Did the Left win the twentieth century?

We asked prominent thinkers, politicians and writers to take the long view.

Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Gove | Justin Webb | Kevin Maguire | Lisa Nandy | Zac Goldsmith | John Rentoul | Yasmin Alibhai-Brown | Peter Wilby | Robert Halfon | Peter Oborne | Sophy Ridge | John Harris | David Miliband | Matthew Parris | Diane Abbott | Chris Cook | Jonathan Freedland | Andrew Gimson | Steve Richards | Isabel HardmanMatthew D’Ancona | Andrew Rawnsley | Jesse Norman | Andrew Sparrow | Hugo Rifkind | Iain Dale | Tristram Hunt | Janet Daley | Neal Lawson

On 18 April at King's College London, the New Statesman will be hosting a debate with the motion "This House believes the Left won the 20th century, featuring Tim Montgomerie, Owen Jones, Helen Lewis, Mehdi Hasan, Simon Heffer and Ruth Porter. Tickets are selling fast, so get yours here

Michael Gove

The Left lost the twentieth century. It lost economically – central planning impoverished billions and devastated the environment while capitalism brought more people out of poverty than any other programme in the developing world.

It lost morally – the left was associated with repression from Vladivostok to Venezuela. The cause of liberty was most reliably defended – and extended – by politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, John Howard, Jose Maria Aznar, Stephen Harper, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alvaro Uribe and Tony Blair – all of whom secured the scorn of the left for their moral courage.

It lost culturally – by championing modernist architecture which condemned working people to concrete ghettoes which became prison houses of the soul – by rallying behind thinkers like the Webbs, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky who either apologised for, or relativised, tyranny.

And it lost its governing purpose – the creation of a society in which individuals are liberated from the injustices which exist in a state of nature – when it was discovered that the best way to encourage human flourishing is to promote those liberal virtues best promoted by Conservative Governments –  rigour in education, incentives to industriousness, enterprise in the economy, commitment in relationships and confidence in our culture.

Michael Gove is the secretary of state for education and Tory MP for Surrey Heath

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Justin Webb

Surely the answer is no and the reason is America. I am writing this in Miami Beach, one of the most unequal places on earth.  Breast-enhanced wealth and blank-eyed poverty: Haitian taxi drivers, scrabbling a living around the penthouses and gin palaces.  This is  the essence of America (full disclosure: I like it here). They had a ball in the last century.    They seduced and bullied and cajoled their way into the top nation slot. So for the left to have won, it would have had to have won here.

As I think you know, it did not. It was defeated by many things but principally, in my view, by space.  Americans, when times get tough, tend to pack their belongings in a car and move.  They did it from New York to escape the poverty of the early twentieth century, the rats and the slums and the factory fires.  Instead of organising and agitating they drove away.  They still do.  America is huge. There is room to escape. And when you escape you feel good about yourself and flushed with self-reliance, you do not necessarily feel the need for socialism.

You could argue that America is a special case and the rest of the world is what matters, but really?  Where did most people in the twentieth century world want to move to? Whose music did they play? Whose films did they watch? Who ran the show?  The Americans ran the show.  They did not approve of the left, so the left could not have won. 

But wait: perhaps that is too simplistic an answer.  Perhaps the game is still on.

The Republicans – the party of the right – are beginning the new century doing a very good impression of a movement utterly blown to bits.   Their only response to the financial crisis has been to demand lower taxes and less regulation. Their problem is that America is a more complex place now.  That self reliance stuff is still big, and certainly chimes with Americans’ image of themselves.  But it is not enough.

It turns out (as evidenced by the result of the last presidential election) that Americans, including many who live comfortably in Miami, rather like being looked after, at least a teensy bit,  from cradle to grave.   They even like the government doing it, though they cannot bring themselves quite to admit it. They like state run pensions and medical care for elderly people.  And at the other end of life one of the reasons why Asian-Americans (the fastest growing ethnic group) voted overwhelmingly for Obama seems to be their liking for the provision of an infrastructure of education from which their ambitious children can benefit. 

Triumph of the left?  No: but some ideas you might associate with the left are, perhaps surprisingly, the ideas of the immediate political  future in America.   No victory then, but not a total defeat either.  

Justin Webb presents the Today programme on Radio Four and was the BBC’s North America Editor. He is the author of Cheers America: How an Englishman Learned to Love America.

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Kevin Maguire

On the Left we fail to cheer victories with the enthusiasm shown for sell-outs, betrayals and defeats – real or imagined.

There’s an old trade union tale about a shop steward who goes to a branch meeting during a strike. “Brothers and sisters,” declares the shop steward, “our heroic solidarity has secured a vastly improved offer from the management. They have agreed under duress to double our wages, concede 10 weeks’ holiday a year and chop four days off the working week so we come in here only on Fridays.”

Satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations, the shop steward looks around the room and asks for questions or points of information. A worker at the back puts up her hand. “Yes, sister,” says the shop steward, “what would you like to know?”

“Do we have to work EVERY Friday?” she asks.

The story is probably apocryphal yet contains an essential truth about how much of the Left searches for the dark cloud around every silver lining. Progressives did win the last Century despite the horrors of the 1930s, Thatcherism and the ConDemNation.

It was far from total victory, and gains are being rolled back alarmingly by the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. But the 100 years slipping into history was better than the previous hundred, or any period before that, for the Left.

Substantial progress was made on jobs, living standards, respect, education and health. Britain is no socialist nirvana. Probably never will be in my lifetime. The Left, however, can be quietly satisfied overall.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

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Lisa Nandy

Unquestionably, there were huge advances for the Left and the British people over the 20th century. The spirit of solidarity that helped create (and sustain) national insurance, extension of the franchise, the NHS, the welfare state, workplace rights, comprehensive education and a sense of internationalism was effective and important, both within and beyond the UK.

