ourEconomy: Opinion

The movement to replace neoliberalism has lost a battle, but we can still win the war

Now is not the time for despair. Neoliberalism is limping to its death, and it’s up to us to make sure that what comes next isn’t something worse.

Antonia Jennings
20 February 2020, 12.48pm
Image: Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0

Get ready for a decade of unprecedented change at an unprecedented pace. Our overlapping and interrelated environmental, justice and democratic crises are going to mature into their next iteration – perhaps in the form of barbarism, maybe ethno-nationalism, or hopefully something more equal and sustainable.

Although the general election has left many progressives across Britain with little hope for the latter, despair is not a credible option. The movement to move progressively beyond neoliberalism only continues to grow as these crises deepen, as does the opportunity to change our society for the better.

Since the financial crisis, calls to bin neoliberalism have grown exponentially. We’ve seen longstanding neoliberal political parties shift towards a socialist policy platform, mobilizations of millions of young school strikers, and an explosion of progressive media outlets. Establishment bodies are exploring progressive ideas – centrist think tanks have pivoted left, local councils have put community economic development centre stage, and even a Conservative government was forced to declare a climate emergency. Post-election, none of these things are going anywhere. This project is and must be bigger than one political party.

This movement not only has numbers and significance, it has contributed to some major achievements. In June last year, the Conservative government legislated for a net zero emissions target by 2050. Only a decade ago, environmentalists were pushing for a 2080 target to be adopted. It is a testament to the strength of the economic systems change movement that the recently legislated for 2050 date is so quickly becoming accepted as insufficient.

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To a great extent, the movement’s ideas have become common sense within the Labour Party. Putting opinions of the individual candidates to one side, as a line up they are much more progressive than in previous leadership races over the last 20 years. Looking at the current government, the movement’s influence is clear there too – announcements of increased public spending in the north of the country and nationalisation of the rail companies would have been unheard of in a Conservative government just five years ago. We may have been defeated electorally, but we are winning ideologically.

This is not to say that the movement's efforts have been perfect. We still aren’t able to agree on a detailed blueprint of our future beyond an economy that is just, sustainable and works for people and planet. Often, our individual policy calls are portrayed as one long list of ideas, not a coherent whole with a strong overarching narrative. Moreover, some of our best ideas are imprisoned in 70 page reports. This decade, we need to get better at selling the cookies, not their recipe. We also haven’t got a good enough response to the culture war, often denying its very existence. Aggressive narrative building has to be expedited this year for us to develop wider political appeal.

We also need to think about developing a social movement for the new economy. History shows us that social movements are normally a precursor to a leader running for political office, but with the Corbyn project things developed the other way round. Following his election as leader of the Labour Party, the work began to retrofit a social movement to underpin his ideas. While organisations like Momentum have done a fantastic job of beginning to develop this social movement, we are still lacking in key areas; for example, where is the social movement to oppose the privatisation of the NHS?

There needs to be more engagement with the communities our new economy sets out to help. The last ten years have been rushed in terms of policy development, and there has been little real co-creation with the most vulnerable in our society, and the task of getting proper buy-in for these ideas from those they will help has been overlooked.

Alongside this, the task of holding the government to account is equally important. We have little details of what the new Conservative government’s plans are. In its analysis of the Tory manifesto, the Institute for Fiscal Studies remarked that the party’s “lack of significant policy action is remarkable.” But since the election, we have seen a slew of pledges to release public funds for regional development. We must scrutinise these commitments and ensure they are carried out. There is a risk of this government talking progressive talk but not translating this into policy change. Without challenge, their approach could secure them power for a generation.

Events such as COP26, to be held this December in Glasgow, will also open windows of opportunities for the new economy movement. The UK Government, as the hosts of the conference, will want to use the opportunity to show Britain as a leader in environmental policy – we must make sure this is as progressive as possible. We are living on borrowed time when it comes to mitigating environmental collapse, and simply do not have the luxury of waiting five years for a time when we may or may not elect a more progressive government.

Finally, five plus years of a Boris Johnson government gives us a chance to think about longer term strategy. It should give us respite from the febrile and often manic nature of organising and policy development of late. We should use this opportunity to think about longer term strategy and crises yet to come. For example, what planning should progressives be doing now for 2050, when the World Health Organisation expects Europe to have tens of millions of climate migrants from northern Africa?

Neoliberalism is limping to its death, and it’s up to us to make sure that what comes next isn’t something worse. The energy, the ideas and the people are all on our side.

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