Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Onlookers of a train wreck

Perhaps it is time to avert out eyes from the slow-motion train-crash of the Labour government and the varied cries of the occupants. It’s fascinating, of course, and possibly marks an historic turning point in British political life. But we also need to acknowledge that the British left are, at least at the moment, cast purely as onlookers of the wreck whether laughing or crying. This is almost the perfect storm for our social system. Financial greed has sunk the economy whilst personal greed has blown away support for our political leaders. The Labour Party, the monolith which has held sway over left politics since the 1920s, may be on the verge of meltdown. And yet it is hard to find a single voice which is distinctively of the left which can be heard. At the moment when some new leadership is desperately required — step forward Esther Rantzen.

It is not as though there is any lack of groups which claim to stand for some part of the left. The Labour Representation Committee (aka John McDonnell MP), and the Compass group (aka John Cruddas MP) within the Labour Party and a myriad of groups outside it, all claim some kind of left presence and all virtually ignore each other just as they are largely ignored by the electorate. Meanwhile the country’s favourite left politician is Vince Cable, a classic social democrat effectively marooned within a party which clings to the centre ground like a limpet. The next general election is less than a year away and it promises to be a wild one. A left alliance of some kind putting forward radical policies for both the economy and the political system could be sure of a hearing and could even win seats. Yet even initial steps for the formation of such an alliance are lacking.

One thing which needs to be accepted is that the English left’s basic problem right now is its failure to understand just what it stands for, a fundamental block as to how it is defined. The left as a loose political alliance standing for progressive reform of capitalism has been around for as long as capitalism itself. It was first defined as a seating bloc in the National Assembly set up by the French revolution. Its aims have changed over the years as many of its initial demands such as an enlarged suffrage and rights of free speech have been effectively won and become part of the general political consensus. But always it has been composed of a broad spectrum of opinion. The key turning point for left politics, at least in Europe, came at the end of the nineteenth century when a hegemonic position within this broad left was taken by the socialist left, which promised not just to reform capitalism but to replace it. This dominance was maintained through most of the twentieth century even thought the socialist left itself split into many pieces. As late as the early 1980s, it would have been impossible to be adopted as a Labour candidate without accepting the label ‘socialist’ however nuanced might have been the individual interpretation of the tag. (Gordon would probably have still believed in it; Tony would have produced the famous boyish grin and sworn undying allegiance).
This dominant role gradually disintegrated in the last two decades of that century. In Britain, this happened because of two factors. First, the failure of the socialist left to provide any effective opposition to Thatcher instead collapsing into the sectarian squabbles which marked both the climactic miners’ strike and the local council resistance to rate-capping. In its place a more generalised radical opposition was partially successful centred on specific issues such as nuclear power or gender and race. These were radical left but not socialist campaigns and led to what might be called the NGOing of the left, something to which I referred in my last piece. By this I mean the left as a set of single-issue campaigning and lobbying bodies. The second factor was the collapse of communism which, however much various groups may have distanced themselves from this ‘actually existing’ form of socialism, led to a general failure of confidence in any definition of socialism.
The result of this has been that the organised left, whether inside or outside the Labour Party, still largely assumes that ‘socialism’ in some form retains its hegemony within the wider left but has, in fact, been left trailing behind waving banners with largely incomprehensible slogans. It is not just that a centralised machine in the Labour Party has crushed left-wing dissent, though of course it has. The key point is that this effective obliteration of the Labour left was enabled by its inability to re-define what it actually stood for. There can be little more symbolic evidence for this than the adoption by one strand of the left the title of Labour Representation Committee, a name which harks back over a hundred years to a long-past mythical world when Labour was, in principle at least, socialist.
So what is to be done? A starting point might be setting out a set of principles which could be said to define the broad left. This is an example of what these might be:
that the left encompasses those who believe in some measure:
• that usually social and collective responses to general social and economic issues are to be preferred to individual ones;
• that, in particular, market processes are undesirable in providing public services;
• that these public services include education, health and public security as well as some other areas which might include some natural utility and transport monopolies and some aspects of housing;
• that services such as health and education should be free to all without discrimination;
• that a practical and functioning democracy should exist in all areas of social activity including economic;
• that forms of ownership other than private may be preferred in many sectors of the economy;
• that all citizens are entitled to receive a basic level of financial support from the state if they are without personal resources;
• and that equality is a public good in its own right.

There is plenty of scope for the argument and dispute traditional on the left over these and it is likely that they could be expanded particularly internationally, but they encompass what most would think of as forming the broad left. It also excludes certain key issues, notably climate change, on the grounds that this is not simply a left issue though they need to be taken on by any agent on the left.

