Vote Labour: My speech at the Cambridge Union

Yesterday, I gave the opening speech at the Cambridge Union for the proposition, ‘This House Would Vote Labour’. Here’s what I said (abridged). I hope you will join me in voting and/or campaigning for Labour in the coming UK General Election–because Labour will help everyone, not just the billionaire class:

We’ve reached the fork in the path. To the right, there’s a cliff edge. In the centre, there’s a brick wall. To the left, there are open fields… 

The choice this country and this city face is the same. It is a choice not only about our values of community and freedom, but also about our very survival as a civilisation. While I argue that the same old Tory-Lib Dem policies will lead to climate chaos, social alienation, and economic exploitation, a Labour government would steer us towards survival, community, and freedom. Here’s why.

Image by Walter Crane, 1889, ‘Solidarity of Labour’, showing workers from all continents unified under the angel of freedom

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reckons we have twelve years to halve global carbon emissions. The alternative is 2 degrees of global warming, causing heat waves, extreme storms, drought, and—if we reach 4 degrees—the expansion of Saharan deserts to Europe, and the forcible migration of people to Canada, Russia, and the Southernmost parts of Latin America.  

So, why are global emissions still rising, given what we know now?

First, the billionaire class—as one study from Benjamin Page and colleagues shows—doesn’t care nearly as much about the climate as everyone else. So long as we’re run by governments that, constrained by their billionaire donors and an outsized financial sector, cut both taxes for the rich and public-service funding, there’s no hope of changing a thing.

Second, states are national. But climate change results from a global economy spiralling out of control. We need transnational—and, ultimately, global—political unity to fight this crisis.  

So, what party in the UK wants to both take back control from the billionaires and help create international political structures for combatting climate change? That’s right—Labour. 

Labour wants economic redistribution and a Green Industrial Revolution at home, and would be able to legitimate political integration on a European and—someday—global level. Whenever liberal centrists try justifying political integration by privatising stuff, they fail. Just look at the violent reaction to Macron’s fuel tax and labour-market reforms in France. Imagine the reaction to a Lib Dem government whose fiscal rule of a historically unprecedented budget surplus requires more austerity than the Tories.

But just as governments in the ‘50s and ‘60s used public investment to increase growth and reduce inequality and debts, Labour wants to tax the rich, invest £500bn in decarbonised growth, and participate in the UN’s Green Climate Fund to help poor states decarbonise. Labour is uniquely up to the task of helping steer us from climate anarchy towards survival. 

There’s another reason for voting Labour, besides survival. Community. Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘there is no such thing as society’. She was true to her word, reducing taxes on the rich and eroding the welfare state and labour unions. As a result, people now feel more alienated than ever before. Without strong unions and a strong welfare state, people are left at the mercy of market forces. Karl Polanyi, writing towards the end of the Second World War, had seen this all before. It was called the 1920s.  

The New York Stock Market Crash followed the ‘20s era of deregulation and rising inequality, leading to a Depression that fuelled the rise of fascism. This was an extreme example of the surest pattern of modern history. Whenever markets are let loose from social and political constraints, they ravage every community they meet, producing commodity bubbles, economic crises, and ‘countermovements’—or drives by people to re-embed markets in society.

There are right-wing countermovements which try to make capitalism more nationalist, racist, and authoritarian. And there are left-wing countermovements which blame unfettered capitalism and say the economy really does need to be controlled by the many, not just the few—like when Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, despite Tory objections, created the National Health Service out of the ashes of the Second World War, or when US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought the oil monopolies, taxed the rich, and used massive public investment to help everyone after the Great Depression.

The centre-ground Establishment produced this crisis. The question is, which anti-Establishment choice do you choose? Nationalism, authoritarianism, and alienation? Or cooperation, democracy, and community? Labour is both the best and the only real alternative to the failed status quo

Survival or chaos, community or alienation. The sensible choice seems obvious. Why would Labour be the moral choice? Freedom. Here’s why. 

Capitalism has developed technology to an unprecedented stage. In antiquity, most people were chattel slaves, working for their masters in exchange for food and shelter. But in the early modern period, smaller population sizes and expropriation of common land forced many peasants to become wage labourers, leading to a shift from chattel slavery to wage slavery. It’s still slavery: as an employee, you spend your day slaving at economic tasks—but you’re given a wage in return for your labour. You become a wage slave.

Freedom, as Aristotle pointed out, means having leisure time for meaningful activity—like contemplation, this discussion, music, or art that would never sell in a market, but gives you, personally, meaning. Without leisure time, we aren’t free. And when we have incomplete leisure time, we have none—as many exhausted working people bombarded by marketeers now spend all their non-work eating crisps or watching Netflix. Today, we work and play in slavish ways. 

Labour will reduce working time from five to four days over a ten-year period. They’d also give people a raise. As wage increases speed up automation, in due course, Labour’s economic policy may allow everyone to receive, in addition to good public services, a high universal basic income of around, say, £30,000 by 2040—less than current GDP per capita! We can all be free—free to love not money and status but wisdom and community. That is the true meaning of freedom. It has no price tag—but it does have a Labour sticker. 

So, the choice is clear. To the right, there is chaos, alienation, and exploitation. In the centre, there is more of the same—more chaos, more alienation, and more slavery. To the left, there is survival, community, and freedom. So, the question, ‘should this house vote Labour?’, is hardly a question at all. I think we know by now that the answer is crystal clear—if only we have the courage to shine a light on the open fields beyond…  

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