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Editorial: Labour's timidity is an abdication of responsibility at a time of crisis

LABOUR’S retreat from the bold economic agenda of its last two manifestos, clear from shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds’s Mais lecture to top bankers last night, does not come as a surprise.

The Keir Starmer leadership has distanced itself from almost every aspect of the Jeremy Corbyn period, having already ditched support for the green new deal, ended talk of extending public ownership and demonstrated its hostility to trade unions by pointedly ignoring teachers’ concerns over virus transmission in schools until the government itself U-turned on the issue.

Those determined to find some comfort for the left will note that Dodds does attack the impact of 10 years of Tory austerity for increasing inequality.

Given that the Tories themselves have dropped the rhetoric of austerity, this is pretty thin gruel.

Dodds is vague on details of what a Labour government would do, saying that actual taxation and spending plans will be worked out in coming years.

In part this is a reflection of the narrow parliamentary focus of the party’s politics under Starmer. 

Since it has no desire to lead a mass movement for change, it has no use for policies to unite people around or campaign on, nor is it interested in developing a narrative about the better country that could be won through a radical political agenda. Policies will be presented to the public when the time comes, in a prospectus we can compare with the Tory, SNP or other manifestos before deciding how to exercise the only form of political engagement wanted of us, our vote.

In light of what the pandemic has exposed in terms of economic injustice, the speech represents an abdication of responsibility from the party of organised labour, however much Dodds harps on about “responsible” finances.

The left can, and should, fight the Labour leadership’s bid to shelve the policies developed between 2015 and 2019, and the labour movement should not be constrained by “official” Labour policy in making the case for fundamental change.

Socialists should not be duped by a hostile mass media into assuming socialist policies are an electoral liability. The 2017 general election, and the game-changing impact of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, showed that they are not. 

There is a huge appetite for an end to privatisation and outsourcing, for the return of our transport and utilities to public ownership, for action on job insecurity and poverty pay — and for higher taxes on the rich to pay for higher public spending.

Though Labour crashed and burned in 2019, no polls attribute this to its socialist policies, many of which (such as renationalising rail) even registered majority approval among Tory voters. Brexit betrayal and the relentless demonisation of Corbyn did the dirty work. The five-year Establishment effort to discredit Corbyn personally was itself a sign that it feared the appeal of his policies.

A year on, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the urgent need for much of his agenda. 

Privatisation and outsourcing have drastically weakened the response to coronavirus, undermining the effectiveness of test-and-trace and leading to a shambolic public procurement process worsened by rampant government corruption.

Austerity has hobbled our public services, leaving the NHS in particular desperately short-staffed.

Job insecurity and weak labour rights undermine efforts to get the virus under control, making workers reluctant to take time off sick or challenge unsafe working practices.

And the shift to remote working and learning has underlined the case made by Labour for urgently upgrading our national infrastructure, including by rolling out free broadband.

This is a time to hammer home the ways in which coronavirus has proved the current economic model is broken and our desperate need for a new settlement.

The status quo is utterly discredited. If Labour is determined to turn the clock back, the task falls to trade unions and grassroots campaigns to build momentum behind the revolutionary policies we need.

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