The Future of the Left

November 10th, 2008  |  Published in Thinking  |  2 Comments

York Discussion Group – October 2008 – Mark Rusling (The Young Fabians)

At the beginning of the Autumn Term Mark Rusling, Chair of the Young Fabians, hosted a Future of the Left discussion group at York University. What follows is NGS York’s responses, ideas and new thinking.

(The comments in the discussion are not the opinion of Mark Rusling or the Young Fabians)

Mark Rusling: Introductory points:

• The whole discussion depends on the results of the US elections which are likely to change the global ideological order to a huge extent.

• The far left believe that any friend of the USA is an enemy. This is unhelpful and impractical.

• The far left have adopted a very narrow world-view, allowing US neoconservatives to ‘adopt’ traditionally ‘left’ ideas such as the importance of human rights.

• The Far Left are the biggest threat to the Left because they have lost track of traditional leftist values.

• The UK has swung right economically over the past few years, and there is no broad coalition on the need for redistribution

• The left should be standing for “equality of autonomy”, supporting people’s capacity to have control over their own life, and autonomy over their decisions, including their opportunity, and the outcome of their ideas.

• The Left are best placed to solve the current economic crisis because the solution must involve state intervention, traditionally a policy objected to by the right

• The Left must get together and ask themselves “What are we for?”

Discussion soundbites:

“Labour have taken the left away from their traditional supporters and roots.” James Thompson

“New Labour has never won on a Left wing platform.”
Mark Rusling.

“The British Left do not exist. The Labour Government is centre right.”
Participant 1

“Labour have had 12 years in which they could have changed the conservative British constitution. However, they have failed to do so. Why are they discussing policies like 40 day detention when they should have been standing for leftist ideas of freedom?”
Michael Shaw

“The white working class has been abandoned rhetorically by the British left.”
Mark Rusling

“Labour have encouraged anti-leftist extremists with the 42 day detention discussion. Their attempts to promote liberty are superficial.”
Vasant Chari

“The divide between New Labour and the Socialist Left is the biggest problem for the Left in our generation.”
Vasant Chari

“The problem of the Left is a problem of communication.”
James Townsend

“Their original ideology causes many people of the left to be uncomfortable with being in power. Labour for example, was formed as a party for outsiders.”
Mark Rusling

“We need a Left Wing force which can critique the structure of society. Labour have now just been dragged into it.”
Sean Glass

“Economic Equality is a good bed-rock idea, but its hard to enact economic policy which enshrines this, given the globalised nature of neo-liberalism.” Liam Paul

“Labour treats the electorate like children. The Left need to talk about race, and about immigration, because if they don’t the BNP will.”
Michael Appleton

Post discussion thoughts:

Participant 1:
Before we draw any conclusions on the future of the left, I believe it is first important to distinguish between its different “factions” and their respective goals.

Sadly, Britain is one of the few countries that I know of (other than the US) where the term socialist is considered an insult, by many if not most a synonym of soviet totalitarianism, so some clarifications and definitions are necessary, simplistic as they may seem.

And to reply to some points..

“Stop the war coalition: The far left believe that any friend of the USA is an enemy. This is unhelpful and impractical.”

What the left and the Stop the War coalition really believe is that, as its chair Tony Benn has put it, “there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber”.

They believe that wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism. That, if the death of 3000 innocent American civilians is a despicable act of terror, which it undoubtedly is, then what can be said of the death of more than a hundred thousand innocent Iraqi civilians? Collateral damage or a crime against humanity?

The real question here is our clear inability to apply the same standards to ourselves that we so eagerly apply to others.

“The Far Left are the biggest threat to the Left because they have lost track of traditional leftist values”

No matter what one says, it was not the “far” left (the term being applied in a relative manner, clearly) that bloodstained the Gulf stream, that made education a privilege, that planned to limit basic freedom with supposed “anti-terror” laws, that wasted billions in an illegitimate war against an abstract noun while being a mere witness to the record-breaking wage inequalities, now worse than under the time of Margaret Thatcher.

This is what losing track really means.

By extension, the biggest threat to the left does not come from parties that hardly anyone supports in the first place, but rather from those who hold the monopoly over the left’s name, and use it in ways that only demonstrate a very flawed understanding of its most basic principles.

“The British socialist left is dead”

It is a fact that the democratic liberal left in this country, ideologically describing a significant part of the population especially among the new Generation, has been left with virtually no representative in the political arena. Labour is undoubtedly well to the right of what it is supposed to stand for, and the statist radicals of Respect et al can hardly provide a realistic alternative to cover for this clear democratic deficit in British politics.