But by the 1990s that spirit of collectivism had eroded. In its place was a society based on economic return, focused on individual achievement, not a common sense of humanity. Although policies like the minimum wage and tax credits later did a huge amount for the poorest, all mainstream political parties had endorsed an economic model reliant on the super-rich allowing them to buy their way out of collective responsibility. And there was little challenge to this status quo from outside the system. Instead of engendering action, the overwhelming response was alienation and despair.

By the end of the 20th Century the prevailing economic, social and political narrative was Neoliberal. There is no greater evidence that the Left lost the 20th Century, than that, by the end, the Labour Party was at times complicit in, or even cheerleading, this approach.

Despite this, I am optimistic. Through today’s young people, and with a growing sense of solidarity amongst the public and in politics, there is an opportunity to reclaim the 21st Century. But we should heed the warning of previous decades. We will only win if we have the courage to challenge, not follow, the voices that shout the loudest in British politics.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan

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Is Environmentalism a left or right-wing issue? Photo: Getty

 

Zac Goldsmith

Without a clear, shared understanding of what it means to be left or right wing, even in contemporary politics, it’s hard to talk about winners and losers. This is made more so by the fact that our understanding of left/right has shifted considerably over the decades.

To use an extreme example, almost everyone now believes the Nazis were far right, but Hitler always referred to his movement as socialist, and in The Reichstag he was sometimes backed by the left. “We are socialists,” he said. “We are enemies of today's capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak.” Goebbels said: “the idea of the Nazi Party is expressly that we are the German Left. Nothing is more hated by us than the national property-owner’s bloc”.  Eichmann added, “[M]y overwhelming inclination is towards the Left”.

Pigeon-holing Nazism is next to useless, as it was essentially a racist authoritarian movement, but it does show how difficult it can be to pin down these definitions. Consider some of the big debates of today. The environment is often seen as a left wing concern, but there’s no logical reason why that should be. Euroscepticism is seen by many to belong to the right, but some of the big trade unions are quite hostile to the EU.

It’s probably fair to say, however, that the right opposes excess government interference and an overgrown state. If that’s so, then it is losing. Governments and governance have expanded inexorably, both nationally and internationally. And it’s fair to say that the left has always opposed over-mighty commerce and unconstrained capitalism. If so, then it too is losing.  Some global companies now dwarf nation states, and big business seems to have far more influence over policy in most countries than do ordinary voters.

All I can say with any confidence is that it will be even harder to slot political movements of the future into narrow left/right files. I suspect the battles of tomorrow will be between direct, localised democracy, and ever-remoter political power; between small businesses and the multinational giants; between corporate globalism and a return to the human scale.

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond

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John Rentoul

When I worked for the New Statesman in 1988, I read some of its earliest editions for the purpose of marking its 75th anniversary. I recall one article written by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, which was monumentally dull and about as alien to the debates on the left at height of Margaret Thatcher’s “hegemony”, as we liked to call it, as it was possible to be. Its main point, the gist of their appeal through the NS to the people of Britain, was for a “change of heart”. I mean, I was not a Marxist at all, but as a prescription for social change I could see that this was somewhat lacking in what my fellow member of the NS diaspora Steve Richards calls the Fred Dinenage department.

Mr Dinenage, you would remember if you were as old as Steve and me, hosted a popular science programme on television and his catchword was a solemnly-intoned, “How?” (His daughter Caroline is now the Tory MP for Gosport, but you don’t need to know that.) He would have asked Sidney and Beatrice, “Where are the social movements that will bring about this raising of consciousness?” However socialism was defined at the time, and we should remember that Sidney Webb was the joker who drafted the original Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution in 1918 (the one that Tony Blair got rid of), it was not at all clear how a grateful nation was to come to a scales-falling-from-eyes moment.

As it turned out, the mechanism for bringing about the change of heart was Depression, “betrayal” and world war. And I put betrayal in inverted commas because I think it is hard to blame Ramsay Macdonald for his failure to invent Keynesianism before Keynes had quite finished the spadework himself.

So the left won the beginning, the middle and the end of the 20th century. We had the 1905 Liberal government, the 1945 settlement and the last three years. “They” had most of the rest. But at least we got it right at the end, and so we are well placed to win the 21st.

John Rentoul is a columnist for the Independent on Sunday

Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar of Goodness Gracious Me. Photo: Getty

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Yasmin Alibhai- Brown

The post-war reconstruction of Britain delivered the welfare state, based on the fundamental concepts of state duty of care to the least able citizens and of social mutuality. In spite of being continually battered by the right, that belief system was embedded in the national psyche. From the late sixties to the end of the nineties, whatever party was in power, progressive  values fought for and transformed the public space. That was the left’s epoch, our push, turning the juggernaut of historical and societal conservatism, towards enlightenment and honesty.

Politics opened up, too slowly perhaps at first, but the pace quickened over the years. From 1968 to 1976, the first equality laws were passed giving women and people of colour legal protection against discrimination. The ILEA and GLC promoted education and equality for all and challenged the Establishment story of Britain. I worked as an adult education lecturer for ILEA then and know how we made the system and curriculum vastly more inclusive and innovative than it had ever been before. One of my students, Sandra, 29, daughter of a miner, went on to the Open University (which opened in 1971) and eventually became head of a school in the Midlands. In 1987, the first post-war MPs of colour were elected. Women’s rights came in from the cold and became part of the national conversation, and company and public policies.    

