When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as left-wing. I loathed conservatism with every fibre of my being: the idea that those who were born without wealth somehow automatically deserved that lowly position in the socio-economic scheme of things made me furious; the xenophobia of nationalism I despised; the persecution of minorities and the sexism of our society made me feel like things had to change. Thing is, I still believe in all of those things as much as I ever did. But now I’m usually characterised as centre-right by a lot of people. I didn’t change, in other words – it feels like, to me anyhow, that the Left did, somehow.
After the Berlin Wall came down, everyone ran a mile from socialism. It became accepted wisdom on the left that capitalism had won and that if it wanted to stay relevant, not to mention get into government again, it had to adapt to this. Luckily (or unluckily, dependent on your point of view), there was a young Labour MP who figured he had all the answers to these problems named Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.
There were elements of Blair’s idea of leftism I quite liked: it was aspirational and eschewed the worst parts of socialism. The Third Way was attractive – still is, actually. The concept of looking at social democracy not as some sort of stepping stone to a fully nationalised state, but as an end in itself still feels relevant to me. It was also a government that was openly pro-immigration and pro-EU, something I look back on very fondly now.
What I didn’t like about Blair’s governments would make for a pretty long list, however. There was not only Iraq, which I strongly disagreed with, but the whole quasi-neocon approach to foreign policy. Blair and his front bench were far too right-wing on things like crime and justice, and their take on civil liberties was appalling.
After the 2010 general election, the Labour Party decided that everything to do with New Labour, not just Blair himself but all that had come with him, was now not only in the past but somehow an aberration. It was as if Blair was a demon who had seduced them all, the entire Labour Party, but now they knew better.
Part of this was understandable given how unpopular Blair had become. However, in the aftermath of all of this, the problem now for the Left and those who wish to understand it is coming to grips with what the alternate worldview to Blairism actually consists of in practical terms. Socialism is reasonably easy to understand: you eliminate all private property and private industry. Everything is owned by the state and everyone works for the state. The means of production are shared as evenly as possible with the whole of the population. I get that, even if I don’t like it. Blair’s version of leftism was relatively straightforward as well: capitalism is necessary to keep a liberal society going, but it is full of flaws. Social democracy exists to fill in the holes that capitalism leaves behind with the view being to eliminate poverty as much as possible by bringing as many people into the active economy as can be achieved. For those who cannot rise, there is a safety net.
I couldn’t even begin to describe in the same kind of language what the Left is about at the moment. Like I say, New Labour and Blair have been rejected, so there’s no halfway house available. Therefore, what is the actual worldview of left-wing Britain in 2015 in concrete terms?
I figured the Greens recently released manifesto was a good place to start looking for answers. Whatever else you might say about the document, most people would describe it as “very left-wing”. Yet even here, socialism is not embraced – it is very clear from the manifesto that liberal democracy is a desired state of affairs and full nationalisation is not a destination. There is this clear streak of libertarianism that runs through it as well: it is unabashedly pro-immigration, pro-minority rights, and it seems to want the “zero growth” thing mostly because they want poor people to be free of their dreary jobs in order to self-actualise. So there is an unquestionably present conceptualisation of freedom of the individual. Yet at the same time, the state is massively interventionist. The Greens do not seem to understand that there are trade-offs to be made here between freedom of the individual and equality of all citizens in the country. Socialists understood the difference, so did Blair; but this seems to be a quandary to be simply avoided by the modern day Left. It’s one thing for the economics of the Greens’ manifesto to not stack up; it’s a whole other thing for it to be very ideologically confused. The problem is that it’s both.
The Labour manifesto has difficulties of a different stripe – but present again is the confusion about what parties of the left are meant to be trying to achieve, even in the most basic sense. Is the purpose of a Labour government simply to deprive the Tories from running the country? Is it to simply ameliorate the worst of what it means to be poor in this country? Is it to simply help the public sector grow ever larger? None of those things are particularly inspiring or why I felt more left than right as a kid. None of them articulate, by themselves or together as a unit, a real ideological vision either.
Also, the partial abandonment of liberalism by Labour over the past five years I’ve found really alienating personally. For instance, Labour apologising for its record on immigration and promising to be tough in future. Is liberalism just no longer part of the Left’s mentality? But that doesn’t really ring true somehow when you look at things like human rights or LGBT rights, which are still core issues (thankfully).
Then we come to the left-wing commentariat, which I find myself in ever increasing disagreement with on most things. For instance, Owen Jones and his whole worship of working class culture I just find deeply weird. Part of the reason I felt left-wing when I was a teenager wasn’t because I thought working class lifestyles were cool and desirable – it was because I wanted there to be no class structure as such any longer as the family you were born into should no longer be such a huge determinant of your future prospects. The idea of putting parochialism on a pedestal seems, well, very conservative to me.
Anyhow, this is a large topic and I could be here all day with it, so I’ll leave it here for now. In conclusion, what I really wish is that I could at least understand what the Left really stood for so I could then figure out if I agreed with what it wanted or not. Particularly as a left of centre government is looking increasingly likely now. As it stands – other than the fact that we’ll all be mercifully spared an EU referendum – I don’t really know what that means.
I agree with much of what you have said. If you wanted to vote for a socialist party in Britain, you would be hard pressed to find one, you could take seriously. The Labour party is not a socialist party, it’s not even left wing. In fact it has completely lost its identity and at some stage even its core voters will twig this. As they have done in Scotland. I like you, was on the left in my youth. But I think its now bankrupt. Just silly parties like the Greens and Nationalist parties like the SNP are clinging to it and if you vote for them you really are scraping the barrel.
Don’t worry Nick, I still consider you a leftist.
As for the Greens: You are being too naïve (like most of their supporters). They have been campaigning for worst standards of living for all for over 40 years. They know that to achieve 0 (or negative) growths they need to wreck the economy, and any educated person knows that the best way to wreck the economy is through socialism. That’s way the came up with this wacko neo-Marxism, not for the benefit of the countless masses (whom for them count very little). They want everyone to consume less, to travel less, to use less and, generally, to live like in the days of yore. The dream of the Greens in a nutshell.