The issue now is not how to secure the Labour Party another term, or hope that “communication” will mitigate its (according even to Nick Clegg) right-wing agenda. The fact of the matter is that communicating with parties that have so different goals, not just different means of pursuing them, can only but result into a pointless search of a lowest common denominator.

The real issue is how to revive the democratic socialist left; and considering that the current systemic crisis requires a drastic reform of many fundamentals of our economy, that the environmental destruction renders the way we do business as completely unsustainable for much longer, that a new New Deal is necessary to pull us out of this mess and that “a new age of American leadership” is at hand, we can be confident that this is becoming increasingly realistic by each passing day.

And as we’ve seen, so is the gradual replacement of the failing neoliberalist rhetoric by a new era of a new post-Keynesian left.

“The left should be standing for equality of autonomy, supporting people’s capacity to have control over their own life, and autonomy over their decisions, including their opportunity, and the outcome of their ideas.”

That is all very well we’re all for any kind of equality, but before we even talk about “equality of autonomy” we’d first need equality of opportunity. Until this precondition is met, which it hasn’t by a very long shot, then “the control and autonomy of people’s own lives and decisions, including their opportunity and the outcome of their ideas” simply refers to the conservative “self-reliance” and social Darwinism rhetoric.

Michael Shaw:
Some thoughts on the future of ideology in modern Britain:

External factors have become the defining points of government in modern times, not ideology. The New York and London bombings have, to paraphrase Tony Blair, changed the rules of the game with regards to foreign policy. An ageing population combined with new discoveries relating to areas such as mental health and genetics have reshaped the NHS, environmental protection has risen up the political agenda, a policy area which (philosophically at least) claims no territory on the left-right axis.

We can no longer talk of the future of the left in terms of governing with a totally leftist ideology. Governance strictly obeying an ideology on the left-right axis will never effectively deal with the real challenges we face, partly due to the international agenda being dominated by specific issues as opposed to ideology, but particularly as new problems emerge which have never before been aligned to either the left or the right.

People themselves constantly remind political commentators that they feel no affinity with a political party – yet people feel very strongly about individual issues. And these issues do not necessarily coagulate at one particular end of the linear left-right spectrum. It is very difficult to pigeonhole dealing with environmental change as a left-wing or right-wing issue. The left have tried to claim it as their territory, yet preservation of the countryside and ‘Beautiful Britain’ have been for years Conservative principles, drawing from their large support base in rural England. Similarly a surge in population has left the issue of immigration control without a natural home on the left-right scale. Controlled immigration is seen as inevitable, albeit for different reasons, on all sides. We have even seen the traditional right take up the baton for those affected by the axing of the 10p tax band.

What will win elections in the future is not positioning oneself on the two-dimensional linear axis, but providing solutions and opportunities for the problems and hazards, which will affect the population in years to come. The liberal democrats are widely criticised for not having an ideology, yet they have become the government and the opposition’s favourite think tank when it comes to borrowing ideas for new policies.

Provided our fundamental freedoms are entrenched, our equality of opportunity is ensured, and our institutions are just, ideology should no longer matter when it comes to governing. Our society is too diverse (as too are it’s challenges) for one ideology to adequately provide the solutions we need.

Participant 1:
A question about Michael’s last paragraph:

Aren’t equality of opportunity, social liberalism and distributive justice left wing ideas? Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think I know many conservatives dedicating themselves to those causes; those that I know are usually too busy trying to convince us that the world is fair and that there is a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Also, the left is not “one ideology”, it is a term describing a variety of political beliefs with exactly those values that you described at its forefront. I resent the belief that the left has a fixed, rigid agenda that makes it collectively incapable of realistically dealing with today’s issues. We do not believe in panaceas, what we do believe is the kind of policies, whatever their form, adhering to the principles you described.

As for the environment; has it not been the left calling for a drastic reform of our production models even when the cheerleaders of the free market were trying to pretend that there is no such thing as man caused climate change? Take a look at American politics for example where this farce continues. At least in Europe, the overwhelming evidence has changed the position of our governments towards our direction. But that does not in the least cancel out the clear ideological connotations surrounding the issues of sustainable development and capitalist growth. On the contrary, the gradual shift towards the former can only be considered as one of the most major victories of the left.

So, in my humble opinion, it does matter a whole lot who is governing. Had it not been for the wider left, the NHS and free national healthcare in general wouldn’t have existed in the first place, the same with social security and the welfare state, not to mention the feminist and civil rights movements, as well as the liberation struggles of the former imperial colonies.

We can’t just nullify everything that has been achieved just because we take it for granted. The world will not be running short of problems any time soon, so I think it is necessary that we try to solve them in a principled manner, a manner that puts the public good before private profit. Which is what the left is all about.

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