Labour unity may be the new holy grail – but it shouldn’t stifle debate

There are no simple answers on globalisation and its challenges


Jeremy Corbyn might have increased his mandate, but the worst possible response now would be to rally round and hope for the best, or retreat to the bunker.  

Don’t get me wrong.  The party needs unity of purpose, underpinned by shared values and an acceptance that Jeremy is the undisputed leader of the party for the foreseeable future.  

But the ideas and policies of team Corbyn, and, indeed, other shades in the party, need to remain within the realm of healthy debate and fair exchange of view. A grim war of attrition, played out between warring pro- and anti-Corbyn blocks would be a disaster.  

Objective, measured, give-and-take debate about the policy choices and trade-offs we face on the other hand would be an example of a new kind of politics.  It would also offer the party some much needed policy substance.     

At the current time we are a long way from achieving that, which should be as big a worry for those who voted for Jeremy as it should those who think he is driving Labour over a cliff.  

The reasons are not difficult to identify. First, the Momentum/Corbyn left now feel that they are in the ascendancy and that there is no value in listening to voices from other traditions within the party.  They think they have all the answers themselves, that you can’t hold back history, and that every piece of experience learned, every insight about winning elections, every pre-2015 theory about how change happens is now redundant.                      

Secondly, many, though not all, of the rest of the party, from the right through to those on the soft left who did not vote for Jeremy are still asking ‘what’s the point’?  Why, as an engaged party member, MP, trade unionist or socialist society member, should you bother helping to develop ideas and policies for the next Labour government, if you don’t think there is going to be one anytime soon?  

Or, perhaps an even greater turn off, why bother doing the hard thinking about how to engage the electorate if your efforts are only going to get trashed at the meeting by those who truly believe that structural change has altered the rules of the game – and that the party members simply need to get out and agitate, educate and organise?             

Thirdly, a lot of members almost certainly fear that speaking out will lead to their being accused of shattering the fragile peace or breaking ranks with the side with which they associated in the leadership contest.  

This is a risk that anyone with an interesting idea or even a semblance of objectivity runs, especially at a delicate time, and especially in the age of instant hate-filled retribution on social media.     

For the party to return to some semblance of normality and vitality in which workable Labour solutions can flourish we need to push back and squash these tendencies.  If we can’t rediscover a talent for comradely balanced exchanges and be prepared to acknowledge that one side doesn’t have all the right answers we will quickly end up a party of warring zombies.

Such an outcome would be a betrayal of the party’s long but sometimes taken for granted traditions of pluralism, rigour and openness to debate.  

More importantly, being able to challenge ideas and propositions and putting up and stress testing alternatives, are essential to developing a credible programme for government that will deliver rising prosperity for the all the people we aspire to represent.    

John McDonnell’s speech to Labour conference is a good case in point. He talked about a new interventionist age, and how the rules of globalisation are shifting.  

In many ways globalisation was Labour’s greatest challenge in the 1990s and 2000s. Policies such as tax credits, the expansion of higher education and lifelong learning were a first attempt at a social democratic policy response to a new globalised economy in which the certainties of Keynsianism in one country no longer existed.

Gordon Brown agreed with Larry Summers that over the last two decades we had witnessed the biggest economic event of the last 1,000 years – as the workforce of the global economy tripled, with an extra two billion potential employees reaching working age in China, India and other emerging economies.  

The role of interventionist economic policy in the context of a world awash with cheap labour was to compete for foreign direct investment by virtue of a flexible and skilled workforce, high end research, quality infrastructure and a favourable tax regime.  

Sure, lots of UK jobs would go overseas, as developing economies competed on lower wages in heavy industry and some manufacturing.  The UK’s response would be to concentrate its efforts on attracting and creating jobs and services at the high end, promoting innovation and compensating those left behind through the tax credit system.      

There is so much that can be said for the weaknesses of this approach.  And few would disagree that to avoid more of political tensions that have given us Trump in the US, Brexit and the rise of the right across Europe, the system needs to be overhauled so that it maximises sustainable growth, delivers opportunities to the developing world and redresses the power imbalances that result in multinational companies lording it over democratically elected governments.  

To achieve this without retreating into zero sum game protectionism will be a huge challenge.      

Developing the social democratic, or democratic socialist, analysis of how this can be achieved is the challenge of this generation of Labour party members too. Getting it right is essential to our future prosperity and the jobs and prospects of millions across the UK.  

We live and work in an economy in which over one trillion pounds of assets come from foreign direct investment and in which more than a quarter of jobs in manufacturing are in multinational companies.  It is predicted that we will soon reach the point in which the majority of the world’s economic activity will consist of trade between countries rather than within countries, financed by ever-increasing cross border flows of capital.  

So when the shadow chancellor says that the rules of globalisation are changing he needs to tell us more about what options he thinks the UK economy faces.  He needs to open up a debate about how he thinks we can prosper and how he thinks a Labour government can be a player in brokering new rules for how globalisation works.  

He doesn’t have the answers.  Neither should we expect him too.  That’s why we need open, honest, give-and-take discussions.

David Arnold is a policy officer at UNISON and longstanding Labour party member.  He writes here in a personal capacity.

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