Labour must abandon faith in one more heave for Westminster victory and embrace a progressive alliance, including for electoral reform.
There are two ways of looking at the recent British general election—as an unmitigated disaster for progressives or as the endgame of ‘labourism’ founded on appeal to the industrial proletariat. It was both. It does however offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break out of the old mould of progressive thinking and create a new mould more suited to the context of contemporary capitalism.
A precondition for progressive politics to succeed electorally must though be electoral reform. The election was a mockery of democracy. The Conservatives won less than 44 per cent of the votes—or the support of just 29 per cent of the electorate, as only two thirds voted. But they obtained 56 per cent of the MPs, enough to give them a thumping majority.
Put the other way, parties opposed to the Conservatives obtained over 56 per cent of the votes but only 44 per cent of MPs. On average, each Conservative elected needed only 38,264 votes. By contrast, the Greens received 865,697 votes and obtained just one seat.
The first-past-the-post electoral system gives the Conservatives—the only serious player on the right—an inherent advantage, which makes it almost impossible for a split opposition to win. Labour when in opposition scotched the Liberal Democrats’ attempt at electoral reform in 2011, in the mistaken belief the party could again win a parliamentary majority under the current system. Yet electoral reform will not happen as long as the Conservatives are in office.
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All opposition parties should agree a strategy designed to maximise the chances of defeating the Conservatives at the next election. That will necessitate an electoral pact of some sort, as well as a sustained public campaign in favour of electoral reform.
Labour must accept that it alone will never win power again under the present system, unless a most unlikely combination of Conservative mismanagement and tiredness gives it a rare opening. The reason is that labourism has dwindling appeal in the emerging class structure of British society.
The Conservatives are now a populist party which serves the interests of the plutocracy. Financiers and rentier capitalists set the tone, fund and identify those they want as leaders, and own and command the mass media, ‘social media’ and public-relations consultancies that orchestrate electoral campaigns.
The class alliance on which populism relies for votes consists of those who benefit from the rentier capitalist system, in which gains from property—physical, financial and ‘intellectual’—far outweigh gains from labour, and the atavistic part of the emerging precariat class.
Most of this latter group come from the old working class, the industrial proletariat. They tend to look back to what they, or their parents and grandparents, had by way of labour-based security. In their eyes, labourism has failed them. They have been plunged into a life of unstable labour, without an occupational narrative and facing chronic economic insecurity, intensified by a withering welfare state. So they listen to the sirens of populism promising to bring back yesteryear and ‘control’.
Yet the populists are answerable to their funders, with an agenda that is not in the precariat’s interest. A redistributive strategy that would abolish the conditions that define the precariat would require dismantling the rentier capitalism on which the plutocracy thrives. At best, cynical populist politicians will resort to more tax cuts and a bigger dose of state paternalism—more health spending, more police, more state control of migrants and more ‘law and order’.
That class alliance can rely on mobilising the 33 per cent needed for electoral victory, to which can be added elderly people who mostly vote Conservative. Against this, the old labourist left has relied on an uncertain coalition between a largely public-sector salariat, clinging to privileges gained under post-1945 welfare-state capitalism, and remnants of the proletariat. The numbers do not add up; nor does the financing.
Narrative and vision
What is to be done? Obviously, it is not enough for opposition parties to unite simply around the issue of electoral reform, crucial though that is. It has to be just one element in a new progressive platform that could form the basis of an electoral pact or even a new political party. A lesson of history is that a forward march occurs only when progressives present a narrative and vision appealing to the emerging mass class.
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Today that is not the proletariat; it is the precariat. But progress is only assured if there is also support from classes above it in the hierarchy—notably the salariat, many of whose number benefit from rentier capitalism, for example, through home ownership and investments.
That poses a policy challenge. Nevertheless, a progressive strategy based on an alliance between the precariat and salariat is essential. In broad terms, such a strategy should be founded on the need to revive the enlightenment values of equality, freedom and social solidarity in the context of a transition to a zero-carbon economy.
While opposition parties will differ in their detailed policy prescriptions, they should be able to unite around a common platform with four key elements:
- tackling inequality and precarity by moving towards a basic income (already mooted in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, supported by many Liberal Democrats and a long-time policy plank of the Green Party);
- removing the tax privileges and subsidies that benefit and perpetuate the plutocracy and the rest of the elite;
- reversing the privatisation and neglect of public services and amenities, and
- creating a national capital fund with revenues from the commercial exploitation of our commons—natural and societal—which could be used to pay a basic income as ‘common dividends’.
These are policies that should appeal both to the precariat, which craves basic security and has suffered most from the plunder of the commons, and to the salariat, particularly those in its ranks wanting action on climate change and the environment.
Such a precariat-salariat alliance could mobilise at least the 40 per cent of the electorate needed to have a reasonable chance of defeating the Conservatives under the current electoral system. But it requires a sustained campaign built on an alliance of opposition forces, backed by a progressive programme with mass appeal.
In the longer term, a political realignment on the left, involving a renamed Labour Party, may be the way forward. How about calling it the Progressive Party?
Guy Standing is professorial research associate at SOAS University of London and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), an international NGO which promotes basic income. He is author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011) and Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (2019).