History is nothing if not ironic. The economic destruction wrought by coronavirus may compel a Tory majority, fresh off the back of an election triumph, to enact the economic agenda of the party they just defeated. How strange it would be to see one of the most brazenly privileged, right-wing prime-ministers of modern times preside over a programme as transformative as that of the post-war Labour government.
Yet, the measures taken by the Tories so far fail to match the gravity of the situation, offering absolutely no reassurance to workers, renters and those in debt. Instead, we get bluster, spin and policy on the hoof. As the pandemic continues to take lives and livelihoods a more radical set of policies will soon be unavoidable. Airlines and train companies will require nationalisation to stop them going bust; utility and rent payments frozen to prevent homelessness; shorter working hours to help businesses stay afloat and workers meet childcare demands; a universal basic income to stop laid-off workers starving; and potentially even something akin to universal basic services in terms of food delivery for the sick and elderly. More generally, significant central planning will soon be necessary to control the supply and demand of basic essentials.
Under any other circumstances, the prospect of such transformative change would delight the left. But the sheer trauma and chaos that faces us prevents any sense of jubilation. There are other more technocratic reasons to feel hesitant. This government does not have the political or intellectual resources to implement a programme that radical and far-reaching. Do we really think that Rishi Sunak and his team of advisers are literate in central planning; or what is needed to nationalise services and run them effectively? Years of antagonism to big government and a dogmatic commitment to free market economics has left Tories intellectually stranded when the market fails to deliver. More importantly, these are not just ideological problems, but complex logistical problems that need serious forethought and planning.
One solution for this would be for Labour to force the Tories into a national coalition government. Not only do we need politicians and policy-makers who have been strategizing these ideas for years, like those on the left of the Labour party have, but we also need an alliance of those most able in parliament to make decisions at a time of unprecedented national emergency.
Grand coalitions of the two main parties have occurred before during similarly crisis-riven times, when single-party administrations appear unable to take the actions necessary to meet the mounting challenges. The most notable for the present circumstances was the Ramsay Macdonald-led Labour minority government, which ultimately failed to deal with the fallout of the great depression in the early 1930s. Macdonald’s decision to bailout the system as opposed to workers, cutting benefits at a time of increasing unemployment, largely to appease the Bank of England, resonates with Johnson’s business-first strategy. Macdonald eventually stood down and returned as leader of a coalition government with the Conservatives and Liberals. Then, only some ten years later, discontent with Neville Chamberlain’s war government again forced the prime minister to stand down and form a cross party coalition led by Winston Churchill.
In neither of these cases did the coalition favour Labour. Power was seized by the Tories, while Labour were left out in the cold. This time is different, however. So much of what must be done is already there in Labour’s 2019 manifesto. There is also a great deal of consensus across the political spectrum that the current crisis explicitly calls for workers to be bailed out, as opposed to business or the banks, hence helicopter money in the US, and talk in the UK of a basic income. But to make sure a broader package is offered to workers government will need to seek cooperation across unions and public services. Labour is the party to lead on this, boasting a long and illustrious history of doing so. We also need a government that recognises the merit of running the NHS as a public service, not a backwater for shady market interests.
At a more basic level, Boris Johnson is too divisive a figure to hold together a nation coming apart at the seams. So far, the Tory response to the crisis has lacked any sense of leadership. Unsurprisingly, confidence in the Prime minister and his lacklustre strategy are seriously low. Greater political and ideological balance might just restore the belief in government a crisis like this requires.
For those of us on the left, this represents an opportunity not seen since the post-war moment. Defeating the pandemic means restructuring the very basis of the capitalist system. At the very minimum, this will require a universal basic income and services, a four-day week, public ownership, rent freezes, proper funding for care and the NHS. What would remain of neoliberalism after this? Indeed, taken together these ‘non-reformist reforms’ - to use the phrase of Andre Gorz, would place us on the capitalist road to communism. The road is on the horizon again, but to bring us closer we need Labour in government.