Left Without a Future? by Anthony Painter: astute proposals, overly "pragmatic"

Anthony Painter’s 'Left Without A Future?' demonstrates an all too typical condemnation of “moral fervour”.

Left Without a Future?: Social Justice in Anxious Times
Anthony Painter
I B Tauris, 244pp, £14.99

“Labour is divided between romantics and pragmatists” asserts Anthony Painter. He argues that “there are the Romantics, who emphasise the ideal, the human, the ethical, the communitarian; while the pragmatists emphasise power, policy, practicality and process”. The important thing according to Painter is to find the correct balance between the two. “The problems arise when we have shallow pragmatism with no soul, which becomes meaningless; or when we have romanticism which delivers nothing without a pragmatic anchor”.

However, in The Left Without A Future?, a very readable and broad political manifesto, Painter himself fails to find such a balance, eschewing values, morals, and virtues, in favour of the sort of cold, calculated pragmatism that has gripped the Labour party since the ‘90s. Painter’s actual ideas are completely sound. Although he never uses the word, they essentially amount to ‘Predistribution’, the latest idea from team Ed.

Painter argues that instead of having to resort to cash transfers to compensate for the symptoms of inequality, the left today should focus on the causes, constructing new institutions that create a more equal society before redistribution is required. Institutions such as wage associations, a national infrastructure bank, university technical colleges, a high-quality child care system, decentralised forms of local government and more, are all proposed, to hand power back to the individual, to give them the capability to escape inequality before it engulfs them. Such institutions will endure and become enshrined in society, no matter what the fiscal situation.

Despite the farcical assertion that New Labour’s academies were an example of such institutions, one cannot argue that the enactment of most of Painter’s proposals would not be beneficial. His suggestions are both shrewd and intriguing, and one only wishes that he had devoted more of the book to exploring them.

However, somewhat depressingly, the co-author of In the Black Labour attempts to strip his ideas of any “moral fervour”, any virtue or principle, calling instead for a very woolly “modesty” and “humility”. Despite admitting that you should “never underestimate the moral foundations of Labour”, and despite arguing that Attlee was so brilliant because he combined his pragmatism with a “romantic” set of ideals, Painter himself fails to insert a set of principles into his proposals.

Why? Well, in a very Dan Hodges sort of way, he argues that in a pluralistic society, there are too many different opinions for us to have our own, strong, ethical, moral construct. “What if people don’t care much for ‘our’ values, or ‘our’ policies, and find talk of a good society just plain bossy?”. Such assertions only serve to hollow out politics, to remove meaning from it, to discourage engagement as the young search for other, meaningful outlets, exactly what Ed Miliband has promised not to do.

Moreover, although Painter offers breadth, truly penetrating analysis takes some time to appear. Early on for example, Painter feels the need to share with us a number of pieces of intelligence: apparently, class solidarity has declined, ‘value’ politics have become more important ... no kidding. He also insists on indulging in extremely vague and ultimately useless pop-psychology, like how everyone in society is either a “settler” a “prospector” or a “pioneer”.

Irritating too is Painter’s continual failure to hide his obsession with Barack Obama, despite its irrelevance to his main thesis. Constant comparisons are made to American institutions, American parties, American opinions, when they appear to be of little relevance. More subtle references to the US system are also seen in Painter’s constant advocacy of a compromising, consensus-seeking leadership. Instead of pursuing these vague comparisons, Painter should have spent more time laying out his useful and astute suggestions on institution building.

Strange too is Painter’s proposed adoption of ‘Englishness’. As mentioned, he vehemently rejects moral constructs and ethics, yet he seems all too happy to wish to claim the concept of English nationalism from the far right, and define a set of pluralist ‘English’ values that fit with the left’s view of the world. He seems to think that elements of the optimistic, positive, non-violent, pluralistic breed of Scottish Nationalism could be usefully supplanted into an English form of national identity. He forgets that Englishness is not only irrelevant to most, but also a potentially toxic concept.

Saying that, you may be surprised to hear that I would still recommend this book to anyone interested in social justice and the left. It does give interesting critiques of Keynesianism, neo-liberalism and the economic crash, it does offer some very useful suggestions regarding the types of institutions that the left should look to build, and it also presents an interesting new insight on immigration, suggesting that the public’s opinion is actually far more nuanced than we give them credit for.

The book's flaw is not the lack of a useful plan of action, but instead, the lack of a set of principles which justify that action. In order to construct a new, inspiring programme, like Atlee did in 1945, like the right believe Thatcher did in 1979, you do need a moral construct, a set of fundamental values. Despite some very interesting and potentially very useful proposals which he would do well to devote more analysis to, Painter is far too willing to see ethics as a weakness.

Painter dismisses the "populist left" as too pure and unable to face "real decisions". Photograph: Getty Images.
John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.