Talk of a left-wing crisis is defeatist nonsense

Public opinion is on the side of the left. What we now need is more confidence in ourselves.

In November 2008, shortly after Barack Obama's election victory, his combative chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, revealed the new administration's approach to the sudden economic downturn. "Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste," he told the New York Times. "They are opportunities to do big things."

The left, however, never seems to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Social-democratic political parties across the west are in danger of allowing the financial crisis to "go to waste". Instead of seizing this once-in-a-lifetime chance to promote a radical, progressive and even populist political and economic agenda, much of the left has retreated into a familiar and introspective comfort zone, in which navel-gazing and self-flagellation become substitutes for action.

Since the crash of 2008, I have been deluged with an endless string of invitations to meetings, seminars and conferences on the future of the left. The titles tend to reflect the underlying doom and gloom: "Where next for the left?", "Whither the left?", "Which way's left?"

For the past 18 months, these fatalistic congregations of British liberals and lefties have been accompanied by a slew of equally depressing books, articles and pamphlets. The latest offering this week is an ebook, jointly published by the centre-left Labour pressure group Compass, and the leftist journal Soundings, and entitled After the Crash: Reinventing the Left in Britain.

In their introduction to the collection of essays, the academics Richard Grayson and Jonathan Rutherford write that "the crisis has left the elites trapped in the discredited neoliberal orthodoxy of the past". But are they "trapped"? Or has the right, in fact, been oddly liberated -- to advocate "swingeing" cuts to public spending, to defend a resurgent bank bonus culture, and to condemn "big government" -- which, according to David Cameron, "got us into this mess"? Eighteen months on, few, if any, of the leading neoliberal ideologues have recanted their belief in the sort of market fundamentalism that unleashed the worst financial crisis in human history.

The irony is that leftist analyses, for example, of the fragility of financial markets and the corrosive effects of inequality, have been vindicated by events. Never before in living memory have such swaths of public and expert opinion endorsed policies and positions long advanced by the progressive end of the political spectrum. The public is to the left not simply of New Labour, but the political and media classes as a whole.

Give us a tax

You might not know it from reading the right-wing press. In January the Telegraph claimed the latest results from the respected British Social Attitudes survey revealed that:

The public has concluded 'enough is enough' for increased taxation and raised spending on key services such as health and education, with support at its lowest for almost three decades.

True. But what the Telegraph failed to focus on is that the same survey revealed the most popular view, held by 50 per cent of the public, was for taxes and spending to remain as they are. Only 8 per cent supported cuts.

Meanwhile, specific taxes targeted at the rich have been welcomed by voters. The new 50p top-rate tax for high earners and the tax on bankers' bonuses remain two of the most unequivocally popular policies this Labour government has implemented. So what do ministers go and do? Lord Mandelson promises the 50p rate will be abolished as soon as possible, and Alistair Darling makes the bonus tax a one-off, temporary measure. Whatever happened to New Labour, the party of opinion polls and focus groups?

The reality is that the public is far ahead, and to the left, of the government on financial and economic reform. Polling by YouGov in February, for example, revealed that 76 per cent of those surveyed wanted the government to introduce a law to cap bonus payments; 51 per cent said they backed the so-called Robin Hood tax, or Tobin tax, on financial transactions; and 68 per cent said they supported rules to split retail and investment banking. The latter view is backed by the Trotskyist governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, and the former by "Red" Adair Turner of the Financial Services Authority.

Then there is the role of the state. The right could offer no real alternative to the de facto nationalisation of the banks in 2008 -- and the late Michael Foot went to his grave having seen a key section of his 1983 "suicide note" manifesto implemented by a (New) Labour government.

But the hankering for state ownership of the so-called commanding heights of the economy is not restricted to the financial sector. Polls show voters in favour of the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, the railways and the telecommunications industry.

In fact, throughout the Thatcher era, more people voted for high-spending, tax-raising parties than voted for Thatcher. Despite three decades of tacking to the right, under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, the public has remained rather collectivist in its attitudes. Happily, recent events have only served to entrench this British mindset -- and Labour's belated semi-conversion to a populist, Keynesian social democracy surely explains the narrowing of the Tory lead since the new year.

Give us a route map

To talk, therefore, of a crisis of left-wing thinking is defeatist nonsense. It is the market-worshipping right that should be in crisis. But there is a serious question as to whether, after a decade-long Faustian pact with the City, Labour, as it is currently constituted, is capable of delivering the radical, progressive agenda voters crave.

The party once sought to split the difference between free-market capitalism and democratic socialism by taking the "Third Way". In the end, under Blair and Brown, this turned out to be less a new route map for the left than a neoliberal dead end.

So here the "Where next for the left?" brigade has a point. But will the forthcoming election provoke a political realignment on the left that cuts across party, sectarian and geographical lines, and incorporates, say, the traditions and ideologies of smaller parties like the Greens and non-party, community-based organisations such as London Citizens?

The ubiquitous Jon Cruddas, Labour MP and former deputy leadership candidate, argues in his contribution to the Compass/Soundings ebook that alliances of this kind are not alien to the Labour Party's own history.

Crisis? What crisis? There is no need for post-mortems; the patient is not dead. The left should be much more confident, triumphalist even, for this is a progressive moment.

This article is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in the Guardian.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.