Really Difficult Questions For The Left

Martin Kettle, in yesterday’s Guardian, said that “the left is unusually bad at asking itself really difficult questions about its approach to politics”.  He said this in relation to the Labour leadership contest, and the Smith Institute analysis of why Labour lost the general election.

But is he right?

The view, widespread amongst political commentators, and professional politicians and their retinues, is that a hard-headed, ‘realistic’ appreciation of politics places winning elections above all other political considerations, because without power, politics is nothing.  Kettle accuses the left, in this case, specifically, the Corbyn supporters, of being “religious” in their political beliefs, having absolute faith in a series of propositions or commandments – nationalisation, big state, trades union power – regardless of whether they are relevant or practical.

With respect, because Kettle’s view is coherent and arguable, I disagree.

The Kettle view is that there is human life: social institutions, workplaces, leisure activities, family life, personal relationships, sport, and all that other stuff.  And then there is politics, a minority activity best left to parties and the professionals within them, who must engage the voters at election time by studying the spreadsheets, refining the techniques of advertising and corporate public relations, and coming up an attractive brand and some targeted retail offers.

If that was all politics is, who’d care about it?  What distinguishes it from working for PWC, or Saatchi?

The really difficult question Kettle doesn’t ask is what is power for?

In my experience the left is tortured by really difficult questions, and always has been. Far from being “religious” dreamers or zealots hanging on to divine revelation, we look deeply at the world, facing it head-on.  Only then do we dream.

And why not? Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it (as our prophet once said).

For the left, politics is a total activity, something that is lived. Support is built culturally, upon shared experiences and an understanding of our inter-dependance.  It suits the neoliberal right to imagine that life and electoral politics are two different things, the latter a game to be won by superior weapons bought with hard cash raised from those with a vested interest in privileging their own economic power over social need or popular will.  But that’s their game, played by their rules, and it’s rigged against us.

The left in the past was anchored in deeply rooted social institutions. Industries that dominated towns were also, inadvertently, producers of social solidarity. Trades unions didn’t just defend workers rights, they offered cheap beer, political education, transferable skills, sometimes actual education, and a route to social mobility. Co-ops provided safe food and a divvy, too.  The labour movement then was life itself, not just the politics of the electoral cycle.

That world cannot be recreated. The heavy industries of the past are gone, and those successful manufacturers that remain are hi-tech plants whose workers drive in from far and wide, rather than teeming in on foot or by bicycle from surrounding red brick terraces. The new production lines are services, call centres, retail logistics and distribution, and the like.

So we need new ways of adding value to peoples lives at work, home, and leisure. New ways to build political meaning and electoral support.

But how to we get from here to there?  From electoral defeat to success at the polls underpinned by widespread popularity? How do we change the culture, as well as the numbers? Really hard questions.

The Smith Institute research highlights stuff we already knew – that Labour stacked up votes where it didn’t need then (in cities) and failed to get enough of them in the suburbs, the small towns, the rural areas, the shabby seaside.

I write this from a small seaside town in a constituency that hasn’t seen a Labour MP since 1966. But are such places really immune to a left-wing message?  After all, there are social consciences at work here. I see more, and better, contributions in the food bank bin at the Co-Op here than I do in the one in the local Waitrose in my (Labour-held) city constituency.

Take Thanet South, which happily disappointed Nigel Farage at the election. So it went Tory, and Labour was scarcely in the running.  Except that the Labour candidate was Will Scobie, a young, local man, energetic, suffering the same worries as others in his position, struggling to find decent affordable housing for his young family.  Unlike Farage, Scobie hasn’t walked away.  It’s where he lives.  Labour needs to work at finding, nurturing, supporting the Scobies of this world, rather than parachuting in an ambitious SPAD whenever they think a constituency is winnable.  Grow your own organic, local politicians.  There’s no reason why Scobie, and others like him, if we start now, shouldn’t win elections in places where the numbers don’t look good, but the material conditions do.

Some straight-talking authenticity helps.  Scobie has it.  So do some of those who got into Parliament.  Much has been made of the SNP cohort, but Labour has got itself some very un-SPADish new MPs, too.  Take Dawn Butler, the new Brent MP, who went viral this week when she took on gaffe-prone Sky presenter Kay Birley with some polite sarcasm and a winning smile.  Or how about Naz Shah, slayer of preening George Galloway?

Higher quality local MPs and a grassroots renewal is but part of it.  So is a strategy – starting now – of challenging the superior firepower of the Tories with their press baron and hedge-fund friends by creating a bottom-up process of narrative-building so that by our conversations, our social media usage, our calls to phone-in shows and the like, we embed our own messages in popular consciousness.

And I’d also say that longer-term we need root-and-branch constitutional reform to realign the political system, including the voting system, to meet the changing realities of Britain now.  It’s not one of the really hard questions Martin Kettle draws attention to, but the Labour Party, as research by Bale and Webb shows, is made up of people with more left-wing attitudes than SNP supporters, and liberal instincts on civil liberties and internationalism. They are also 40% public sector workers.  This is a fine group of people (count me in), but their views would more honestly be represented in a system with a multitude of minority parties.  That’s also true for the Tories, by the way.  They can’t be both One Nation and neo-lib globalisers.

The route from here to the golden uplands is clear.  Grassroots renewal and vigorous activism in every locality. An engaged left, talking to others, not just to ourselves, to open up the terrain of debate beyond the narrow tramlines set by the professionals.  An election victory (which mainly means getting rid of the Tories).  And then the real work starts.

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