Joyce McMillan: Social justice on hold for five years

Britain's main opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference. Picture: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's main opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference. Picture: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
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Occupying the centre ground has long been one of the main ambitions of most British politicians. Elections, we are told, are almost always won from the centre; hence Labour’s electorally successful 1990s move to the right under Tony Blair, and the dogged centre-leftism of the SNP, sometimes self-contradictory, but highly successful at the ballot box throughout the last decade.

As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his Labour Party conference speech on Wednesday though, definitions of the centre ground can change; and just as Margaret Thatcher, in the 1980s, somehow contrived to place an almost religious faith in free markets close to the centre of British politics, so Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell now believe that the tide is turning, and that the people are increasingly inclined to see dogmatic free-market neoliberalism as a failed ideology, which - as Corbyn put it - now brings neither decent, secure jobs nor decent, secure housing to millions of ordinary working people in Britain.

And although this is perhaps a slightly grand claim, it’s certainly true that the Labour manifesto of June 2017, and the positive response to it, succeeded for the first time since the 1970s in changing the vocabulary of UK political debate, and reopening it to ideas like the return of widespread public housing and rent controls, or the re-nationalisation of railways and major utilities, which had effectively been excluded from mainstream political discussion for at least three decades.

So these days, in British political discourse, capitalism is slightly more often assessed on its merits, slightly less often treated as a force of nature which simply has to be accepted; and there is no clearer sign of that shift than the kind of language the Prime Minister now feels moved to use, whenever she makes a serious speech about Britain’s future. Yesterday, she returned to her old professional stamping-ground at the Bank of England, to mark the 20th anniversary of the moment when Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, set the bank free of government decision-making; and in the course of a short but wide-ranging speech, she made a strong plea for a well-regulated, morally sound and socially sustainable form of capitalism, free of the kind of excess that corrodes popular support for the whole idea of the free market.

“It consists,” she said, “of an open market place in which everyone is free to participate, regulated under the rule of law, with personal freedoms, equality and human rights democratically guaranteed, and an accountable government, progressively taxing the economic activity which the market generates, to fund high-quality public services which are freely available to all citizens, according to need.”

What she was preaching, in other words, was the very essence of “free trade under the law,” an idea which has been around at least since the Scottish Enlightenment; and what she was describing sounds very like the kind of Nordic social-democratic society - combining free markets with strong regulation, taxation and public service provision - that she and her party have been vigorously and sometimes viciously opposing for that last 40 years. Yet if Theresa May, in common with many Conservatives, barely seems to understand the policy implications of some of the fine moral language she uses about the proper regulation of capitalism, it is significant that she does feel impelled to use it, in ways that her great predecessor Margaret Thatcher would have avoided.

Jeremy Corbyn is right, in other words, to argue that we have moved into new political territory, where the shortcomings of under-regulated capitalism are staring us in the face, and the political chickens of the 2008 crash - a blow unfairly shouldered over a decade by ordinary British workers, as Theresa May fully acknowledged yesterday - are finally coming home to roost.

What he cannot plausibly do, though, is to present himself as a convincing advocate for a new, more sustainable and more socially responsible kind of capitalism. Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto may have been fairly moderate in its demands for a return to realism about how to organise areas of the economy where there is no real market competition, or where the market fails. Yet his rhetoric is not social-democratic but socialist; he is a lifelong opponent of capitalism, he is not much interested in those Nordic models that offer the best human outcomes on the planet, and he continues to maintain that EU membership - despite the presence of most of those countries in the Union - would somehow prevent any British move towards a more just and genuinely democratic society.

At UK level, in other words, we are faced with a governing party that talks about socially responsible capitalism but rejects almost every measure of control or redistribution that would be necessary to deliver it, and a main opposition party which has succeeded in opening up the debate, but is unlikely - under its current leadership - fully to embrace the social-democratic model of capitalism that offers the most obvious popular alternative. In Scotland, of course, we have a governing party which places itself exactly at that sweet spot on the political spectrum, with an added measure of real vision for a post-carbon future; but it is struggling with the problems of a ten-year incumbency, and with its own internal problems over how best to pursue its prime goal of Scottish independence.

If I had to place a bet, in other words, I would say that the British people will probably give Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party a turn in government at some point, and that Labour in Scotland, despite its internal chaos, will make undeserved gains in that same revolt against decades of neoliberalism. Amid the upheaval of Brexit, though, anything is possible, including the strange survival of Theresa May’s beleaguered and divided government right through to 2022; in which case, we can be all but certain that whatever fine words the Prime Minister may have uttered this week - and whatever pressure Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party may continue to exert - little or nothing will be done to advance the real cause of social justice in the UK as a whole, over the next five years.