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.
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left