It's the inequality, stupid

Assistant National Secretary, Paul Erickson, writes about the lessons from the British election for Australian Labor

When the British Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election in April, I was among the many who were deeply pessimistic about Labour's prospects.

The extraordinary change in Jeremy Corbyn’s fortunes during the campaign was one of the more remarkable turnarounds I can recall in any political campaign.

The result has secured Corbyn’s grip on the Labour leadership and made the prospect of a Corbyn Prime Ministership far more real.

What lessons, if any, can be taken from these events by Australian Labor?

Exploring this requires some form of explanation of what happened between April and June. Here is my best attempt.

Labour didn’t win, but Jeremy Corbyn far exceeded expectations and achieved a substantial swing towards Labour during the campaign that led to Labour’s strongest vote share since 2001.

Two significant factors which drove this dynamic stand out.

First, Jeremy Corbyn was firmly perceived as an outsider who represented a challenge to the established way of doing politics.

If anything, the absolute bucketing given to Jeremy Corbyn by the entire British establishment (including that of his own party) probably established him in the electorate’s mind as an alternative to the status quo.

It didn’t hurt that Corbyn clearly enjoyed himself on the campaign trail and connected with a jaded electorate – whereas to say that Theresa May proved an unworthy campaigner would be an understatement.

Second, Labour fought the general election on a manifesto that rejected austerity and growing inequality, and called for greater taxes on the wealthy to fund public services and build a fairer Britain where no one is held back.

Corbyn promised to tackle the causes of a growing sense of anxiety and frustration in the electorate – falling living standards, growing job insecurity and shrinking public services – through greater government intervention in the economy.

As the debate shifted from a re-run of Brexit towards a choice between continued austerity under the Conservatives, and a Labour programme proclaiming a bigger role for the state in delivering public services, job security and social justice, Labour’s stocks grew.

These ideas may not have been fashionable under New Labour, but they are not particularly radical. Corbyn Labour remains well within the mainstream of post-war social democracy.

The Guardian’s Gary Younge pointed this out during the campaign. When it comes to working out where today’s Labour Party fits in the progressive tradition, the key contrast is not between 2017 and 1997 but between Corbyn and his contemporary European counterparts.

Greece’s PASOK, the French Socialist Party, and the Dutch Labour Party were once dominant, yet in the past two years these parties have received the support of 6.3%, 6.4% and 5.7% of their respective national electorates.

In each case, the demise of these parties can be attributed to their failure to reject austerity and offer a full-throated defence of the interests of working people in the face of cuts to public services, diminished job security and declining living standards.

In Younge’s words, “when parties created to represent the interests of working people in parliament decide instead to make working people pay for the crisis in capital they get punished, and ultimately may be discarded.”

It’s not hard to see why this has proved to be the case.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, politics throughout the developed world has been reshaped by two major shifts in public opinion.

First, a pervading sense that the global economy is a game rigged in favour of the rich and powerful has taken hold of the electorate.

Second, economic inequality is no longer a boutique fixation of academic economists and leftish intellectuals. The hyper-concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and stagnant or declining living standards for the many, has become a frontline political and public policy issue.

It’s counterintuitive but in much of the world, conservatives and the forces of reaction have taken far better advantage of these changes than the centre-left.

Throughout Europe and North America the establishment right hasn’t wasted the crisis, imposing austerity economics at great cost to working people.

In contrast, the forces unleashed since 2008 have distressed social democracy and the institutions of the centre-left to their limits.

The insurgent political movements that have ridden the backlash are more likely to present voters with a virulent mix of reactionary populism and the cynical anti-politics of resentment, than anything resembling a progressive politics offering hope.

Rising to this challenge, and articulating a new type of politics that offers hope for a better world, is the paramount task facing every progressive party in the world.

The unique circumstances that shaped how Jeremy Corbyn was perceived coming into the UK election campaign cannot be replicated or contrived.

But the growing sense of anxiety and frustration in the electorate about a deck that is stacked against working people is as real in Australia as it is in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.

A bold, progressive platform that promises dignity and equality to working people can be just as effective here.

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