The changing nature of politics - Labour Conference
The annual conference season provides an annual opportunity for political leaders to promote their visions and for activists to debate policy and encourage each other. Normally, leaders try to speak to two audiences; the electorate outside the hall and party members inside. They are pitching to members of the public nearer the political centre ground than their activists. The aim is to reconcile the two. That was not the case at this year’s Labour Party conference, where a different approach was adopted.
In his speech to close the conference last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that “…the political centre of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is…Today’s centre ground is certainly not where it was twenty or thirty years ago.” Understanding this point is central to understanding how the Labour Party sees the world. There is no doubt significant changes are happening in society and politics.
The Labour Party has seen a substantial increase in size since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, with membership not far below 600,000. The new members, some of whom are old members re-joining after decades away, have moved the Party towards the left and nearer the politics of Mr Corbyn. This shift was evident from the delegates at this year’s conference.
Central to Labour’s understanding of the world is the financial crisis of 2007/8. For Jeremy Corbyn, “A new consensus is emerging from the great economic crash and the years of austerity, when people started to find political voice for their hopes for something different and better.” The general election result means this “may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008 - because we offered people a clear choice.”
The crisis revealed the injustices of capitalism but did not prove a catalyst for change. As a result, real wages have stagnated and are falling again, and asset price inflation has put home ownership out of reach of many while rents have risen. The Resolution Foundation has noted that in the 1980s an average first time buyer would need to save for three years to obtain a deposit for a home; now they have to wait well over twenty years. For Labour, the change in politics is not primarily because people are finally reacting to the effects of the financial crisis. It is that the crisis revealed the failures and injustices of a capitalist economic system brought about by the Conservative Party thirty years ago, and finally Labour has become the vehicle for changing it. This is why so many Labour politicians and union leaders insisted at the Conference that somehow the Party had won the election. The party is not actually in government at present and needs to win a further 60 seats to have a majority without help from other parties.
It is in the context of a failed economic system that the Left is seeking to understand and approach Brexit, in part a protest against a system which has not generated rising living standards for many. There are differences of opinion however, which delegates elected not to discuss on the Conference floor. Some see the European Union as promoting an unjust form of capitalism. Others see EU membership as part of an internationalist commitment to protect workers’ rights. Of course, Labour is not alone in accommodating a variety of views on Brexit, though it has managed to unite around a belief that the Single Market offers significant economic advantages. The Conservative Party is also demonstrating differences of opinion about Brexit. Both parties are dealing with considerable unknowns as negotiations with the EU proceed.
Christians within the Labour Party share much of this analysis. Indeed, Christians on the Left has been campaigning for years to split banks between retail and more risky investment institutions and for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on financial transactions to help deal with economic injustice. We have also campaigned under the banner ‘patriots pay tax’, to help change the terms of debate about tax and spending. Most of all, we have been linking Christians fighting poverty and injustice with politics, including through our training and mentoring programme for potential candidates.
The Labour Party is a broad church and Christians share the perspectives of a longstanding tradition. The individualism of unfettered capitalism promotes greed and inequality while denying the value of community. However the other extreme, a state-dominated socialism, denies the value of the individual made in the image of God even while claiming to act in the name of ‘the people’. Christian Socialism has always offered a different approach, whereby the individual is cherished in his or her own right, but encouraged to find fulfilment in relationship with others and ultimately in reconciliation with God.
It remains to be seen just how far the political centre of gravity has shifted. What is clear is that politicians are struggling to find a consensus view on the needs of our society and the policy tools to meet them. The conference season has highlighted the scale of the task.
This article was first published by the Church of England Newspaper on 6 October 2017.