The cultural revolution of the sixties led to more than simply new sexual freedoms. Once the barricades were stormed, all old traditions and institutions were shaken and stirred. Eventually they gave way and new blood rushed in. In 1971 VS Naipaul won the Booker Prize followed in later years by, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Ben Okri and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the early nineties, Hugh Quarshie, the talented actor of African, English and Dutch ancestry, played Mark Antony and Faust in RSC productions; Josette Simon, the exquisite British-Antiguan actor also appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and in TV’s Blake’s 7. Goodness Gracious Me arrived. Racism and sexism didn’t die, nor did middle and upper class privileges. They live on, but society found them less acceptable, more shameful. Today the most right-wing politician hates being called a racist, sexist or toff.  

Well, what of Thatcher and her great economic and cultural revolution? Well yes, her domination and transformative powers cannot be denied, but she was resisted all the way, right to the final confrontation over the poll tax. The GLC and ILEA were abolished because their narrative and activities were a threat to her project. Today the coalition government is pushing through policies that Thatcher never dared to because the left then had a voice and muscle, all wasted away now. The 21st century has capitulated to conservatism.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a columnist for the Independent  

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Peter Wilby

Mid-century, the left looked to have played four, won four. By the century’s end, one victory was reversed, another looked as if it had been hollow from the start, a third seemed in doubt. The victory that stayed a victory was on social liberalism: in western societies, rights for women, gays and ethnic minorities advanced throughout the century with rare reverses; abortion and divorce became easier to obtain even in Catholic countries;  state censorship was largely abolished and the boundaries of what could be said, written and portrayed widened to a degree unimaginable to the Victorians.

The victory that turned into defeat was on the economy: state planning and Keynesianism, both widely accepted after the Second World War, were routed by the advance of market liberalism. The victory in doubt was on welfare. By the 1950s, most western governments had accepted responsibility to ensure their citizens received free primary and secondary education, free health care (though not in America), security in old age and protection against unemployment. As free market ideology tightened its grip on economic policy-making, and private companies greedily eyed the potentially lucrative markets for education and health, welfare states began to fray at the edges. The hollow victory was on colonial liberation.

As Europe surrendered its territories across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the US and US-owned corporations moved in with a new, more subtle colonialism, based partly on financial muscle, partly on military might, partly on cultural hegemony.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the NS

Barack Obama with the Reverend Al Sharpton. Photo: Getty

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Robert Halfon

At first sight, it looks that the right won the twentieth century.

Politically the Conservatives were in power for longest and became the most successful political party – electorally – in the free world. Economically, the battle between central planning and the free market came down on the side of laissez-faire. The Labour Party moved from socialism, to social democracy, to New Labour Blairism.  The moderate left knew that they could only win at the polls, if the foundations were built on the central nostrums of capitalism, albeit with moderating influences and the language of fairness. 

Abroad, totalitarian ideologies of communism and Hitlerian national socialism were defeated –  another blow for those who argued that there was no such thing as society – only the state.

Ideologically, most now accept that the state cannot control the means of production.  Even now – when the argument of the twenty-first century has been about the global economy and the role of bankers – the dispute is about the amount of regulation and taxes rather than full state control.  While the state now owns many of the big banks, all mainstream parties would quite happily support a return to private ownership. 

And yet, has this victory of substance been a pyrrhic victory for the right?  Whatever the ideological, political and economic shift rightwards, the left still maintain an almost monolopy of compassion. Even when people disagree with the left economically, they still believe that the left is about helping the under-dog. It is why Barack Obama succeeded where Mitt Romney could not. 

The left’s victory has been one of message and of feeling.  You join their ranks because you want to help the poor. By contrast – the right is still struggling to explain the morality of capitalism and of hard-headed economics. It has not developed an ethically equivalent language of compassion. If the right are to have a substantive victory in the twenty-first century, our moral mission has to be as powerful as those on the left.  A new 21st Century Abraham Lincoln, not just a President who stopped slavery but the man who gave Government land to the poor.

Robert Halfon is the Tory MP for Harlow

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Peter Oborne

At the start of the twentieth century there was no National Health Service, no pensions, and no welfare state. The poor ended up in the workhouse. Most children left school at twelve, and went straight into manual labour. A tiny number attended university. The standard rate of income tax was 8d in the pound, about two per cent.

Meanwhile Britain controlled one quarter of the globe, including India and vast tracts of Africa. There was no such concept as racial equality, or universal rights. Women could not vote while divorce was all but impossible and meant social death. Homosexuality was illegal. The death penalty was still in force, with 14 people hanged in 1900. The national debt was £600 million. The national accounts balanced.

Today state spending accounts for 50 per cent of national income. Britain has practically no overseas possessions. Women have the vote. The annual welfare bill is £220 billion. Britain is a social democratic rather than a capitalist state. The national debt stands at £1.2 trillion. The annual deficit is approximately £120 billion.

It is idle to deny that the liberal left has won hands down. Yet Labour was in office for barely one-quarter of the twentieth century. The Conservatives (those notoriously brutal and cold-hearted oppressors of the poor) were in power for approximately three quarters and are still in charge today.

Peter Oborne is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph

David Cameron plays table football at a youth club in 2009. Photo: Getty

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Sophy Ridge

Close your eyes and imagine a politician.  He’s known for hugging hoodies and huskies. He dragged the House of Commons through an historic vote in favour of gay marriage. To get elected, he promised big spending commitments on the NHS and International Aid.

David Cameron might be the leader of the Conservative party – but at times he doesn’t seem like it. And that’s why the real winner of the 20th Century wasn’t the left or the right, but the centre ground.

Ed Miliband – trying to throw off the “Red Ed” tag – knows he must talk tough on immigration and welfare to pave the way to a 2015 election victory. It was the Conservative party who gave us the first female Prime Minister – and a Labour premier who encouraged private sector involvement in schools and hospitals.

Throughout the century, society became more mobile and the old class distinctions began to appear out-dated.

Lazy assumptions about the left and right also became old-fashioned. Most people no longer identify themselves in this way – political allegiances are more complex.

