This is my editorial commentary in the Spring edition of the Fabian Review. It is still unclear what politics will look like after the economic crisis. The left needs to make a stronger public argument for the kind of reformed capitalism we want.
”Thirty years of hurt never stopped us dreaming.” That was the surprising message from New Labour’s next generation at the Fabian New Year Conference in January. Both Ed Miliband and James Purnell argued that the financial crisis of autumn 2008 closed the political era begun by the winter of discontent thirty years earlier. Their call for a political rebalancing after a crisis caused by a failure of governance tacitly acknowledged that New Labour has reformed, but not realigned British politics.
What next? The script remains to be written, said Ed Miliband. What this new script might be is less clear.
The contours of a post-Thatcherite British politics remain hazy. The political frontbenches have been unable to contribute much of substance to this season of Thatcher retrospectives because neither party leader can yet give a full, frank and honest public account of the Thatcher legacy. David Cameron cannot publicly own pre-Thatcherite ‘progressive Conservative’ traditions of Macmillan and Heath for fear of offending his Thatcherite party.
Labour remains in Thatcher’s shadow because it too often still thinks of its acknowledgement of the role of markets as primarily the product of its 1980s political defeats. A critique of the excesses of neo-liberalism is necessary, but not enough. A credible alternative depends on working through, in our own terms, a social democratic account of the scope and limits of markets if they are to pursue economic, social and environmental ends.
This cannot be the left’s moment without serious advocacy of the reformed capitalism we want. That centre-left ideas are in the ascendant internationally does not guarantee progressive outcomes. There was no British FDR. The British centre-left has done well only in moments of hope – in 1906, 1945, 1966 and 1997 – being badly defeated in times of economic crisis, in the 1930s and 1980s.
A fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and multilateral reform have been important, and necessary. But they do not amount to a politics of this crisis. The public are disoriented by the scale of events and the deeply contested argument about whether the lasting scars of inaction or public debt are to be more feared.
Unemployment could prove the decisive issue. Those least to blame in this crisis are the 600,000 young people who will leave education this summer, with the same number again next summer. Perhaps only half will find jobs. To argue that government cannot do more is to accept four million unemployed as a price we have to pay. Just as Iain Duncan Smith reflects a growing awareness on the right of the social legacy of the 1980s, Professor David Blanchflower (for a long time a lonely voice on the Monetary Policy Committee) has set out several credible, affordable and time-limited measures urgently required to prevent the scars of this recession being felt in 30 years time.
This could prove the central political choice of the year ahead. New Labour came to power seeking to address youth unemployment. The principle of fairness rightly insists that those who could work must be willing to do so; there should also be meaningful work or training for all want it. Let us not offer responsibilities without rights.