Where could the left go if something like this could be adopted as a definition of ‘left’? Perhaps it could then start on a process of forming some kind of coalition around these aims to include existing groups, some sitting MPs and all those prepared to stand in an election on such a platform. It would mean some people finally breaking with the Labour machine and some swallowing of differences over narrow arguments about how to interpret them. It would also require many socialists accepting that their position needs to be coherently argued rather than naively asserted as obvious. All this is difficult. But in the context of a general breakdown of traditional political allegiances it could bring the left back into the business of how Britain can get through this perfect storm.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

I have had a few testy comments about my last piece, in particular my description of the English left having no politics just policies. It is clear that to some people the distinction is not clear. Perhaps I should explain.

A policy is some measure that one would like to see put into practice. Politics is about how one goes about exerting enough power to actually get a particular set of policies in place. The two are not wholly separable. If one wants, for example, to nationalise all the banks or create an independent Scotland then the kind of politics one engages in will be different to that if one wishes to, for example, alter the capital-reserve ratios of banks or give greater freedom to local councils to build houses. There are levels of policy change which imply different levels of political action. But there is a clear distinction: politics is about power, policy is about how power is used. And just as the formation of alternative policies requires a culture in which policy can be debated so any politics requires a culture in which alternatives can be considered, compromises reached and differences resolved ─ or not.

The English left (and specifically the English left) has taken a decade to find itself a culture of policy formation after the intellectual battering which it took under Thatcherism culminating in the sneering and condescension which it suffered in the early years of New Labour when just the curling of Peter Mandelson’s lip or the raising of Tony Blair’s eyebrow was enough to see off any faint effort to resist free market liberalisation. No longer. Mandelson’s reported histrionics in Cabinet, when he banged his head on the table at voiced opposition to privatising the Post Office, are no longer effective. The recession has clearly spelled an end to extreme neo-liberalism, simply on the grounds that it obviously doesn’t work, but there is also some solid spadework being done on what kind of policy alternatives might exist to this discredited paradigm. The Compass seminar just before the G20 summit showed off some of these and the current issue of Soundings magazine provides other examples. (

But what the left lacks is any political culture which is concerned with how these policies could be comprehensively implemented. I described in my previous piece how the English left has become almost an extension of progressive charities and think-tanks, bodies which are good at forming policies but whose political purchase is essentially one of lobbying the existing power centres. Such lobbying can be effective. The environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace have shown that strenuous lobbying combined with good PR can get results. But lobbying has its limits, ones shown most clearly in a time when some kind of fundamental shift in the way a society runs may be on the cards. There has been enough talk about the ‘end of capitalism’ to suggest that we may in the midst of such a moment now. In this situation, the limits of lobbying are very apparent for in the end all the left is able to do with its new policies is write a letter to Gordon or, after the apparently inevitable election defeat for Labour, hope that someone better turns up. A good example of the limits of such lobbying is the Compass campaign to stop privatisation of the Royal Mail. In the end its alternative plan, a good policy proposal, culminated in a meeting at No 10 with ministerial aides which ‘failed to convince’ them.

We all know that Britain in a political as well as an economic crisis with the former arguably being more serious than the latter. Already the Labour Party seems to be writing its own suicide note as the wrangling over the Brown succession begins. There are strong rumours that the right of the party is preparing an exit strategy based upon some kind of organised defection to the Lib Dems or, possibly, the Conservatives. However the left, both inside and outside the LP, seems frozen, unable even to think about its political response. The one independent action taken so far is the NO2EU campaign fronted for various far-left fractions by the RMT union-leadership (though without any consultation with its members). Apart from its slightly racist overtones (how could they dream up the slogan ‘It’s a Black and White Issue’ straight from the BNP lexicon), the very name seems like a throwback to the 1970s when opposition to the EU was devised as a substitute for genuinely radical policies. (See Gayle O’Donovan’s diary for more on this).

Apart from this bizarre distraction, there is a vacuum. There remains an almost pathological aversion to discussing the one obvious way forward ─ that the LP should split and that that the left should reform around a new political formation along the lines of those already formed in Germany and Italy. A key demand of this formation and one which could make it instantly popular would be the reform of the British electoral system. This aversion has long historical roots. Any suggestion of a split has been anathema on the left since the 1930s after Ramsay MacDonald’s defection pushed Labour outside government for a decade and more. The entire left, within and without the LP, from then on uniformly believed in the general strategy of winning it for the left though, of course, the precise tactics for achieving this differed acrimoniously between the various groups. There was a moment around 1980 when this strategy appeared to have been successful only to founder on the rocks of an intransigent right-wing prepared to sabotage electoral success to prevent any left victory. The same is likely to be true now unless the left is prepared to take a much tougher and more strategic approach, ditching the Labour machine which now wholly controls the party and preparing to face the task of rebuilding the left around a different organisation. It would be a difficult choice and one which would involve a great deal of hard negotiation. But it would at least be about politics.