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

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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All the Premiership teams are competing to see who’s got the biggest stadium

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper.

Here in NW5, where we live noisily and fashionably, we are roughly equidistant from Arsenal and Spurs. We bought the house in 1963 for £5,000, which I mention constantly, to make everyone in the street pig sick. Back in 1963, we lived quietly and unfashionably; in fact, we could easily have been living in Loughton, Essex. Now it’s all changed. As have White Hart Lane and Highbury.

Both grounds are a few metres further away from us than they once were, or they will be when White Hart Lane is finished. The new stadium is a few metres to the north, while the Emirates is a few metres to the east.

Why am I saying metres? Like all football fans, I say a near-miss on goal was inches wide, a slow striker is a yard off his pace, and a ball player can turn on a sixpence. That’s more like it.

White Hart Lane, when finished, will hold 61,000 – a thousand more than the Emirates, har har. Meanwhile, Man City is still expanding, and will also hold about 60,000 by the time Pep Guardiola is into his stride. Chelsea will be next, when they get themselves sorted. So will Liverpool.

Man United’s Old Trafford can now hold over 75,000. Fair makes you proud to be alive at this time and enjoying the wonders of the Prem.

Then, of course, we have the New Wembley, architecturally wonderful, striking and stunning, a beacon of beauty for miles around. As they all are, these brave new stadiums. (No one says “stadia” in real life.)

The old stadiums, built between the wars, many of them by the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch (1865-1939), were also seen as wonders of the time, and all of them held far more than their modern counterparts. The record crowd at White Hart Lane was in 1938, when 75,038 came to see Spurs play Sunderland. Arsenal’s record at Highbury was also against Sunderland – in 1935, with 73,295. Wembley, which today can hold 90,000, had an official figure of 126,000 for the first Cup Final in 1923, but the true figure was at least 150,000, because so many broke in.

Back in 1901, when the Cup Final was held at Crystal Palace between Spurs and Sheffield United, there was a crowd of 110,820. Looking at old photos of the Crystal Palace finals, a lot of the ground seems to have been a grassy mound. Hard to believe fans could see.

Between the wars, thanks to Leitch, big clubs did have proper covered stands. Most fans stood on huge open concrete terraces, which remained till the 1990s. There were metal barriers, which were supposed to hold back sudden surges, but rarely did, so if you were caught in a surge, you were swept away or you fell over. Kids were hoisted over the adults’ heads and plonked at the front.

Getting refreshments was almost impossible, unless you caught the eye of a peanut seller who’d lob you a paper bag of Percy Dalton’s. Getting out for a pee was just as hard. You often came home with the back of your trousers soaked.

I used to be an expert on crowds as a lad. Rubbish on identifying a Spitfire from a Hurricane, but shit hot on match gates at Hampden Park and Ibrox. Answer: well over 100,000. Today’s new stadiums will never hold as many, but will cost trillions more. The money is coming from the £8bn that the Prem is getting from TV for three years.

You’d imagine that, with all this money flooding in, the clubs would be kinder to their fans, but no, they’re lashing out, and not just on new stadiums, but players and wages, directors and agents. Hence, so they say, they are having to put up ticket prices, causing protest campaigns at Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsène at Arsenal has admitted that he couldn’t afford to buy while the Emirates was being built. Pochettino is saying much the same at Spurs.

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper. In the end, only rich fans will be able to attend these supergrounds. Chelsea plans to have a private swimming pool under each new box, plus a wine cellar. Just like our street, really . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle