The left must take a lesson from the right and come together to win | Will Hutton

14 May

The political tragedy of the British left is that unlike the right it cannot bear to synthesise its various strands – liberalism, social democracy, socialism – into one political grouping and one electoral proposition. It is not just that they need each other – socialism’s willingness to challenge private power is as vital a part of the alchemy as liberal social democracy’s understanding that, done right, it is capitalism that delivers enormous wealth. But if they don’t act together as the political traditions of conservatism do, a first-past-the-post voting system is cruelly punishing.

The criticism of Labour’s leaked manifesto is thus not that it locked into exploded notions of yesterday’s socialism. Despite the universal bile, a fresh reader will be surprised by its bold willingness to confront the way contemporary capitalism is stratifying the labour market into a new mass precariat and conferring enormous rewards at the top, while crucial public services are being starved of resources or compromised by putting the profit motive first.

The left’s saving grace is that it has the chutzpah and inner anger to want to redress these issues. If this document had been a building block for a broader manifesto which liberals and social democrats could have leavened with the upbeat possibilities of a revisioned, repurposed capitalism along with affirming individual liberties, the result would have been much more persuasive. The hope is that the same mistake is never made again.

Some ideas would have survived. A huge boost to research and development while creating an ecosystem of smart financial and export support for fast-growing smaller companies makes sense. Millions of powerless contract workers in the gig economy need to have the chance to be served by strengthened trade unions. An Office of Budget Responsibility for Health would help to ensure the proper, ongoing funding for the NHS. Addressing the housing crisis with more and better homes is hard to fault. Funding this by reversing some of the recent cuts in taxation, for example returning corporation tax rates to 2012 levels, is hardly the stuff of revolution. Equally, trying to reverse pub closures and getting the Premier League to fund grassroots football are not the preoccupations of backward-looking socialists, but widely shared.

The problem is the liberal social democrat leavening is too weak. There is too much reliance on top-down statism rather than partnership and reshaping the architecture of capitalism. Why not public-benefit companies to deliver public services rather than nationalisation? Why an Orwellian ministry of labour arbitrarily fining companies for having too many well-paid staff? Why not advocate a top-to-bottom recasting of our constitution, voting system and democracy? Why not a more full-throated commitment to Europe? The Corbyn faction derides New Labour, but the Labour party needs both its wings – and a new openness to what the Lib Dems stand for – if it is ever to form a government.

Perhaps being reduced to a parliamentary rump will make everyone, finally, abandon tribalism and make common cause to seek power.

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