Thanks to the UK’s voting system, it is not libertarians or socialists who decide the next Prime Minister. It is the swing voters – in Harlow, or Eastleigh – who have the power. This means that instead of tacking to the left or right, politicians are inexorably pulled to the centre ground. I would argue that as a result Britain is a better place to be.

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent at Sky News

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John Harris

There is a pat answer to the question of who won the twentieth century, and it’s long been a cliché: the right triumphed on the economy, while the left was victorious in the culture wars. From a British perspective, though, things look much more complicated. For sure, even the Conservative Party is now much more enlightened when it comes to racism and homophobia (though not, perhaps, gender equality), but at the same time, the most powerful elements of the establishment seem more wedded than ever to widening economic inequality, deregulated everything, and the credo of the small state. Which is probably the way neoliberalism likes it: prejudice is bad for business and there’s always money in human self-expression, but the basics of the post-Thatcher settlement remain firmly in place. In other words: in important respects, most of us are a lot nicer to each other, but the forward march of labour has long since been halted, and capital still stands triumphant.

And yet. Pre-crash, there was a lot of fashionable talk about the demise of the left-right axis, and some new politics, built on the market’s supposed invincibility, and apparently based on thin air. It never materialised, and the most urgent conversations are still about inequality, corporate power, the public/private balance, and the other stuff that was conveniently sidelined until  2008. On the right, some voices call for free market ideas to be extended to the point of anarcho-capitalism, but will anyone buy? On the left, more clued-up Labour people have an instinctive sense that some kind of social-democratic revival might now be possible, but to say that it needs more work is a howling understatement.

All that’s certain is that politics – in Britain, and most other places – is a mess, full of nastiness and contradiction, subject to developments no one saw coming (eg the rise of Nigel Farage), and brimming with the sense that we are in a lengthy interregnum, when trying to understand who won what is pretty much impossible. So, in reply to the big question, I’ll hedge my bets and quote Zhou Enlai: 13 years after the end of the 20th century, it’s far too early to tell.

John Harris is a columnist for the Guardian

A memorial to victims of the former regime in Czechslovakia in Prague, 1989.

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David Miliband

I would love to say yes to this question.  I am an optimistic person.  The left has a great story to tell about the good society and how people should live together.  Our icons - Mandela, Havel - gave shape to the values of the century.

The Western European left shaped my childhood by producing, in the wake of the Second World War, the most egalitarian and free societies the world has known.  It brought security and prosperity as well as example to millions.  It fought the good fights, against fascism, for decolonisation, against discrimination.

But the facts of history defy rose-tinted spectacles. How can anyone claim credit for a century in which millions were slaughtered by the right, fighting the right, and sadly murdered too by leaders claiming communism as their inspiration?  The 20th century was a trauma for the left as much as a triumph.  Our heroes were too often those who sacrificed and lost - the Spanish Civil War, the French resistance, the Jarrow Marchers.  Our divisions, the "narcissism of small differences", undermined our effectiveness.  Too many of ideologies did not withstand confrontation with reality.

The "short 20th century", launched on the streets of Sarajevo in 1914 and concluded on the pavements of Prague in 1989, saw extraordinary advances and extraordinary cruelty.  For the left, born at the end of the 19th century in the wake of the rise of capitalism, utopian thinking at the beginning of the century was a source of inspiration.  By the end, tempered by experience, utopia was powered by technology not ideology.  The tablet not the little red book.  So humility as well as cheerleading is in order.

The left has done more than survive. It has lost the certainty of economic doctrine and gained the oxygen of its values.  So now there is a struggle in every corner of the globe for justice, cooperation, solidarity.  And in every site of struggle, the left is being reinvented for a new time.

A victory? I would call it a two-all draw, albeit away from home.  And there is always next season.

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Matthew Parris

Whether socialism has won is not really open to question. So catastrophically did socialism lose in the last century that not even this century’s discrediting of capitalism has led to any serious consideration of the possibilities of a socialist revival. The interesting question is who or what killed the socialist ideal.

I blame Christianity. Christian charity has been the Trojan horse within the socialist movement, occupying and then poisoning Marxist theory from within.

The poison has been a milk-of-human-kindness “liberal” humanitarianism entirely alien to the rigour and logic of the socialist theory developed by Marx-Engels. “Christian” socialism – feeding (like its namesake religion) on human failure and human suffering – and distracted by notions of mercy, has loaded onto the Left’s great experiment the immense and finally unaffordable burdens of a system of welfare skewed away from the strong (the majority) among the proletariat, towards the weak: a minority. Would Marx have risked the whole sheep-farm in the attempted rescue of one lost sheep?

Whether or not you recommend the socialist experiment (I don’t) Marxist analysis and the socialist theory of government proceed with ruthless logical rigour from a greatest-good-of-the-greatest-number conception of human progress. They are about the efficient employment of capital and labour to maximise and spread prosperity as widely as possible.  At root the thinking is both humanitarian and generous, yet merciless. Socialism, properly understood, would not dissipate the majority’s resources on a minority’s human weakness, disability or failure.

My fellow Tories like to bark about “bleeding-heart” socialists. But the truth is that the bleeding heart of Christian politics has killed Marxism, not sustained it: a fatally expensive tumour on an idea that has nothing to with mercy, and everything to do with efficiency.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times and a former Conservative MP

Elton John and David Furnish at their civil partnership in 2005.

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Diane Abbott

There is no question that the left won the twentieth century in Britain. It was left wing politicians and organisations like the Fabians that supported anti-colonialism and campaigned for freedom for the peoples of the British Empire.  Almost to the end the British ruling class insisted that imperial possessions like India could not rule themselves. Now Britain relies on countries like India for investment and their economy is roaring away from ours.

The culmination of half a century of left agitation and trade unionism was the 1945 Labour government,  probably the most socialist ever. And it was Labour who created the NHS in the face of fierce opposition from the Conservative Party. It is a testimony to the strength of support for the NHS that this current Conservative led government continues to deny that it wants to dismantle it.

