Let’s be blunt about it, the next Labour government will inherit about as unfavourable a fiscal position imaginable. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, hopes on the left were high that the time for real change was upon us. A crash borne out of the reckless greed of the super rich had, it was believed, finally exposed capitalism’s deepest flaws. The conservative refrain, underpinning it all, that under open markets we all do better, was exposed for what it truly is: a bare-faced lie.
It has come as a surprise to many progressives that the anti-system mobilisation, a seeming dead-certainty in the heady days of Occupy and the Arab Spring of 2011 has ultimately failed to materialise. What Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek had dubbed, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, now appears as little more than a blip on the capitalist road to recovery.
But what of the recovery itself? On the face of it, it seems, to coin a phrase that things can only get better. Four years of stagnant growth, collapsing living standards and wage-freezes will, it is proffered, give out as we return to growth and high levels of employment.
It doesn’t make for comfortable reading, but we need to accept the weight of historical precedent working against us. No government has ever fallen from power under a growing economy, let alone conceded to a one-term opposition. Yet, we are living through unprecedented times. If anybody truly believes that the status quo is set to reassert itself, just a single parliamentary term after the greatest crisis of western capitalism since the Great Depression, they are surely deluding themselves.
If, as the polls suggest, Labour is set to occupy the government benches after 7 May, be it off our own steam or as the leading force in a progressive coalition, how are we to challenge what we all know to be the false-promise offered by imbalanced growth and deceptive employment levels?
It’s a sad fact that the ‘politics of deficits’ has been an inescapable reality since the late 1970s. As much as many of us in the Labour Party yearn for a return to the days of Keynesian consensus and working-class empowerment, both financial and social realities stand in our way.
Gone is the mass skilled working class, bound together in solidarity by the bargaining power of trade unions. Gone is the assurance of a lifetime’s employment and comfortable living for blue-collar workers. Gone is the kind of collective class-consciousness that those on the far-left still eulogise.
So what are we left with? The service sector now employs the great majority of what would once have been the industrial working class. Demand for skilled work fuels a low-pay economy for the great mass of unskilled workers. A culture of poverty-pay breeds welfare dependency for the working poor, while the Tory government perpetuates the downward spiral, taunting the have-nots with accusations of fecklessness and moral decrepitude, all handily bound up in the catch-all populism of welfare cuts.
Labour’s response is this: We know that the politics of class has been and gone. We know that slapping excessive taxes on the wealthiest incomes more often than not proves regressive. And we know that a thriving private sector is an essential ingredient of a prosperous nation. But, we also know that for too long now, the deck has been stacked against us. We know that we delude the people of this country when we pretend that we strike a healthy balance between public and private, between aspiration and fairness, between competition and equality.
If we are to face up to the challenges of the future, we cannot bury our heads in the delusions of the right and the all-too-simplistic promise of system-change on the far-left. Instead, we have to be honest with the people whose trust we are asking for on 7 May. Yes, that will mean difficult decisions. But what is politics for, if not the competition of the values that inform our decision-making process?
It’s this simple: A Labour government will never offload the burden of fixing our economy onto those who have suffered most acutely as a result of its collapse. A Labour government will never endanger that great hallmark of any civilized society, our National Health Service, free to all at the point of delivery. And a Labour government will never do as the Tories and their shameless Lib Dem bedfellows have done, in seeking to turn the working poor against the unemployed, the elderly against the young, neighbour against neighbour.
We know that we function at our best when everyone truly feels they have a stake in our society. A situation in which a million of our most vulnerable citizens rely on food banks as a matter of course and where many of our working poor find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place of poverty-pay and draconian benefit cuts is a scar on the face of capitalism.
Labour will never be satisfied with this state of affairs. We will not stand idly by and we will not employ division and prejudice as political tools. We will not do as the Tories and Lib Dems have done. Instead, we will set about tackling poverty pay and legislating to protect those at the bottom of the income scale. We will finish the job started by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling of fixing our economy in a fair and balanced way, so cruelly perverted by the ConDems, and we will recognise but also relish the unique challenge presented by our unprecedented yet by no means insurmountable economic situation.
We will do these things because they make sense. We will do these things because we are unashamedly angry about the betrayal of our most vulnerable, but most fundamentally of all, Labour will do these things because we are guided by an unparalleled sense of belief and passion in our century-old cause: “that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”