Broader Horizons

James Butler

All parties in this election have promised to increase spending. Recognising that the political credibility of the post-2010 austerity state has been shattered, even the Conservatives have pledged moderate increases on health – though their manifesto still locks into place the reshaped contours of the post-Osborne state, with spending apart from health 15 per cent lower than in 2010.

They have promised 50,000 new nurses, more than a third of whom turn out to be already working; they have promised forty new hospitals, which turn out to be six refurbished ones; they have promised, as they did in 2017, to ‘restore many of the Beeching lines’, but committed only £500 million (reopening part of the former Waverley line in 2015 cost nearly £300 million). Not only are the pledges themselves rickety, but Sajid Javid’s proposed fiscal rules make it hard to see how they could be funded without the tax rises he has been at pains to reject.

Labour’s promises are significantly larger, and more clearly aimed at transforming the economy rather than merely propping it up. Wholesale revision of our economic framework is required, they argue, to deal with three significant, interlinked crises. The wreckage of Universal Credit, spiralling homelessness, spikes in child poverty and food bank use, make plain the crisis in social security. The climate crisis, too, is obvious to most people. The miserly and self-defeating rate of both public and private investment, however, is less widely understood: between 1997 and 2017, the UK had the lowest investment to GDP share of any OECD nation; in every quarter over that period it languished in the lowest decile of OECD tables. Labour’s proposals would move government investment to the mid-range of the OECD. Rapid decarbonisation will be impossible without it.

Polls are not moved by arguments about OECD rankings, however: fiscal multipliers, investment and tax structures are translated by media-friendly experts into rather vaguer feelings about credibility or plausibility – and perhaps polluted by opponents’ attack ads. Though bolstered by a letter to the Financial Times from 163 economists and academics applauding its plans, Labour has faced some difficulty here. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which maintains a stranglehold on public economic assessment, has criticised Labour’s proposed reforms of the UK’s macroeconomic model – even though, in the words of one former director, the IFS ‘do[es] not do macroeconomic forecasting’.

In any case, the question of how to fund social security is not simply the domain of the abacus or spreadsheet: it is also a matter of political values and priorities. Richard Titmuss once remarked that the sustainability of a welfare state will always depend, in part, on the political commitment of those who are rich enough not to need it; rebuilding that attenuated commitment will require both a full-throated dedication to universalism and a practical demonstration of the role that social security plays in a truly flourishing society.

One of the problems facing Labour is the number of people who don’t believe that such a reconstruction is possible. Canvassers report that the coalition’s portrait of the country as a household teetering on the verge of bankruptcy has sunk deep into the souls of many voters, not least because it mirrors their personal circumstances. Take Labour’s longer-term goal of a shorter working week: people worry that it would mean a concomitant cut in wages. Yet a reduction in working time was historically a key goal of the workers’ movement, driven from below; with trade union density and power diluted by more than a generation of restrictive labour laws, ideas for radical change now tend to come from the top, to uncertain diffusion below. All the party’s powers of persuasion are needed to make its ideas seem halfway plausible to the people who would most benefit from them.

Despite their far-reaching consequences, the horizons in elections can seem narrow, confined to the five-odd weeks of the campaign, strewn with invocations of the recent past. Zoom out, though, and one thing that comes into focus is that the anti-austerity movement in the UK – the chief engine of the rise of Corbynism – is the last in Europe to reach its major electoral showdown. It does so in unique circumstances, forced to grapple with inimical constitutional questions that warp its electoral calculus, and later than its sister movements in other countries, which, though they found more immediately amenable political vehicles, either burned up on contact with the might of the ECB or were neutered in wider political coalitions.

Such a delay has its disadvantages: the chief architects of austerity have fled, and their successors are busy disowning their legacy, at least rhetorically; its consequences are blunted by familiarity, even as they are ever more visible. But it has its advantages, too: Labour’s programme is the most comprehensively worked-out countermeasure to the arc of economic thinking that terminated in the post-crisis world; a resurgent left has permanently altered the party, not least in what it considers politically possible, and has set about fully transforming it. The structure of British politics makes the Labour Party a durable electoral vehicle. Whatever the outcome on 12 December, this election marks the close of one long phase of political struggle for the British left – and opens a new one.