It’s easy to know how the Conservative Party is right wing – just look at its fundamental philosophy and approach to economics. The old Tory Party of Queen and Country, the CofE as the Tories at prayer, of moral censoriousness, is largely dead, confined to the fringes, or decamped to UKIP. The party has ditched its ‘conservatism’ and is now a party of the globalised, radical right. Ayn Rand, rather than Edmund Burke, now rules.
But Labour? What the hell is Labour all about? Is it a party of the left?
The old Labour Party was created by the trades unions to represent organised Labour in parliament. That’s simply historical fact. ‘Organised labour’ largely meant men working in heavy industry. It meant mines, and mills, and the working class cultures that grew up around those industries. Its ‘aspirations’, that contemporary buzz word, were for better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, paid holidays – tangible results. As time went on, Labour’s interests spread to encompass better homes, access to medical care, better educational opportunities. These things were ‘left wing’ in the sense that the followed from an understanding of the inherently antagonistic relationship between those who owned and controlled things, and those who had no option but to work for cash.
That is not the Labour Party today. Of course, there are people ‘on the left’ who are members of the Labour Party. Some of them are MPs, some are even leadership candidates. But the party itself has neither the industrial base, nor the cultural roots of its former self. As for its philosophy, and approach to economics, anything goes, apparently.
Now I call myself ‘left wing’. Indeed, I’d call myself a ‘social democrat’. I’m not a member of the Labour Party, and I can see little compelling reason to be one. So what do I believe, and what would I like to see from a party ‘of the left’?
Let’s start with that question of philosophy. The Tories see people as inherently selfish, and design policies to appeal to that. Cutting inheritance tax (and low tax in general), letting pushy parents grab the best stuff for their own kids and stuff the rest, little sympathy for the poor, the refugee, and anyone ‘different’. “I’m all right, Jack”. That’s the Tory way.
But I don’t see people as essentially selfish. We can be selfish, we can be empathic, we can be altruistic, we can be kind and generous. Politics ought (a very moral word, ‘ought’) to be about encouraging the unselfish tendencies, because there is such a thing as society, and it functions best with cooperation, not merely competition. That is a left wing view, and all else follows from it.
On the economy, I don’t see it as a natural phenomenon, like the weather. It is a human, cultural construct, which has taken different forms at different times in our history, and could be re-made again, if we don’t like the way it is now.
I’m not saying that that would be easy. We start from where we are, and a strategy to change how the economy rewards, or punishes, how wealth is made, and distributed, is necessarily slow, piecemeal, and forever a work in progress. But I know the direction of travel I’d like, which is away from extremes of super-wealth and absolute poverty, and, crucially, a fairer deal for people in the middle.
Am I “anti-business”? I’m sure Sajid Javed would think I was, but as the Business Secretary used to be the Culture Secretary who couldn’t stand culture, I’m taking no lessons from him. No, I’m not “anti-business. But businesses need to operate according to rules, and those rules ought not to be rigged. Fair profits, not rip-offs. Charge honest prices. Pay honest wages. Trade with an eye on the finite resources of the earth. Long term thinking, not short term accountancy tricks. The stake-holders in business are not just those who own shares, but they are the workers, the customers, the country, the planet.
Most of this is abstract stuff. How might a party of the left look right now?
Let’s start with people. For most people living in reasonable conditions, in good health, with more or less enough money to cover food, and housing, and a bit extra for the things we enjoy, what we want is to feel that those things are secure. Until it became a dirty word, we used to call it ‘social security’, but the concept is key.
We want the food we eat, the food we feed our children, to be safe. Businesses aren’t actually very good or reliable at ensuring this, but the state, local, national, trans-national, can regulate food safety. My party of the left would make a big deal of this.
Housing is too expensive, and the quality of new housing is poor. The market cannot tackle this, and home ownership is not the answer. Varied housing tenure makes most economic sense, When we are young, we need to be mobile, moving around as we build our lives and careers. Renting makes sense then, but we should be able to rent good quality homes at affordable prices. That means wide, cross-class access to social housing, because frankly, the private rental market is an expensive scam.
When people have children, they need more security, and more space. This is where, for some, home ownership works. For others, as in most other countries, secure tenancies can offer peace of mind and a settled childhood.
In retirement, as we live longer, we need a wider range of housing options for all, from urban downsizing, to sheltered accommodation, to care and nursing homes. The latter are mainly provided by the private sector, and run on low pay with high staff turnover, and worryingly uneven standards. This must change. We need a National Care Service run in parallel with, but separate from the NHS, with well-trained staff and excellent facilities providing dignity in old age.
Education is a mess. It is a confusing maze to deal with, from finding a good primary school, to accessing vocational training, to higher education. Cut the gimmicks, stop endless, stressful testing of children, teachers, and schools, Take religion and commerce out of schools. Let FE thrive. Let universities be universities again, not just swaggering PLCs. Value libraries, museums, galleries, the civic spaces where the wider possibilities for education – and self-education – lie.
I could easily go on until I’d written a full manifesto and started making specific policy recommendations, but that’s not the point. There are plenty of left-wing ideas that might command wide assent and could be attractive and popular. I would even say that in his own too timid way, Ed Miliband was ending towards some of them before the last election, and with a better party behind him, and higher turnout, we might be on the right road now.
All I’m saying is that the future doesn’t have to be Tory. But it sure as hell doesn’t look like Labour right now.