The Future Left

BARRY WINTER considers the prospects for the left after the 2010 election. He argues that any future centre left alliance must include socialists, and that the politics of the city can play an important role in reconnecting the left.

‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose… The materialist and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities between rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on like this.’ Tony Judt (2010)

I have a confession to make which may put a question mark over the validity of my views about the prospects for the left – or my preferred title: ‘The Future Left’.

When asked about the likely election result, I said that I thought that the Tories would gain a sufficient majority to govern alone. Nor was I quick to anticipate that there would be a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The only person I heard suggest this possibility was the historian, Simon Sharma, who raised the idea early on election night. Surprised to hear this, I immediately rang a close political friend who, like me, had never contemplated the prospect. Half and hour later, he rang back to say there might be something in it. So, as you can see, I am not exactly well-placed to make prognostications about the future left.

But perhaps I am not alone. In my defence, let me cite a recent article by two, young, right-wing Tories who are deeply critical of the way their leadership conducted their campaign. They argue that the reasons why the Tories failed to win an additional 20 seats and thereby gain a clear majority were:

  • the grass roots of the party were demoralised by the centralised selection process and the imposition of candidates, and they failed to convince the voters
  • the tightly-controlled campaign failed to listen to those on the ground, focussed on advertising not canvassing, and failed to utilise the depth of the team around David Cameron
  • there was no clear, consistent Conservative message for campaigners to push on the doorstep
  • traditional Tory supporters were turned off by the campaign.

From my own discussions with politics students, I learned that in one constituency, at least, Tory activists hated David Cameron.

Interestingly, some of these criticisms might equally apply to Labour’s campaign. My main fear – fortunately never turned into a public prediction – was that Labour might implode electorally to the advantage of the far right (for example, in Stoke Central). In part, this did not happen because, in spite of the issues surrounding Gordon Brown’s leadership style and the lack of a clear political message, Labour ran a well-organised campaign – and its members worked hard on the ground. Tribute to them for that, particularly given that since 1997 the party’s membership has halved.

Prospects for the left

Obviously how we understand the prospects for the left depends on how narrowly or broadly we define the left. I am defining the left broadly to include those critical of the consequences of capitalism as well as those who identify capitalism more sharply as the enemy. I want to include socialists and social democrats, as we ll as those who adopt broadly progressive views about social injustice and inequality.

First, some pointers:

  1. Much depends on events beyond our control and on how we respond to the continuing economic recession: to the waves of cuts to the public sector and public provision; to the punishment of those who did not create the recession by those who did.
  2. The progress of the new coalition. It’s too soon to say whether this turns out to be a new and lasting form of parliamentary politics or a Faustian deal that proves to the road to hell for the Lib Dems. We should not be too surprised at their ability to do deals. While they have policy differences, ideologically and culturally they have a lot in common.
  3. The state of the left. However badly Labour did (particularly in the South East), having looked at it in detail the electoral support for the far left was, I think, insignificant. Labour is down but certainly not out. To some extent, it can be transformed. The leadership election is important in this respect but restoring democracy and making party membership meaningful is even more so, particularly after the damage done by new Labour. The party has to recognise that new Labour’s two Faustian deals disillusioned a huge swathe of progressive and humanitarian people, particularly among the young. Namely, the deal done with US imperialism over Iraq, which has had tragic consequences. Secondly, the deal struck with global capitalism in general, and the City in particular, which despatched a layer of the working class into political oblivion and further encouraged the growth of an inegalitarian, semi-detached, and corrupt society. The rot began at the top and spread downwards.

In part, how we respond to all this depends on how the debates are conducted, and on the role of the left and centre-left in the party.

I like some of what I’ve heard so far in the leadership debates. While I am inclined at this stage to support Ed Miliband, I was pleasantly surprised to hear what his elder brother, David, had to say recently. Having talked of the need, not just to appeal to the centre ground, but to move it, he acknowledged the need to rebalance the economy between financial services and other industries.

Among the points he made were:

‘I believe that inequality of power matters alongside inequalities of wealth and opportunity. Idealism is the lifeblood of the party. Not divorced from reality, but focussed on reality, which is too unequal, too insecure, and too unstable for the majority of the people.

‘So the question for Labour is how to achieve this connection with the public and loyalty to our own values. I think there is only one way: to recognise that the way we have been doing politics in government have made it more difficult not less to stay in touch with both the public and our values.

‘[Unless we change] the way we do politics – starting with this [leadership] campaign – we will not deserve to win. [A] political party that is not a living, breathing movement does not become a permanent party of government; it is on the road to opposition.

‘And that is what happened to us. So by 2010 we were left with an old model of party organisation out of touch with the modern needs of transparency, openness, pluralism, dialogue. We were disconnected from our voters but also from our members. And this is what has to change in a fundamental way. It is what I mean by a movement for change… and we should be campaigners for local change.’

In the pre-election period, Compass, the important, centre-left group in the Labour Party, the MP John Cruddas, and the editor of Soundings, all signalled the need for links with progressive Liberals, especially those around the Social Liberal Forum. They suggested their interest in such an alliance was being reciprocated.

I was a bit put out that they did not specifically mention ‘socialists’ as an important part of this alliance. Cruddas certainly talks about the importance of restoring ethical socialism to the Labour Party, saying: ‘We must go back to first principles of ethical socialism, a radical transfer of political power, social influence, income and wealth from labour to capital.’

I am also heartened by some of the ideas that Cruddas has been voicing about morality and community. He talks about a modern social democracy and, while I think this needs more critical scrutiny, especially about its limits, the idea is pushing in a positive direction.

Of the party, he notes the ‘loss of our language’ in terms of empathy and generosity, suggesting that we retreated into a framework of the right. He even calls for the restoration of neighbourliness and mutual support.

So I am hopeful that socialists can also be accommodated round his discussion table.

Compass recognises that a modern, progressive social democratic Labour Party is not enough to make real social change – it reaches out beyond the party to a variety of movements and campaigns. It is novel to hear the social democratic left – and I do not use the term in a negative way – make connections with others inside and, no less importantly, outside the party.

For me, a dialogue within and beyond social democracy, based on working and arguing fraternally together, is going to be vital. We all need to find ways to connect with wider society: with a new generation of younger people, much less attracted to the old, tribal loyalties; with sections of workers at the sharp end of cuts and facing unemployment; with families who are feeling the pinch; with an array of movements, about the environment, or seeking electoral reform; and with faith and community groups seeking social justice, such as London Citizens.

We need to regenerate a radical, political culture from below as the foundation for any material change. We need to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles for change, and to experiment in new forms of politics.

However, there is a problem with the broad alliance approach. Unlike the traditional Marxist focus on the working class as the agency for social transformation, it is vaguer and messier. Politics is a messy, untidy business, but critics have a point – we do need to try to be more specific.

The strategy of a vague, broad alliance raises some questions for the left:

  • Can a broad, diffuse alliance of forces become an agency for real change?
  • If so, how can it be channelled, and in what direction? What sort of focus, or sense of political space, does it need?

I have a few crude suggestions of where we can start:

Our history

Socialist movements were primarily alliances between the organised working class and sections of the middle class based in cities – and they always did better in the north. They emerged from the grass roots, through local government and local struggles. It was the city that often provided the focus for political activity, for electioneering and campaigning.

In her book Twenties London: A City in the Jazz Age (2003), Cathy Ross says:

‘A 20th-century London emerged during the 1920s as a city with a renewed sense of public interest embodied in its public spaces, streets, buildings and services; but also a city in continual debate as to how controls could be reconciled with the city’s traditional virtues as a place of diversity and individual freedom.

‘The idea that London could be transformed into an ‘ideal city’ or ‘city beautiful’ was not exactly new, but what characterised the twenties chapter of the debate was the fervour with which the vision of the ideal city was linked to the public sphere. The public sphere was now generally acknowledged to be one of the main criteria by which London as a city would be judged as civilised. The enthusiasm for the public good was encouraged by democracy. The drive was to improve living conditions for the urban masses: brighter, cleaner streets; petrol; electricity.’

The city

I would suggest that:

  • The city can be a basis for internationalism – for links with other cities across the globe, through twinning, via universities, and so on.
  • The city can be a focus on resources – see participatory budgets in Port Alegre; and London Citizens’ campaigns for a living wage (originally formulated by the ILP in the interwar years).
  • The city can be the basis for new forms of community and co-operation.
  • The city can provide a focus for tackling what is happening to people’s lives – in areas such as transport and housing – and for bringing disparate peoples together on the basis of common interests, local and beyond.
  • The city raises questions about the environment, ownership of land, and public provision.

Of course, this is not to deny the terrain of the state itself but I want us to reconsider the ‘local’ as part of the global.

Watching a production of ‘Counted’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse recently, a play based on interviews with a wide range of people, particularly the young and politically disaffected, what came across was the sense that they feel they don’t really count. The politics of the city can help to address that and provides an opportunities to engage.

If we do, maybe, we can begin to challenge the disconnection between their lives and experiences and the future left.

