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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:

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis