The Left: Where are we now?

It is often stated that the left won the social argument of the 20th Century, whilst the right won the economic argument. Liberal democracy is the dominant form of government in the western world. Government is based on the idea of diversity, and the allocation of goods and services by the free market. When I think of most of the people I know, socially liberal and pro-free market is how I would describe their politics.

The socially liberal Tory government and pro-free market Labour opposition is a sign of the degree to which the majority of society believes the debate has been resolved. But the rise of UKIP is the reaction by a minority who challenge the liberal social consensus and say there is still a social argument to be had. They are the mirror image of myself, as someone who believes the economic arguments of the 20th century have not been resolved. 

So where does this leave the left? Since the death of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, there has been a lot a soul searching on the left. What do we stand for, now these giants of socialism and the trade union movement are no longer with us? What do we do when faced with the fact most people believe history has rendered our criticism invalid?

In the past we would look to the Labour party, however they have become increasingly acceptant of neo-liberal ideologies. Recently a major Labour party donor has said that there is little difference between the two main parties on economic issues. This comes on top of several leading figures of the progressive movement writing in the Guardian about the need for the Labour party to adopt new values.

This sounds like welcome noise to people who were concerned that the Labour party is losing its direction. I believe it is a good idea that the Labour party take steps to differentiate themselves from the Tories, however the values mentioned in the letter do not sound like an attempt to revive the debates of the 20th Century. Is this new trend towards localism where the left is now heading? The sentence “National government has a continuing strategic role to play but the days of politicians doing things "to people" are over” sounds to me like resignation that the Right won the economic argument.

This new focus on localism, empowerment and co-production does not fit snugly with a traditionally left wing world view. So where do people interested in reviving the capitalism vs socialism debate turn? 

There are still lots of people making valid arguments about the problems with free-market capitalism. Last month I saw Diane Abbott on Question Time perfectly describing the problems that an unregulated housing market have brought on a generation of young people, however, she stopped short of suggesting any measures to correct the problem. Presenting a solution poses the issue of what form that solution should take. Massive state sponsored house building program? More social housing to reduce rental pressure? These sound too much like reviving the debates of the 20thCentury, not popular with the majority of voters who believe the debate is settled. Do nothing, and hope the problem corrects itself, sounds too much a free-market solution. What solution does the left have to offer?

From a lot of prominent figures on the left there is much description of the problem (usually very eloquently) and not a lot of offering solutions. Or at least a solution that goes beyond an obvious platitude like “we need to come together to stop this exploitation now”.

The other half of the left offers the solution which voters consistently failed to support throughout the 20th Century. As much as I believe in socialist values, if a revolution (be it sudden like in Russia or a gradual process of people coming around to left wing views) where to occur it would have most likely have happened during the Victorian or Edwardian period when gaps between rich and poor were at their widest and poverty was at its most intense.

Where we are now on the left is that we are good at presenting problems with the current economic consensus but bad at presenting solutions people are likely to vote for. Usually this falls back into not presenting any solutions but simply describing the problem.

Some have decided to take this option by suggestion new values that should be the basis of left wing causes. New values like "co-production" mentioned above. They talk about new political divides, instead of left and right they talk about universalist/relativists divides or localism/centralism divides. These debates might be easier to sell to voters than the old debates of the 20th century, but they are dividing the already fragmented left by turning away from the socialism that is at the heart of the movement.

The left has a problem of where it will go when the mainstream believes its debates have been resolved. We are in a sorry state, with little direction, but we must avoid fragmenting further. That said, we need to find a way to relate our traditional struggle to new values. I have done a good job of describing the problem, now I need to offer a solution.