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.
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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood