time talking about policies (let alone abstract and pseudo-specific ‘targets’ such as Labour’s 2015 promises to ‘cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients’ and ‘halve the time from arrest to sentencing’). The great proponent of markets did not treat elections as markets, in which voters are seen as potential customers for competing sets of policies, but as tests of ideology and feelings. She said she was a ‘conviction politician’ and talked about families, hard work, Britishness, freedom, aspiration, and common sense, and violently attacked the web of attitudes that underpinned social democracy, labelling them unproductive, controlling, bossy, bureaucratic, sectional and corrupt – all the while leaving herself free to develop specific policies once in office.

Should we think of public transport as a necessity that should be free for everyone, like health care?

The left needs to adopt the same approach now. For example: it might be proposed that Labour should do something to enable young people to get on the ‘housing ladder’ because fewer and fewer can do it. But this would be to accept the Thatcherite view of houses as assets rather than homes, which locks people into dependence on debt, and therefore on constantly rising house prices (to make climbing the ‘ladder’ possible, and to avoid the risk of being unable to keep up their mortgage payments). Instead a left approach should start out from the responsibility of the state for providing homes; this would imply that house prices did not rise faster than the general rate of inflation, and that good housing was available at regulated (and thus affordable) rents. Or to take another example: should a Labour government continue to pay for free local public transport for pensioners, when so many young people can’t afford to use the buses? Or should we think of public transport as a necessity that should be free for everyone, like health care?

efore anyone says this is ‘other worldly’ we need to be clear: that illustrates exactly the problem. The world ‘as it is’, the world as we know it, is no more or less than the world as neoliberalism wishes us to see it. We can’t hope to move on from it unless we have the confidence to think outside that box – or as the neoliberals themselves put it, when taking on the social-democratic hegemony in the 1960s and 70s – ‘think the unthinkable’. To do this in turn now, the left needs to focus not on policies but on principles, to engage in the kind of radical ideological battle that Thatcher waged to such effect in the 1970s and 80s. And as she demonstrated, this campaign needs to be fought on every terrain, domestic and foreign, and social and cultural as well as economic.

Reshaping the ideological terrain – an example

As several commentators have noted, Jeremy Corbyn has started doing this in one crucial respect by rejecting the hollow tenets of Atlanticism in foreign policy in a way no other post-1945 Labour leader has done, opening up new space for a rational discussion of defence policy, arms exports, the refugee crisis and much else. The need is to exploit this space, but by focusing strongly on the themes that define it, rather than the policy options within it. One such theme is, for example, ‘security’. What would it mean to disarticulate ‘security’ from the collection of right-wing ideas associated with it now, and link it instead to the ideas of the left? 

For a start, we might note the way ‘security’ has been detached from the idea of ‘safety’, as in the familiar notice announcing that CCTV cameras are operating for our ‘safety and security’. What is added to ‘safety’ by coupling it with ‘security’? The security industry has the answer: being safe is being free from danger, while being secure is having measures in place to keep you safe (measures it is their business to provide).[9] What adding ‘your security’ to ‘your safety’ does is to draw attention to alleged threats to our safety – in other words, to make us feel less safe – while not necessarily making us safer.[10]

And this is how ‘security’ works in contemporary politics generally: it refers to danger, not safety; it almost always refers to the danger of aggression; and the measures taken seldom make people feel safer, and may actually make them less safe. It is certainly hard to see current UK defence policy as a measured response to real threats to the safety of people in the UK, which is why rational criticism of it is not rationally responded to but denounced as unpatriotic (see for example Cameron’s blustering statement that the Labour party is a ‘threat to national security’, and media attempts to portray Corbyn as unpatriotic because he doesn’t like the national anthem).

Politicians and generals who still maintain that British interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have made Britain safer have ceased to convince; it is too plain that the main result has been to help to devastate these countries, kill and wound millions of people and drive millions more from their homes into refugee camps abroad, creating the power vacuums occupied by Daesh and inviting terrorist attacks on British citizens in Britain and abroad. In the matter of national security the political elite have demonstrated a chronic lack of intelligence and competence. They remain in thrall to a post-imperial fantasy of ‘punching above our weight’ and have made us less safe, not safer.

