Picture Credit: M J Richardson
After a brief hiatus, politics is back in full flow. Normal disputes have replaced the relative unity of the first weeks of lockdown. But we can be sure that post-pandemic politics will not look the same as the politics we left behind. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the lives of millions of people and will undoubtedly inform the politics of years to come. For the left, this can be an opportunity. The pandemic revealed the extent to which we rely on each other. This can hopefully be the basis for a new sense of social solidarity and the death knell for Thatcherite individualism. Unlike during the 2008 financial crash, the most recent comparable crisis, the Labour Party is in opposition with fresh leadership. In this context, Starmer’s Labour cannot win by replicating New Labour’s appeal but should forge its own distinctive message based on social solidarity.
In the 1970s and 80s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives embraced the idea of the ‘economic man’ – cold, calculating and concerned only with the wellbeing of himself and his family. Rather than seeing them as members of communities, Thatcherism reimagined the public as consumers, expecting the lowest price for government services. This paved the way for mass privatisation and the decimation of the welfare state. Thatcherism ended the post-war consensus and reconfigured politics around a new common sense: economic liberalism coupled with traditional conservative themes of family, nation and law and order. Though Thatcher is dead, the model whose creation she oversaw has lived on. While the Blair and Brown governments expanded the role of the state in some respects, their reforms were hamstrung by New Labour’s continued commitment to Thatcherite rhetoric on individualism, embracing the language of efficiency, marketisation, competition and value-for-money.
Covid-19 has shattered this individualistic view of society. While the effects of the pandemic are certainly felt disproportionately by some groups, the coronavirus can be spread by anyone. Almost everyone knows someone who is shielding because of an underlying health condition, an essential worker with increased exposure to the disease, or an older person who is at acute risk. Ironically, social distancing has revealed how interconnected we all are. While it might seem in most individuals’ immediate interests to carry on life as normal, the pandemic requires collective action and collective sacrifice. The Thatcherite model is not equipped for this. As Boris Johnson himself has said, “what the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society”.
Coronavirus can be seen as presenting many with a kind of prisoners’ dilemma. For many individuals, especially the young and healthy, the rational response to coronavirus, at least in theory, is to carry on life as normal, enjoying social interaction and preserving material wealth. But everyone is bound to suffer as a result of individualistic rationalism, from an overwhelmed health system, economic harm (caused by the huge loss of life as well as by plummeting consumer activity), and the suffering of loved ones. The economic man is doomed to failure in light of coronavirus.
Some countries have taken a Hobbesian approach to this problem, concluding that only coercive power can overcome coordination problems. China’s huge state capacity has been mobilised in the service of widespread surveillance and implementing restrictions on potential virus-spreaders. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced a state of emergency, granting his government the right to rule by decree indefinitely. While this has now ended, Orbán used the opportunity to cement his power. In Singapore, stay-home notices are enforced with regular texts and calls from the government, with potential penalties of up to six months in jail, fines worth thousands of pounds, or both.
In the UK, we should not confuse intrusive or inconvenient social distancing measures with the reach of a totalitarian state. Frankly, the state here lacks the capacity to truly enforce social distancing. Instead, lockdown was made possible by a sense of social solidarity. Indeed, researchers from UCL and the LSE found that fear of deterrence or catching the virus was not a predictor of lockdown compliance. Instead, people were motivated by social norms and support for the NHS. Researchers found that 87% of people agreed that ‘observing the social distancing laws shows other people in my community that I care for their safety’ and 82% agreed that ‘following the social distancing rules helps me feel that I am part of the collective fight against the pandemic’. This is a massive shift in our expectations of the public, from atomised economic individuals to participants in a broader community.
As yet, it is not obvious how this shift will affect public policy preferences but early research suggests a clear change in perceptions. Polling for More In Common revealed that the number of people who see Britain as a society ‘where people look after each other’ has tripled. BritainThinks found that only 12% of people want life to return to normal “exactly as it was before” once the pandemic is over. Meanwhile, support for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has surged, with respondents specifically citing that UBI would support those who do not usually rely on welfare. In the wake of the pandemic, people are looking for solutions which recognise a shared experience of the pandemic which has touched on almost everyone in some way.
For the left, this is an unparalleled opportunity. Since 1979, Labour has struggled to adapt to Thatcherite hegemony, governing for only 13 out of 41 years. New Labour’s success was built in part on convincingly adopting in the language of individualism. Now, Coronavirus may finally signal the end of the Thatcherite paradigm, leaving Labour with a real chance to shape a new hegemony as it did in the 1940s. Keir Starmer’s party must resist the temptation to try and turn back the clock to New Labour, and it must decisively reject the language of individualism and citizens-as-consumers. The re-emergence of social solidarity necessitates a renewed commitment to universalism and cooperative ideals. This approach can address the immediate concerns of those most affected by the pandemic – essential and precarious workers, BAME communities, those with underlying health conditions – as well as drawing on the burgeoning social solidarity of more unlikely potential Labour supporters.
Coronavirus presents the Labour Party an unprecedented opportunity to reshape society, and we would do well to grasp it with both hands.