What does it mean, being on the left?
A new website, OpenLeft, founded by James Purnell MP, former cabinet minister (the one who in his resignation letter invited Gordon Brown to ‘step aside’ as party leader and prime minister), under the auspices of the think-tank Demos, describes itself as “a project aimed at renewing the thinking and ideas of the political Left. We seek an open conversation across the Left about the kind of society we want and how we can best bring it about.” OpenLeft says that “To kick off the debate we have asked ten leading left-wing figures to answer six questions that go to heart of what it means to be on the Left. Read their responses below, and click Join the Debate to add your own.” Not one to look an ex-cabinet minister’s gift horse in the mouth, I accepted the invitation with a characteristically lengthy attempt to describe by quoting examples what I take to constitute a position on the political left — too lengthy, it turns out, for OpenLeft which has published my reply in truncated form. No complaint: it is indeed rather long. But here, for the record, is the full text of my answers to Mr Purnell’s six questions, or rather seven if you count the interrogative heading:
What do you think it means to be on the Left?
There is a broad left-to-right spectrum of values and priorities and most people can quickly see where on the spectrum they belong. The two ends of the spectrum may be summarised (in simplified form) like this:
- Liberty, human rights >>> <<< Discipline, restraint, order, social responsibility
- Change and reform >>> <<< Stability, continuity
- Compassion >>> <<< Competition
- Concern for the underdog and the vulnerable >>> <<< Respect and admiration for the rich and successful
- Scepticism about most forms of authority; tendency to be rebellious >>> <<<Respect for most established authority, natural instinct to support and conform with it
- Belief in maximum equality, including equality of outcomes >>> <<< Belief in equality of opportunity and the need for inequality of outcomes for reward and incentive
- The public service and government as principal agents for essential services, change and reform >>> <<< Minimum government, small public sector, maximum role for private sector and individuals
- Taxation as means of financing public services and reducing inequality >>> <<< taxation a burden on private initiative, to be minimised
- Prison mainly for reform and rehabilitation >>> <<< Prison mainly for punishment and retribution
- Responsibility of rich people to help the less well-off >>> <<< If most poor people worked harder they too could be rich and successful
- Need for rich countries to help to relieve poverty in the third world >>> <<< Most development aid is wasted and lines the pockets of corrupt and incompetent third world politicians
- Trade unions as a necessary protection for employees’ interests >>> <<< Unions often hamper managers in their responsibility for managing
- Politicians as necessary and valued agents for change and reform >>> <<< Politicians meddle in business and the economy for ideological rather than practical reasons
- Private sector and the profit motive generally equate to exploitation of the consumer and the employee >>> <<< Private sector the only creator of wealth, and the profit motive a necessary incentive
- Society should promote the interests of those least able to help themselves >>> <<< Advancement purely on merit in a relentless meritocracy, and the devil take the hindermost
There’s often something to be said for the propositions or concepts at both ends of a particular item, and individuals may find that on some items they can comfortably endorse or sympathise with both simultaneously: several are not genuine opposites. Most would prefer to re-word most if not all of the choices and to refine them, as indeed Eysenck did 40 years ago.. But most will also feel an instinctive affinity with one end of the spectrum in each case more than the other, and will probably wind up endorsing the majority of first propositions or the majority of the second.
What is it about your political beliefs that puts you on the Left rather than the Right?
I instinctively as well as by conscious choice identify myself with all the first alternatives in my list and with virtually none of the second.
What do you consider made you Left wing?
Reading George Bernard Shaw and the New Statesman as a teenager. Experiencing the manifestations of the British (or English?) class system during my national service in the army (and subsequently).
How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?
Much more equal in both wealth and income. Far fewer class distinctions. Culture and the arts accessible to all. More realism about Britain’s limited role in the world and the value of a more active role in the EU. Withering away of the more populist, reactionary and unscrupulous tabloids. Greater public control and regulation of the financial and banking sectors and the utilities. An extension of public (including municipal and co-operative) ownership into significant areas of the economy.
What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?
1. Abolition of private, fee-paying schools and medicine (inconceivable under any government, I know, but you asked the question!).
2. A huge improvement in the standards of state education from nursery school onwards.
What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?
The evil influence of the most irresponsible tabloids. The yawning cultural gap between our Two Nations, and the tragic deprivation which it entails. The way so many of our major companies rip us off with complete impunity. Gross over-centralisation of political power and the constant itch of our rulers to micro-manage us. The blindness of our political leaders who can’t see that with devolution we have moved half-way into a federal system and that completing that process will solve so many of our otherwise insoluble constitutional problems and anomalies. The pathetic risk-aversion of our leaders in all political parties and their cowardly lack of radical reformist ambition. The economic illiteracy of huge swaths of our governing class, the media and the general population. The betrayal and corruption of the Labour Party.
Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?
The post-war Attlee government. R H Tawney. The younger Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan. Michael Young, Peter Townsend, Tony Crosland and Dick Crossman. John Maynard Keynes. Lord Beveridge. Michael Foot (no, seriously). Thomas Jefferson. Georges Jacques Danton.
On the same website I have had what seems to me an interesting and amicable exchange of views with Sunder Katwala, the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, about the place of “equality of opportunity” and the “meritocracy” in the values and objectives of the left. I argue that if equality of opportunity, an obviously desirable aim in itself, is the limit of one’s ambition as regards equality generally, it doesn’t go anything like far enough and is an icon of the right, not the left; and I recall that the much-missed Michael Young, who coined the term ‘meritocracy‘ as a warning of the injustices and cruelties of a dystopian meritocratic society, was bitterly disappointed towards the end of his long life to find the term ‘meritocracy’ being used by Tony Blair and others as a legitimate and supposedly progressive objective for a Labour government.
It’s fashionable to dismiss the ideas of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics as having long ago ceased to have any meaning. I think that on the contrary they are as useful as ever, and I hope that the debate sparked by Mr Purnell and his OpenLeft website will help to revive them.