This is an edited version of a talk given to the Leeds Soundings group and the ILP’s weekend seminar in Scarborough on 5/6 June 2010.

References:

Hilley, C. and Knight, J. (2010) Falling Short: Why ‘Project Cameron’ Failed to Get a Majority, Euro RSCG Apex Communications, May.

Judt, T. (2010) Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on our Present Discontents, London: Allen Lane.

Miliband, D. (2010) Extracts from speech at Progress conference.

Ross, C. (2003) Twenties London: A City in the Jazz Age, London

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan
    11 September 2010

    Interesting and thought provoking article which I need to re-read.

    Initial questions: What do you do if you don’t live in a big city? Is politics pointless in towns?

    In what ways is society ‘corrupt’? Are you making a moral judgement about people at large?

    How do you pay for public services if tax revenues decline substantially and are dependent on borrowing? As a civil servant, I’d like to know.

    How do you rebalance the economy? Join the Euro, perhaps?

  2. Barry Winter
    20 September 2010

    Thanks, Jonathan, for your interest in the article, The Future Left, and my apologies for not responding to your questions sooner.

    The purpose of the piece (and the two talks on which it was directly based) sought to open a discussion on how the left should be responding to the current situation. These conditions include the way that the economic crisis has been politically recast as a problem of the public sector, the electoral defeat of New Labour, the new Coalition government, and not least, the parlous state of the left itself. Obviously, much more needs to be said and here I would recommend the recent article ‘The Political Struggle Ahead’ by Doreen Massey in the current issue of Soundings (Issue 45, Summer 2010) as a good place to start.

    In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the questions you raise.

    What do you do if you don’t live in a big city? Is politics pointless in towns?

    My aim here was not to devalue politics in towns or other forms of politics but to revalue and reaffirm the importance of the city in future political struggles. This is something that is being widely discussed by others but less so in the ILP.

    To put it crudely, the cities provide some of the clearest embodiments of modern capitalism today. They throw together different populations and issues in a particularly graphic manner, which really need to be seriously addressed. I am also aware that many struggles require definable boundaries for people and while that should be exclusively cities (where the majority of humanity now reside), the city does offer an important place of co-ordination and political leverage. Of that may be true of towns too. Of course, where the boundaries of cities are is debatable. Barcelona, for example, is a city region because its influence stretches well beyond the confines of the urban centre itself. Cities have hinterlands which should be included in the processes of resistance and challenge.

    In what ways is society corrupt? Are you making a moral judgement of people at large?

    Capitalism involves a set of corrupting processes, many operating through markets; its values are greed, rampant materialism, possessive individualism and acting in one’s narrowly defined self-interests. As you know, socialists have long tried to offer very set of different values – social responsibility, collective belonging and community, solidarity.

    Consumer culture and, more recently, the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in have accentuated the former at the expense of the latter. While the beneficiaries of these processes have largely been rich elites, we are all at risk of being seduced by them to differing degrees. The success of the system is partly measured by the way that it shapes our thinking and it has to be challenged. As with the corrupting processes associated with the financial markets the rot started at the top.

    How do you pay for public services if tax revenues decline substantially and are dependent on borrowing?

    This is not something that my article directly sought to address – important it is. It would also involve a more in-depth review that I can offer here.

    Sure, public services are dependent on either taxation from individuals and companies or upon borrowing. My limited awareness of the subject is that we are not a particularly highly taxed society (despite the outpourings of the Taxpayers’ Alliance); certainly the evidence for legal avoiding of tax and illegal evasion shows that there is plenty of money out there if it can be redirected (as Nick Clegg has argued recently). The state has been borrowing money for centuries and there is nothing abnormal about the process.

    Perhaps, more pertinent to say is that high taxation is a political issue that is faced in more healthy social democratic societies by ensuring that the majority has a stake in gaining the benefits.

    How do you rebalance the economy? Join the Euro, perhaps?

    Forgive me, but I do not want to get into a discussion about the Euro at the present time! There is an interesting review of this issue by Larry Elliot in The Guardian (20 September 2010).

    By rebalancing the economy, I mean addressing the importance of regenerating the UK’s non-financial sectors – manufacturing and production. New Labour tied its – and society’s – fortunes to the City. That helped to undermine the other sectors of the economy (some were already struggling it has to be said) and made us increasingly dependent on banking and finance.

    In her article, mentioned aboce, Doreen Massey identifies the importance of linking this process to the environmental agenda (in particular the New Green Deal). And, while I think we have a long way to go in clarifying these matters, this seems to me to be the direction to take.

    I hope this goes some way to responding to the points that you raise.

    Barry

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