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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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