Steve Howell – “Living standards & climate change are the 2 great challenges we face, & we need to get the message across that the solution to them is the same: the transformation of our economy.”


“Labour’s plans for public ownership aren’t some kind of political article of faith… they’re an absolute necessity if we are to deliver a green industrial revolution.”

Steve Howell

Last week, we interviewed Steve Howell about the upcoming General Election. Steve worked on the 2017 General Election Campaign and wrote the book Game Changer – 8 Weeks that Transformed British Politics.

Q: Your book ‘Game Changer’ tells the story of the 2017 General Election Campaign. Before we get on to the current election and the task at hand – beating Boris Johnson – could you say why you think it was a game changer and what the key lessons were for the left?

The very fact that we’re having an election nearly three years before the end of the five-year term highlights how it changed politics. Never before has a Tory majority in Parliament ended so swiftly – after just two years, compared to the 18 years we had to endure before the 1997 election. That was remarkable in itself, but all the more so because, when the election was called, we were 20 points behind in the polls and no one thought we had a chance.

Corbyn’s enemies now reverse-engineer the story to say we were lucky because we were up against the worst Tory campaign ever, but most of Labour’s advance in the polls occurred before the Tories published their manifesto and fell into disarray on the dementia tax. In writing the book, I looked for the first reference in the media to a Corbyn ‘surge’ and found it was in the Financial Times on May 16, two days before the Tory manifesto was published.

The surge was actually driven by Labour’s own policies – our position in the polls advanced most strongly in the period between the leaking of our manifesto on May 10 and its official launch on May 16. And that underlines the key issue: the election was a game changer because Labour was campaigning on a programme that broke decisively with the neo-liberal consensus that’s dominated British politics since Thatcher. It showed that left policies can win mass support.

Q: With another General Election now underway, what do you think the key differences will be?

There are three main differences. Firstly, Johnson is desperately trying to steal our thunder. On the NHS particularly, and most recently on fracking, he’s tried to pre-empt our campaign. That’s in itself an achievement – it shows how Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has forced him to make policy concessions – but, obviously, we have to expose how Johnson’s promises are either peanuts compared to the cuts the Tories have made or a complete con – you can bet they’d soon find a way to end the moratorium on fracking if they won the election. 

Secondly, climate change has now moved centre stage. In 2017, polls suggested that only one in ten voters saw it as one of their top three issues. Now, nearly three times as many rank it as an issue that will decide their choice. And Labour’s in a strong position on this. Our strategy for a ‘green industrial revolution’ not only answers the challenge posed by the climate crisis, it is also central to our vision of an economy transformed by investment in new industries and skills. 

The third key difference is obviously the fact that Johnson wants to make the election about ‘getting Brexit done’. As ever, he’s being totally disingenuous because he had a majority of 30 on the second reading of the Bill on his deal and could easily have given MPs the extra days they wanted to debate it. But he’ll still try to play the populist ‘people versus Parliament’ card. The complication for him, though, is Nigel Farage, who – so far – is playing hard ball on both where the Brexit party will stand candidates and the issue of the deal itself, which he dubs a ‘Remainer’s Brexit’. It’s helpful that he’s boxing Johnson into a position where either he’ll have to ditch the deal he’s been vaunting or risk losing crucial votes to Farage’s candidates. 

Q: On Brexit, you have written on how Jeremy Corbyn’s approach can unite the majority of people, but do you think this is something we can easily explain on the doorstep?

I don’t see why not. We’re simply saying that we would negotiate a deal, based on the policy we had in the 2017 manifesto and put it to a vote. We’re promising to deliver what we said we’d do in the last election, with the only difference being that we’ll give voters a final say.

To be credible, it’s important that we stress that the negotiators we send to Brussels are fully committed to achieving a deal. We also need to explain that the EU will be more amenable to a Labour deal because we aren’t trying to turn Britain into a deregulated competitive threat on its doorstep. Labour sees EU standards on employment, the environment and consumer protection as a minimum to build on, not ‘red tape’ to be ripped up.

Q: While Brexit is getting the most media attention, do you think that other issues matter as much or more to people? You’ve mentioned climate change, there’s also the NHS, austerity, the living wage and so on.

People are facing are facing a crisis of living standards. Real wages now are still below the level they were in 2008 – even though real GDP has increased 14%. It’s staggeringly unfair. And it’s worse than the headline figures because they don’t take account of the impact of precarious self-employment and zero hours contracts, the debt burden imposed on young people by tuition fees, the underfunding and undermining of public services, the daylight robbery of state pensions being stolen from people and the many other hardships and injustices inflicted by austerity.

Living standards and climate change are the two great crises and challenges we face, and we need to get the message across that the solution to them is the same: the transformation of our economy so that it serves the many and saves our future.

That transformation necessarily involves the question of ownership and control, because it’s clear that climate change cannot be tackled by relying on the big businesses who’ve taken us to the brink of catastrophe. This was brought into sharp relief only last week when, in the wake of the wildfires sweeping California, the state’s governor – a Clinton-allied Democrat – announced moves to bring the utility company Pacific Gas and Electricity into some form of public ownership. The reality was that the company had failed miserably on every safety and service criteria, while paying billions to shareholders, big packages to executives and funding climate change denial.

Labour’s plans for public ownership aren’t some kind of political article of faith – or ‘statist mindset’, as Lord Mandelson put it recently – they’re an absolute necessity if we are to deliver a green industrial revolution.

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