And on a range of social issues including: race equality; women's rights and equality for the LGBT community the left has conclusively won the debate. It is a measure of the left's triumph that a Conservative Prime minister was prepared to defy his own party and introduce gay marriage. But it was left wing campaigners and left wing politicians like Ken Livingstone (who introduced civil partnerships in London) that laid the groundwork that made it possible for Tony Blair, and now David Cameron, to safely take a progressive line on this and other social issues.

Currently we have reverted to the doomed deflationary austerity of the 1930's. But, out of the ashes of the disaster that it is George Osborne's economic policies, will emerge the realisation that John Maynard Keynes and the left have much of the answer to the current economic crisis.

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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Chris Cook

First, a definition of "left". For brevity’s sake, here is a simple one: the idea that one should not be shy of expanding state power to drive equality. By this definition, the left has routed its opponents – those who, even if they are firmly against inequality, are skittish about the growth of government.

In the first half of the past century, state spending rose dramatically to reduce gaps between the poor and the rich. 100 years ago, public spending was 15 per cent of output. It is now 30 percentage points higher. It grew to provide state-provided healthcare, free schooling and the benefit system.

In the second half of the century, spending growth slackened, but the state continued exerting its rule-making power to drive equality: for example, certain types of racism, misogyny and anti-gay prejudice were banned with the force of law. We have come a long way from being the land of “No Irish need apply”.

These expansions of the state have not been a total success. The left has succeeded in cutting discrimination. But the biggest fight, on income inequality, has been a losing battle. In recent decades, the forces driving inequality have proved greater than the capacity or will to fight it.

Technological change and globalisation have made the two most significant economic advantages of the rich – education and capital - more valuable. So the rich are getting richer faster. While the welfare state has grown, politicians have opted not to spend or regulate enough to close the gaps.

There are good reasons why. There are real economic costs to higher taxation and the weaker work incentives that come from a more vigorous attack on inequality. And, today, it is hard to see how very much significant further redistribution - more than the odd few billion - could be sold to the public.

So where does that leave us? By my (partial) definition, the left won the past 100 years. But, while it scored some big wins on prejudice, it only held back the tide of income inequality in this century, rather than reversing it. It is unlikely to achieve even that in the next.

Chris Cook is a Comment Editor at the Financial Times

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Jonathan Freedland

At first glance, few would look at the 20th century and declare victory for the left. Yes, light triumphed over darkness with the mid-century defeat of Nazism. But the moral reputation of the left was tainted by the millions of deaths inflicted in the name of communism, whether by Stalin or Mao. And what was once regarded as the great left project of the 20th century – the Soviet Union – ended in ruin and failure.

And yet look at how much has changed since 1913. To take just two British examples, then women did not vote and a British Empire controlling vast swathes of the globe was seen as the natural order of things. Now it is a matter of consensus that we should at least aim for equality, regardless of sex, race and – unimaginable then – sexuality. These are victories that progressives had to fight for, hard, over the last hundred years.

Still, in an era when the super-rich live lives as far apart from the poor as they did in 1913 and when the notion of a basic, minimum provision of social security – the great social democratic triumph of the 20th century – is under attack, it's clear those struggles are far from over. It's far too soon to declare victory.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle

Chatsworth, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire.

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Andrew Gimson

A few days ago, while walking in the Peak District, I happened to see from afar Chatsworth, which has been in the Cavendish family since 1549. How sublime that landscape and its great house looked, and how well-tended by a staff employed by a kind of person (a duke) who in socialist theory ought not to exist.

Fortunately for us, the theory has seldom been acted upon with complete thoroughness. The Left has not only failed to nationalise or at least redistribute private property. It has even given up arguing that such a project would be desirable. Land ownership in Britain remains concentrated in a very few hands (fewer than some Tories would regard as desirable), and the Left has become so enfeebled – or perhaps so realistic – that it no longer aspires to change this. The craving for equality, already so apparent in 1789, has not resulted, as once seemed likely, in the abolition of large private fortunes.

By the end of the twentieth century, it was instead state-enforced equality which was in headlong retreat. By 1989, it was apparent that the Soviet Union had lost the will to live. The Chinese communist party only survived the century by making an alliance with capitalism at its most rapacious. It is hard to think of any communist experiment, or even any experiment in communal living, which has removed the need for hierarchy. Modern oligarchies need, it is true, to legitimate themselves by holding elections; by presiding (as rulers have usually found it expedient to do) over a degree of well-being; and by demonstrating how open they are to meritorious new recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our Westminster oligarchs devote enormous effort to this latter objective. But often, by some mystery, the most meritorious recruits turn out to come from privileged backgrounds.

I cannot pretend, as a Tory, to be entirely delighted by the way we live now. More alarming than socialism is the pseudo-liberalism which so often supplants inherited wisdom. Alarming too is the volume of regulation inflicted on private proprietors as a substitute for nationalisation. But one should not allow oneself to become too gloomy. We still have many things, including Chatsworth, which the Left set out to destroy.

Andrew Gimson is the author of "Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson"

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Steve Richards

The ideological contest was pretty close at times but by the end the right won hands down, at least in England.

Oddly the strongest evidence of the right’s overwhelming victory was New Labour’s landslide election in 1997, the last national campaign of the twentieth century and an emblematic finale. After four successive defeats New Labour came to power fearful of challenging deeply embedded right wing assumptions: Public spending is a waste of money! OK we will stick to the Conservatives’ spending plans; Income tax rises cripple the economy! OK we will not raise income tax.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown became keen advocates of the light regulatory touch, partly because they knew they would be slaughtered if they meddled with the lax rules that allowed the City to boom.  When Blair made his moves towards the nightmare of Iraq the Prime Ministerial ghost of Margaret Thatcher played its part in his naively defensive calculations. She had been the Iron Lady, feted by US Presidents. He felt the need to be iron-like too.

