The reverberations caused by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party will take a while to settle down, if indeed they ever do. Amongst the discussions and drama to come, I think there are three challenges for Labour that are far greater than any single candidate can seek to address. In fact, a pessimistic part of me believes that even a unified Labour, firing on all cylinders, would not be able to deal with the task ahead.
These are challenges that were not mastered by May 2015, and will condition the party's fitness to govern for the years to come.
1. Britain’s ageing population
This challenge has two dimensions, both critical in terms of Labour’s future. The first is based purely on policy. Key areas – such as health, housing, sustainable pensions, and the future of rural communities, to name just a few – are becoming more and more pertinent as our society ages and an ever larger elderly population is supported by an ever smaller working one. This problem will augment over time, and it will take vast amounts of thought, action and investment to avoid looming fiscal and social black holes towards the middle of this century. Labour and left-wing intellectuals need to devise workable solutions, offering better support for our elderly through more intelligent uses of technology, better structured systems of health and care, and potentially an entire rethink of how we look after people in old age.
The second dimension relates purely to electoral politics. Whilst inextricably linked to the first – as building sensible, appealing policies for elderly people will undoubtedly garner more votes in the future – it is a much more imminent concern for Labour. In May 2015, UKIP almost gained more votes than Labour from the over-65s. Indeed, Labour's electoral success appears to dim the further you travel away from the 18-30 demographic. With some now saying that, based on current trends, the over 55s will form a majority of the electorate at the 2020 General Election, it is imperative that a Labour Party, buoyed up by the youthful enthusiasm of its new members, does not succumb to the temptation that it can perhaps neglect older voters.
2. Addressing globalisation
It is apparent that the Left, across Europe and in some cases further afield, has not developed an adequate, genuine, principled response to the challenges and opportunities of globalisation. The desire to shut-up-shop is often central to the Left’s argument – as in the case of the anti-TTIP protests – which seek to limit the impact of the outside world. Alternatively, at the other extreme, there is a frequent willingness to accept the worst of international capitalism – such as a hyper-inequality of wealth, a race to the bottom on taxation, and devaluation of the state’s power to enact its will – in the hope that the resulting economic growth will be enough to bribe the electorate.
In essence, there is a lack of strategic thought and insight about the concept of globalisation. This is a challenge so substantial that a full solution cannot be proposed in a few cursory sentences. However, in general terms, the Left requires a realistic intellectual and political movement, willing to discuss bold ideas that strike the balance between creating wealth and ensuring social and political justice for citizens across the world. Formulating a progressive agenda on globalisation is a complex challenge, but it is one that Labour must begin to contemplate.
3. Going beyond tax and spend
This may be the most difficult challenge for the Labour Party – in particular given Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies – but it is indeed fundamentally necessary. I certainly do not mean to suggest that tax and spend should be entirely abolished as a concept. Rather, the Labour Party merely needs to realise that the general population has developed an inherent mistrust of centralised, large-scale economic policies, through which small elite groups in government decide upon the fate of millions and the spending of billions. Labour must move beyond a one-dimensional economic agenda that proposes to tax a little extra here, spend a little extra there, in the hope that it will add-up to a coherent and appealing package.
The party must discuss and propose grander, more innovative ideas to improve peoples' lives and involve them in political institutions. This must include devolution – to the smallest practical level for any and every service. The UK Parliament and central government must step back from the close management of its citizens, and instead empower regional governments and councils to run their own affairs. This could also involve corporate democracy – such as linking CEO pay to worker pay (e.g. only allowing managers to earn 50 times more than their lowest paid staff) and mandating worker representation on boards.
I would like to finish by highlighting that this is not an attack upon Labour’s new leadership. Whilst I remain highly doubtful that Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas will meet the challenges of the 21st century and return Labour to Downing Street, I certainly recognise his mandate to try.
Indeed, ultimately, these challenges go beyond the leadership of the party. Labour must change at every level. It must offer a better, bolder, more innovative, more compelling offer to the British people.
The stakes for the Labour Party could not be higher. It faces irrelevance if it fails to adapt its eternal principles to the realities of the modern world. Inaction is not an option.