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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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