The right swept to ideological victory partly because of the unstoppable sea change that Jim Callaghan had identified in 1979. By the time Blair and Brown came to power the tides were changing again but the duo did not dare to notice. David Cameron and George Osborne are suffering a similar fate, two politicians trapped by their Thatcherite upbringing, who cannot adapt to the sea change that took full force in the 2008 global economic crisis. The current wild turbulence challenges all the old embedded assumptions, but assisted by an excessively powerful media and a divided opposition, the right made the twentieth century its own.

Steve Richards is a columnist for the Independent

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in 1997.

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Isabel Hardman

Celebrating Margaret Thatcher's life makes it ever so tempting to dismiss the idea that the Left could ever claim to have 'won' the 20th century. Thatcher's great victory was to turn Britain around from a failing centrally-planned economy, where your phone (after weeks of waiting) was supplied by the state, and so was your removal van. Many on the Left will never forgive her victories: not just for their effect on the country, but also for their effect on Labour politics, ushering in Tony Blair.

Yet this didn't amount to a resounding victory over the Left's ability to set the terms of debate in this country. Thatcher's own conversion to free-market economics didn't take the whole country with her. In Britain, tax remains a moral force rather than a system for funding government spending. George Osborne's decision to cut the 50p rate of tax in 2012 underlined this. The row wasn't about how much the different rates might raise and their effect on enterprise and job creation, but symbolism and making the rich pay their fair share. Similarly the poverty debate is not about freeing people to live resilient lives by reducing the cost of living, but cash transfers.

Earlier in the 20th century, the Right struggled to catch up with Labour: Churchill found himself having to accept the importance of a welfare state and the NHS after the achievements of the Attlee government, and debate continues today in the Tory party over the minimum wage. The Conservatives continue to struggle with their 'Nasty Party' image, and a great failing of the Thatcher era was that a necessary boldness and hard-headedness came at the sacrifice of the language of compassion. Did the Left win? It made itself appear a more palatable proposition: you'd prefer it as a dinner guest, but not your accountant, or your doctor.

Isabel Hardman is the editor of the Spectator's Coffee House blog

Matthew D’Ancona

The Right's great victories in the 20th Century were obvious and are frequently rehearsed. But the Left's achievements and strategic breakthroughs are still too readily dismissed.

Much hinges on our interpretation of 1989: yes, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of international communism and of the Cold War. Free markets, multiparty democracy and bourgeois values had triumphed over the soulless creed of State collectivism, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat’, and the hideous partnership between bureaucrat-gangsters and citizen-informants.

Yet (as Clinton and Blair grasped) 1989 also decontaminated the centre-Left. The notion of the fifth columnist and the fellow traveller – an electoral asset to the Right for generations - ceased to have the slightest traction. Neil Kinnock in 1992 and then Tony Blair in 1997 could be (and were) called many things. But 'Moscow stooge' was never plausibly among them.

As the angry tide of the Cold War receded, what remained in this country was  a range of social and cultural mountains, some of which commanded (and still command) deep loyalty. Few miss the stranglehold of the trade unions. But, in 2013, the NHS remains our most beloved institution. The other great institutional creation of the British 20th Century - the BBC - is funded by a compulsory levy on all television sets. Licence fee payers may grumble, but there is no public appetite whatsoever to dismantle or shrink the world's greatest public service broadcaster.

The Right in this country suffers from two serious delusions about the Left: one historical, the other intellectual. First, there is the question of identity so rivetingly discussed in Alan McFarlane's The Origins of English Individualism (1978). It is unquestionably true that this country lacks the continental ethos of solidarity, and that any political party that seeks power here must recognise the personal aspirations and private anxieties of the individual Briton: Orwell’s “forty-six million individuals, all different”, Blair's “Mondeo Man”. The Left often scorns this attachment to the personal, the private, the individual as “atomisation”. They may as well scorn the Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish Munros or the white cliffs of Dover.

In any case: this is not an atomised country. Britain has never embraced continental fraternité, but it has a deep tradition of social decency, of fairness and of recoil from grotesque injustice. Those on the Right who are blind to this strain in the national character invariably fail: they are right that the state and society are not co-terminous (Burke knew that) and that the state does not need to perform every single public service. But the British electorate still expects a huge amount from its governments. To change that relationship is the work of decades and will require far more than righteous polemic, angry tweets and ideological certainty.

The welfare reforms being enacted now, for instance, are already stretching the limits of social tolerance. Nobody likes 'scroungers'. But nobody likes to see disabled neighbours terrified that their dignity is in peril. The welfare debate is more balanced and nuanced than the polls suggest.

The intellectual error made by the Right is related to this. The Left used to be afflicted by a teleological perspective: the belief that an inescapable secular Providence was unfolding, and that the socialist's proper role was to expedite this process. Few left-of-centre politicians now think like this. But I rather fear that some - by no means most, but too many - right-of-centre figures have adopted their own version of the teleological error. Their New Jerusalem was designed not by Marx and Lenin, but by Friedman, Hayek and Laffer (he of the curve). As the global economy continues to reel from the Crash and the protracted Eurozone crisis, some sections of the Right see a minimal-state, low-tax, low-spend settlement as the inevitable end-point of the present turmoil (and despise Cameron for not going far enough).

No belief in teleological politics can survive a reading of Popper's Poverty of Historicism. Yet there is a risk that the Right (or parts of it) will repeat the most foolish error of the 20th Century Left - confusing ideology with radicalism, believing that history is inexorably on your side.  What a paradox that would be.

Matthew d’Ancona is a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and London Evening Standard. His book on the Coalition will be published by Viking Penguin in the autumn.  

