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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”.

UK Uncut protest.
Painter dismisses the "populist left" as too pure and unable to face "real decisions". Photograph: Getty Images.

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.