But it is in any case time to reject this hijacking of ‘security’ to refer only to violent threats, and the idea that only relevant measures of security are the police, the armed forces, the secret service, drones and nuclear weapons. Protecting citizens against violence is certainly a prime responsibility of the state, but so is protecting them from other kinds of danger. A genuine security state must protect citizens against the risks they face in a measured and rational way. What are the main risks to which people in the UK are exposed? Does Russia, which the government asserts is (‘potentially’) the ‘greatest threat to Britain’s security’, really pose a greater risk than the risks posed by globalisation – the risks to the security of families from economic instability or from jobs moving to cheap labour countries or being displaced by robotics, the risks from imported epidemics, or the risk of an impoverished and isolated old age as corporate defined-benefit pensions are sacrificed to maximise ‘shareholder value’, and competitive austerity strips away the state provision of social services? Treating protection against such risks as ‘benefits’ whose recipients are stigmatised, rather than as security measures, is arguably an abdication of the state’s responsibility for security. We need to assert the need for a genuine ‘security state’ that takes seriously its duty to protect its citizens proportionately against all the real threats they actually face, not just those that interest the military and the police.

A similar radical reframing is needed across the whole field of public policy, breaking open the clusters of neoliberal ideas now bound up with themes such as ‘family’ (‘family values’), work (‘hardworking’), freedom (‘choice’), hope (‘aspiration’), tradition (royalty, the military), and so on, and developing progressive clusters in their place. This is intellectual work (in Gramsci’s sense, of work that can be done by any thinking person) and it will take more than a single election cycle. But it is not incompatible with winning elections. On the contrary, it must be key to winning them from the left. 

Political honesty: a left response to the planetary crisis

The biggest difficulty of all in having to combine short term and long term strategy is surely the dependence of electoral politics on economic growth, when it has become impossible to avoid recognising that growth as we know it is increasingly incompatible with the conditions of existence for human life on earth. Anyone under the age of 20 today is likely to live in a period of unpredictable and dangerous developments that far outstrip the political and technological capacity of any existing institution or authority to deal with it. Everyone knows this, but it registers in a separate compartment of left thought, if at all. When it comes to winning elections, it is almost always taken for granted that making Labour ‘electorally credible’ is a matter of making voters believe it can ensure economic growth.

This dilemma looks acute but here too the need is to start from principles, not policies. Spelling out the implications of an economic future in which consumption stops growing is undoubtedly the opposite of what most voters want to hear. Even alluding to the unfolding ecological crisis is frightening. But most voters live with an uneasy awareness of the contradiction between how we are living and what the planet will sustain, and vaguely hope that official plans for cutting carbon emissions will be enough, even though new evidence is reported week by week that shows that the plans are hopelessly inadequate, and that the ecological crisis is far more complex and profound than global warming alone.

Over time, this unease will lead to a call for a much more active and realistic policy approach. At the moment the oil and gas ‘majors’ are still investing in fossil fuels that if eventually burned will mean an increasingly uninhabitable planet. In the view of many scientists much of our ‘safe operating space’ on the planet is already exhausted, and evidence of dangerously accelerating global warming, biodiversity loss, groundwater pollution, ocean acidification and more is constantly mounting.[11] Yet no major party is offering a vision of the kind of social organisation that could afford a good life for everyone without the continued growth that is causing these effects. Before long, electoral ‘credibility’ will require that this contradiction is abandoned. Winning from the left means also telling people now what is going to be needed in the future, and how a transition to it can be made. We might ask if Churchill would have been trusted to take charge in 1940, offering the country ‘nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat’, if he hadn’t been spelling out the need for it over most of the previous decade.


[1] Wolfgang Streek, Buying Time: The delayed crisis of democratic capitalism, Verso 2014.



[4] John Lanchester, ‘Are we having fun yet?’, London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 13 · 4 July 2013





[9] ‘According to Merriam-Webster, the primary definition of safety is "the condition of being free from harm or risk," which is essentially the same as the primary definition of security, which is "the quality or state of being free from danger." However, there is another definition for security; that is, "measures taken to guard against espionage or sabotage, crime, attack or escape," and this is generally the definition we are using when we refer to industrial security.’

[10] ‘Britain has the most CCTV cameras per head of any country in the world, with people said to be caught on camera as many as 300 times a day… Last summer an internal Met Police report concluded that for every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year.

Untrained officers were often downloading and viewing CCTV images in their hunt for evidence.

A leading barrister also complained that the poor quality of closed circuit television images renders many cameras "worthless" in court. The LibDems’ David Howarth added: “There is now a growing amount of evidence to suggest that the impact of CCTV on crime is minimal”.’  ‘A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any. In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.’

[11] Barbara Harriss-White ,‘Globalisation, development and the metabolic rift’,

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