How the left lost its language

The global crisis exposed the intellectual hollowness of our politics. Despite signs of renewal, the

Fifty years ago, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote a rather gloomy essay about the state of the “socialist movement” in Britain. There was, she said, a “moral void in the life of the country”, and on the left in particular. Where the left had once been the source of an animating vision of the good society, now it was the repository of a drearily technocratic utilitarianism. An obsession with central planning and the streamlined organisation of social relations had triumphed over older, more explicitly ethical traditions: Christian socialism, say, or the critique of injustice that had driven early Marxism (before it, too, had gone technical and scientific).

It is sobering to reread Murdoch’s piece now, for the landscape she described is instantly recognisable: a mainstream left intellectually hollowed out, this time by the lingering intoxications of historic election success rather than, as then, the satiation and dissipation of reforming energies by that great achievement, the creation of the welfare state.

As Andrew Gamble observes on page 50, one of the most striking things about the period since 15 September 2008 – the day that Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States – has been the lack of any concerted intellectual response to the financial crisis on the left. A “sort of deathly hush” has descended, when the conditions might have led one to expect increasing “ideological polarisation”.

There are signs, however, that the intellectual and ideological pack-ice may at last be about to break. However, it has taken a political, rather than an economic or financial, crisis for that to happen. Following the electoral catastrophe suffered by Labour on 4 June, the left-of-centre think tank Demos rushed out a little pamphlet entitled What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left.

The director of Demos, Richard Reeves, argues that the crisis facing Labour runs so deep that the next general election is a write-off. So the volume’s contributors are not trying to figure out how Labour might win in 2010 but are setting about the altogether more arduous business of beginning the “longer-term intellectual and political renewal of the progressive left”.

Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, argues in his contribution that what the centre left needs is a new “route-map”, and that means not just new policies (though several interesting proposals are canvassed here), but, as Murdoch put it all those years ago, a new “vision”. She wrote of the need for socialists and social democrats to elaborate “an autonomous moral conception, independent of, and ultimately sovereign over, the mere notions of efficiency and rational ‘tidying up’ of capitalist society into which socialism is in danger of degenerating”.

Similarly, Katwala says that the left ought to become newly attentive to its highest values, values it had neglected during the long boom when, to paraphrase Murdoch, its ambitions had amounted to not much more than smoothing the edges of a thoroughly deregulated and highly financialised neoliberal capitalism.

Murdoch recommended that the left rediscover its taste for moral, rather than mechanical, reform, and reach back beyond welfarism and utilitarianism to ideas that could be found in William Morris as well as Marx. This prescription is echoed here by the MP Jon Cruddas and the academic Jonathan Rutherford (who also write in this week’s magazine, see page 49). For, as they point out, the crisis of neoliberalism is also a crisis of a certain conception of the individual human being – as “financialised subject” or “rational” preference-maximiser. Faced with the precipitous collapse of this model, they argue, we ought to return to the arguments of the late 19th century between social liberals and ethical socialists over the weight we accord liberty and equality, and out of which the “modern spirit of the left” was forged.

New Labour, Cruddas and Rutherford imply, has worried too much about individual liberty and not enough about equality. The key “fault-line” in the coming debates on the left, they argue, will be between those who see the market as the best mechanism for delivering the autonomy so prized in modern societies, and those who think that genuine freedom is a collective achievement. Or, as Katwala puts it, between those for whom autonomy is the ultimate end (call them “liberals”) and those whose principal concern is with how autonomy is distributed (call them “social democrats”).

During his stirring closing speech to a recent gathering of the Labour fringe group Compass, Cruddas reiterated the scale of the intellectual challenge facing the centre left. “We have lost our language,” he said. Without it, we won’t be able to tackle the big questions. For too long, he went on, Labour has assumed the “worst of the British people”, and in doing so has forgotten how to speak the language of fairness and solidarity. Its best hope lies in getting it back – and quick.

“What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left” is published by Demos (priced £5). Available from: