The challenges facing the left - and what can be done about them

The paradox of thrift, political inequality and the difficulties of conference season.

Twice this week, on consecutive nights, I have been invited to speak at events addressing the challenges facing the left. (This is an unusual density of speaking engagements. I think they get me in because I’m free, not because I’m any help.)

One was the launch of this excellent volume produced by Policy Network. The other was a branch meeting of Labour members in North London. The former focused on large-scale problems for “progressive” movements across Europe – the conundrum of why it is that what looked in 2008 like an obvious failure of globalised, free-market capitalism hasn’t massively benefited social democratic politics. The latter was much more interested in the question of whether Ed Miliband is going to be Prime Minister in 2015.

Neither gathering was optimistic and although the gloom was expressed in different ways, the themes were remarkably similar. At the risk of doing violence to long and nuanced conversations, I’m going to try to distil the common concerns into a few paragraphs.

The new political paradox of thrift

There is, on the left, a strong feeling that the macroeconomic argument that dominated the period immediately after the 2010 election was intellectually won and politically lost by the Keynesians. It is a source of dismay, verging on panic, that the pro-austerity side seems to be getting away with the stagnation of the past few years and is now poised to reap the benefits of dismal, uneven growth. Yes, of course there will be questions about living standards and who shares the proceeds of a flimsy recovery. But the reality is that George Osborne slipped the noose when his deficit and debt reduction targets where shredded and the economy was shrinking.

Labour always struggled to explain the economic paradox of thrift. Now they have their own political paradox to deal with – they are sure that austerity was the wrong policy and yet are being forced to devise a strategy resting on the implicit assumption that it is also unavoidable.

Pointing at inequality doesn’t steer voters to the left

There is a tendency in the Labour party to see the yawning gap between rich and poor, or rather between the very rich and the rest, as intrinsically vicious. That is a reasonable enough position. There is ample evidence that more equal societies are happier and healthier. But the mere fact of British inequality appears not to be as great a factor making people vote Labour as many had hoped (And not just because Labour presided over the unequal Noughties.)

What animates a sense of righteous indignation is the injustice of perceived unequal or undue reward – the fact that bankers continue to get their bonuses while ordinary workers’ wages are frozen, for example. But that isn’t quite the same as despising a social order where some people are much richer than others. Resentment of unfair reward can just as easily be politically mobilised by the right - in favour of benefit cuts, say, if the story told is that claimants haven’t done enough to earn their welfare cheques.

There is poverty in Britain that should be a source of collective national shame, yet the left is struggling to turn that into a galvanising political energy.  It doesn’t help that politics itself – or more accurately, politicians – are mistrusted. A social democratic party has twin challenges. First, it wants to persuade people that the collective good is served by a drastic and urgent reordering of the way wealth and opportunity are distributed. Second, it wants to persuade people that government is the right tool for doing it. Neither of those things are as obvious to many voters as Labour activists want them to be.

The classic old left proposition is that there are a few greedy rich people with far too much money who should be made to cough up to the taxman so he can hand out more to the rest. There is not much evidence in Britain that this is a reliable avenue to victory, but for want of a better idea it seems to be enjoying a quiet renaissance in the Labour ranks. (For a long and detailed study on different ways of expressing the egalitarian impulse and what might work in the context of UK politics, I recommend a forthcoming paper by Nick Pearce in the IPPR’s Juncture journal.)

There was in 2010 a significant number of people in the Labour party who hoped that Ed Miliband was the man who could articulate the moral case for addressing inequality with enough passion and urgency that Britain’s dormant social democrat conscience would be reawakened. The feeling among his most ardent supporters was that he could distil the essence of The Spirit Level into a political love potion for the nation to imbibe. From my encounters with Labour members I can say the reality has dawned that this won’t happen and that leaves many feeling desperately uninspired.

Miliband needs a good post-conference

It is traditional at this time of year to write that party leaders face a critical moment at their annual conferences and that they must deliver the speech of their lives. Those things are broadly true of Miliband’s current situation. But there is a caveat. No-one doubts that the Labour leader can pull of a good speech when he needs to. He did it last year. The Labour party in recent years has been good at circling wagons at its conference and refusing to give the media the civil war stories that hacks are chasing. The discipline frays but remains fairly solid. So it is easy to imagine Miliband getting through his Brighton jamboree with his position unharmed and quite possibly enhanced. The big day for him is the one after the conference. The most consistent complaint I hear from Labour members and MPs is that, even when the leadership find a good position on something, there is no follow-up.

There never seems to be a plan for ramming home the new line or presenting it in a way that captures the public imagination. Miliband’s positions can be mapped out on paper and, more often than not, they are sensible and shrewd. They are meticulously designed to address the concerns of target voters without alienating the Labour core. The problem comes in taking those positions off the page and building them into a political project in three dimensions. The challenge isn’t delivering a good speech, it is turning it into more than just another speech.

We know Ed Miliband is capable of pulling a good conference speech out of the bag. But what happens next?. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.