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Andrew Rawnsley

First off, we’d better get our definitions sorted.  If by “left” you mean Soviet-style communism, or any of the other bastard offspring of Karl Marx, then the “left” decisively lost.  But I’ll assume most of us can agree that we are talking about the various ideological strands with the word “social” in them: socialism, social democracy and social liberalism.

They did well in achieving their central objectives.  At the beginning of the 20th century, state activity represented a  small segment of national wealth except when kings and tsars were mobilising for war.  There was universal suffrage in very few places, progressive taxation was a concept in its infancy, and  redistribution of opportunity and resources from the affluent to the unaffluent was rudimentary where it existed at all.  By the end of the 20th century, the picture in the advanced economies was dramatically transformed.  The state was consuming a large proportion of GDP, drawing most from the better off, to support universal public services, complex welfare states and redistributional benefit systems. 

Some will say that the left lost the last quarter of the century.  First, to the counter-revolution of the radical right led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  Then, to the forces of globalisation.  The latter has certainly stretched inequalities again in many places, and the radical right was intellectually dominant on economic organisation: RIP nationalised industries.  But on the fundamentals many of the left’s earlier victories proved more durable.  Even Mrs T at her peak could not get state spending as a proportion of GDP much below 35 per cent. 

The related question is which form of the left prospered most.  Attempting to conquer or abolish capitalism proved to be a dead end.   The more successful countries- the Scandinavians being an obvious example- were those that broadly accepted the freemarket while endeavouring to harness its energies and spread its profits for the greater good.  So I’d say social liberalism and social democracy had the better of it over socialism.

Andrew Rawnsley is the Observer's Chief Political Commentator

Leon Trotsky.

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Jesse Norman

Happy Birthday, Staggers!  You have been at the provocative forefront as the left has sought to define both itself and British politics over the past century, and I hope you stay there for many years to come.  It’s a new take on Gramsci’s long march through the institutions to have so many editors march through one institution—but the happy result has been to stimulate, enrich and broaden our political debate.  Thank you.

You will, however, need a new purpose.  The New Statesman was founded in 1913 to be in the vanguard of a modern scientific Fabian socialism, in which society would be improved by intellectuals for the benefit of the working man and woman through the benign instrument of the state.  But as we now know, much of this was high-minded twaddle.  It turned out that scientific socialism was a bad lot, the intellectuals mainly interested in themselves, the state often far from benign.

The first death blow came in 1925, when Leon Trotsky pointed out in Where Is Britain Going? that Fabianism was not an attempt to empower the ordinary working people of this country, but an attempt to suppress them.  Fabianism’s last best hope came in 1997, but the Blair-Brown era squandered the chance of a lifetime to show its value.  Now the credit crunch has finished it off.

So Fabianism is dead.  It has been killed not by politics, but by economics.  Instead, the ever-increasing cost of services relative to manufacturing requires new ideas, new thought, indeed nothing less than a radical reconceptualisation of the role and value of the state—the largest “service provider” of all.  That will create a new politics of the left, alongside an attempt to recapture the insights of Burke in a Labour idiom.  Time, then, for the Staggers to begin afresh.

Jesse Norman MP’s new biography of Edmund Burke will be published in May.

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Andrew Sparrow

Come the glorious day that I acquire plenipotentiary powers over British political journalism, I'll probably outlaw the terms “Left”, “Right” and their derivatives.

This will stymie much intelligent comment and debate, but any collective noun that covers Keir Hardie, Peter Mandelson, George Orwell, George Galloway, the Greenham Common peace camp, the Green party, Jim Callaghan, the NUM, Tony Benn and Tony Blair (well, maybe not Tony Blair) is clearly bursting at the seams and at the margin of usefulness. A ban would at least force people to use labels that were more precise and interesting. Like Democratic Collectivists – the Sidney Webb term (revived by David Marquand) to describe the strain of Leftism with the best claim to winning the 20th century. T

he state has expanded enormously over the last 100 years, and mostly for the better. Egalitarianism has fared less well; opportunity has been redistributed to a significant extent, but not wealth. Anti-colonialism and feminism are not necessarily core Left causes, but they've both had a remarkably good century, reshaping the world in a way that would have been hard to imagine when the New Statesman was founded. Leftish libertarians haven't done badly (think of all that glorious 1960s' private members' legislation), but Democratic Republicans (to use another Marquandism) have had less to celebrate; devolution aside, there hasn't been any dramatic electoral reform since 1928. Organised labour advanced its cause considerably (as well as damaging it too), but it never outmastered organised capital. And that takes us to the nub of the debate. In so far as Leftism has been about ameliorating capitalism, it has done rather well. In so far as it has been about replacing capitalism, it has, of course, been a flop.

Andrew Sparrow is a political correspondent at the Guardian

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Hugo Rifkind

Strangely, it was the bedroom tax which convinced me that the left had won the 20th century. It was the ease and sudden ubiquity of that phrase, applied by Labour, so devastatingly, to describe something that isn't a tax at all, but a withdrawal of of a benefit.

"But there's no difference!" you might say. And that's precisely my point. For the right, there's a huge difference between your money, which the State may or may not take away, and the State's money, which it may or may not choose to give to you. Popular discourse, though, no longer recognises this distinction. So, a tax cut can be recast as a benefit given, and a benefit taken can be recast as a tax advanced. All very left.

Similarly, “regressive taxation”. Everybody now knows what that means, even though it doesn’t really mean anything. Sure, you could argue that a cigarette duty is a regressive tax, because taxing your 20 a day it take a lot of your income if you’re poor, and only a little if you’re very rich. But why is this even a thing? When you think about it, the cost of basically everything is regressive. Apples, toothpaste, cigarettes themselves - it’s a complex way of pointing out the stultifyingly obvious, which is that when you haven’t got much money, paying for stuff takes more of it.

Yet, in our hearts, we all now think of this as being morally wrong. Weird, no? Well, no. Because the left won.

Hugo Rifkind is a columnist for the Times

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Iain Dale

If you had posed the statement “The Left won the twentieth century” in the 1970s, then most would have unquestionably agreed. The state was in charge of all the major industries from telecommunications to coal. Trade union leaders were regular visitors at Downing Street, and in the words of the Labour Chancellor at the time, Denis Healey, he was “squeezing the rich until the pips squeaked”. The Soviet Union was at the height of its power and influence throughout the world and the spread of Communism seemed unstoppable.

Then in the space of two years two leaders were elected who were united in the same belief - that not only the strangling influence of socialism in their own countries was wrong, but that the spread of Communism had to be tackled. Their names were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and they would go on to change the story of the twentieth century.

Huge, state owned industries were privatised. Trade unions were vanquished, the enterprise economy was encouraged, income tax rates were slashed. On an international scale the reputational malaise suffered by Britain and America was reversed. The Falklands demonstrated to the Soviets that the West might not be the soft touch they had counted on. At last, the Americans stood up to the Communist threat in Latin America and Africa. 

Thatcher stood shoulder to shoulder with Reagan and espoused the virtues of a free society, and their voices were heard loud and clear in the capitals of Eastern Europe. Thatcher spotted Gorbachev’s potential as a reformer before anyone one else and ensured that Reagan encouraged his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika. The defeat and fall of Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall were in no small part down to these three, with more than a walk on part played by Pope John Paul II.

In the late 1990s Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was, she replied “New Labour”.  That says all you need to know about who won the twentieth century. Even under ‘Red Ed’ Labour is no longer really a party of what we traditionally mean by ‘the Left’.

Iain Dale is LBC 97.3 Drivetime Presenter

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Tristram Hunt

Of course, the Left won the twentieth century.  And what did they beat?  A system which put seven year-old John Saville down a Sheffield coal mine to work as a “trapper”: ‘I stand and open and shut the door all day.  I’m generally in the dark and sit me down against the door ... I stop 12 hours in the pit.  I never see daylight now except on Sunday ... I go to chapel every Sunday.  I don’t know who made the world.  I’ve never heard of God.’

Through struggle and combination, democracy and ideology, the Left managed to over-turn a system which secured huge wealth for a tiny minority and beggared the vast majority.  Real change began with the trade unions, the New Liberal assault on the sanctity of private property, and the Labour Party’s capacity to give a true voice to the needs of working people.

By the early 1900s, collectivism had taken hold of local government and in the 1940s it stormed central government.  In its wake came civilization: not just a social safety net, decent health care and dignity in old age, but educational provision, open spaces, culture, housing, and the infrastructure for leading a fulfilling life.  Dry figures about the level of state expenditure as proportion of GDP hide the life chances delivered by the Left.

Of course, mistakes were made and our associationalist tradition too easily smothered.  But we should be in no doubt about the assault on the progressive inheritance currently being unleashed by the dual forces of a massively indebted economy and an austerity-blinded government.

Today, the Left’s task is to rediscover the passion and purpose of our calling and draw inspiration from our profound set of twentieth-century achievements.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central

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Janet Daley

It was, as the football commentators might say, a century of two halves. The first half was certainly a win for the Left: virtually the whole of the intellectual establishment of Europe embraced some form of Marxist account of economics, and much of it endorsed the political revolutions which were carried out in its name. The heroism of the Soviet resistance to fascism during the Second World War seemed to give the Bolshevik movements a moral free pass even after it became clear that they were ruthlessly subjugating eastern European countries. But with the exposure of Stalinist genocide and the rise of samizdat dissidence, came serious disillusion with totalitarian socialism.

What replaced it in the second half of the century was democratic socialism which became the dominant political and ethical framework of post-war Europe. With the final, ignominious collapse of communism and the liberation of the former Warsaw Pact countries, this consensus moved further to the Right: not so much dedicated to “socialism” any longer as to something called “social solidarity” (or “social justice”). Free market economics was now universally adopted by the European governing class, but its virtue lay in the tax revenue that it produced which could be redistributed in order to create economic equality. This “soft Marxism”, which equates “fairness” with equality of outcomes (rather than of opportunity), and sees wealth creation as justified only insofar as it can be used to eliminate disparities of achievement or success within society, still dominates a great deal of official political discourse. But its contradictions are gradually becoming apparent – in a less dramatic way than those of the hard Marxist position but inexorably nonetheless.

The truly democratic values of meritocracy and individual moral responsibility are emerging (as they inevitably must, human nature being what it is) to challenge the illiberal orthodoxy which the Left ingeniously constructed out of the ruins of its discredited position.

Janet Daley is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph

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Neal Lawson 

The left won a battle in 1945 but thought it won the war. As a consequence it stopped fighting in the belief that the capitalist tiger had been tamed. But capitalism had simply conceded some ground in the aftermath of the war, the rise of the Soviet Union and the development of the labour movement. It regrouped intellectually and organisationally and from the 1970s on it has been one way traffic as the world headed to the right. Today the left tries to recreate the 1945 moment in the mistaken belief that simply electing enough Labour MPs will somehow see socialism ushered in. While necessary, a Labour government is insufficient.

That is because capitalism has gone up and gone in. It has gone "up" to the level of global flows of finance – freeing itself from political accountability. And it has gone "in" to our cultural psyche through the phenomena of turbo-consumption. The good life is not something to struggle for but something to shop for. These two movements, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline in the salience of class, have rendered the left historically weak.

A new left for the 21st century must remember that capitalism can never be tamed; have a vision of the good society that trumps just consumption and operates in a way that is in tune with the times – so instead of the factory being the organisational and cultural metaphor it has to become more like Facebook.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass

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