If the Labour conference were on now, would I be knocked over by a rush of ideas?
In normal times, the Labour party would be assembling this weekend to attempt catharsis after the most savage electoral defeat since the 1930s. It looked into the abyss of a split, but has held together. Just.
Yet Covid-19 makes impossible an authentic arena where the party could start the multiple encounters and exchange of ideas that will be the foundations for better times. The conference will be online. This is better than nothing but, of necessity, it is bloodless. Politics is a touch business if it is anything.
However, the deadly experience of Covid has opened up politics despite the Conservative landslide. It is a growing commonplace that it has exposed Boris Johnson, and his cabal, as unfit for government. On top, Brexit will so deepen the mire that it will engulf the prime minister. Labour finds itself with political prospects it had no reason to expect 10 months ago.
Yet the challenges are profound – and a normal conference would have had an abundance of fringes on all the issues, with me loping around overheated rooms trying to gauge what was flying and what not.
The first issue would surely have been the need to build a resilient public health system capable of handling pandemics effectively; it is the precondition for all economic and social life.
Local and city government simply has to be more empowered to act, with systematic access to data, on the German model; and, like Germany, the diagnostic capacity has to be built within the public sector rather than run by an uncoordinated jumble of private subcontractors, often party donors.
The Germans also do their capitalism better. I would have been interested to see how many and how well attended would have been the fringes discussing how to get British companies to put the delivery of purpose, German and Scandinavian style, before profit. An increasing number of companies say they are doing just that, and there is a growing range of books, academic programmes and thinktanks devoted to analysing the extensive reforms needed to encourage more. The proposed ownership and corporate law reforms also open the way for intriguing new models for public ownership, not on the 1945 Attlee centralised model, but as self-governing, autonomous organisations with their own constitutions.
Then what to do about the growing monopoly of corporate power – the emergence of big tech, big ag, big pharma, big money – and the parallel emergence of surveillance capitalism built on unhindered access to, and commercialisation, of, our data? This is one of the most urgent issues on the US left, uniting the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democrats: these monopolies have to be broken up and, as Carissa Véliz argues in a powerful forthcoming book, Privacy Is Power, citizens have to be given control of their personal data. It would have been good to have seen how much traction these arguments were having with Labour.
Which feeds into what is happening in the workplace. The gross imbalance of power between too many workers and their employers is not just reflected in poor wages and endemic insecurity – it is that too many workplace cultures are rotten, with workers treated as disposable commodities. There needs to be countervailing power. Maybe the key to growing trade union membership in response is not to have remote big unions but to develop smaller unions keyed more closely into particular industries and localities to which members can relate? The Labour party surely must discuss and debate.
As urgent is alleviating impending mass unemployment. Cutting interest rates, now at 0.1%, or even making them negative, has plainly reached the end of its usefulness. The government has to spend, borrow and, as importantly, mobilise projects across the board that will offer work. The job retention scheme must be kept: the kickstart programme to promote job offers for 16- to 24-year-olds must become a more systematic long-term intervention. How about the National Youth Corps proposed in the Observer in May?
Which relates, in turn, to the happiness and wellbeing movement. Richard Layard has been ploughing this furrow for 20 years: the aim of all policy must be to promote personal happiness. Depression, despair and addiction are rife. A party that could somehow link every proposal it makes to how it will make us personally happier would score a bullseye. It would be good to ground arguments about climate change and the environment in how measures would improve day-to-day life.
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Happiness is certainly not won by singing Rule, Britannia! as we trash our relationships with the EU. Here, a real Labour conference would, I suspect, have had many fringes reflecting the majority of members’ continuing pro-Europeanism – and a belief that Brexit, associated indissolubly with Johnson, his lies and shocking incompetence, is about to become one of the most toxic propositions in British politics. Labour should keep plenty of political water between it and this doomed project.
And although it has always been the most fringe of fringe subjects, what to do about the ramshackle British state and its non-existent constitution? This might have made it up the listings league table. I am ever more convinced that the only way to hold the country together is to create a genuine federal constitution; and, if we are not in the EU, to get as close to it as possible. Bewilderingly, constitutional reform is moving centre stage.
So there are ideas aplenty – and quickening political and social currents – for Labour to exploit if it chooses. The next election is only four years away. It is now that the foundations for winning will be laid. Best get started.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist
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