In the turbulence of British politics of recent years, the old rules appear to have been shattered. They were, it turns out, mere articles of faith whose origins were mystic rather than objective, reflecting the biases of their proponents more than the reality of politics. From the Brexit referendum to the popularity of public ownership to the 2017 general election result, the public confounded the pundits.
Under such circumstances, a degree of reflectiveness might have been called for. Yet humility remains in short supply. Many commentators continue to scoff at any signs of progressive ambition. Programmes of privatisation are common sense whereas any attempt to nationalise monopolies is dismissed as pie-in-the-sky utopianism. The economic and social lunacy of austerity was presented as a sober necessity, while increasing public investment has been framed as unaffordable.
But the left is in part to blame for this outcome. For decades, the right has presented the radical as reasonable, while the left claims that the reasonable is radical. Over the past four decades, the Conservative party has been reinvented as a project of the radical right, reanimated two decades after Thatcher first by austerity and then by Brexit. Meanwhile, Labour in government pursued such frivolous policy goals as teaching children to read, treating sick people in a timely fashion and making sure workers were paid a minimum wage.
The confusion stems from a real problem: the UK is already an outlier among advanced economies, so even a shift back to the mainstream is a radical break with the status quo. During the Thatcher years, the UK accounted for 40% of receipts from privatisations across the entire OECD (the Paris-based club of developed countries). Britain went further and faster than almost any other state.
That’s because successive British governments embraced the neoliberal revolution to a greater degree than any other advanced economy, including the United States. For all its rhetorical attachment to free markets, the US federal government plays a huge role in shaping markets. Tax rates for those at the top are higher in New York City than in London.
According to a recent poll by the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank, about a third of voters say they want to see the British economy change “radically”. But Labour struggles to simultaneously satisfy the thirst among its base to express its programme as radical while reassuring other voters that what it proposes is mainstream and achievable.
In truth, Labour’s programme represents a plan to mend British capitalism rather than to end it. It is precisely because it proposes measures that are commonplace in European and other advanced economies that it can claim its programme is credible. It plans to put workers on boards like there are in Germany. It proposes the renationalisation of water, rail, mail and energy networks just as they are in public ownership across much of Europe and indeed the world. The party’s proposals for modest tax rises for those at the top of the income scale are nowhere near the levels seen in Scandinavia or much of Europe for that matter.
The plan for a “British broadband” entity is novel, though there is a compelling precedent in South Korea, where a state-owned company has achieved 99% full-fibre coverage, compared with 7% in the UK. Investment in fibre-optic broadband is the 21st-century equivalent of paving the roads, building the motorways or creating the rail network. It will be the foundations on which the new green economy will be built. In the 1990s, the internet and its attendant infrastructure was commonly referred to as the “information superhighway”. It shows real ambition for the UK going into the 2020s and all the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.
So in light of that, commentators should scoff less and ask why Britain can’t be Germany, Sweden or South Korea rather than making absurd comparisons to Bolivia, Cuba or Venezuela. As we enter the 2020s, the real question is why the Tories and their media cheerleaders have so little faith that the UK can follow the example of other successful economies. Britain needs to rediscover its can-do attitude and elevate its ambitions. As another progressive politician said not so long ago: yes, we can. This will be the election that determines whether we will – or whether the 2020s will be more of the same failed policies that lost us the past decade.
• Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics. He is writing in a personal capacity