Limping along on the left

. . . on teaching music, taxing drugs and taking on the right-wing bloggers

Why are the most successful blogs on the right? Why doesn’t the left – the real left, not New Labour camp followers such as Derek Draper – have any equivalent of Guido Fawkes who, more or less single-handedly, brought down the spin doctor Damian McBride? The obvious answers are to do with money and time. You can’t make much of a living from blogging, and lefties are too busy with honest toil to post the required mixture of bile and half-truths each day. The Guido site author – Paul Staines, a 42-year-old former hedge fund investment officer who declared himself bankrupt in 2003 – is an oddly secretive character whose finances are obscure but, according to the Daily Telegraph, his wife has a senior position with a City bank and the couple own four properties between them.

However, I am unconvinced by such explanations; there are plenty of lefties, including NS contributors, with rich wives. The real reason, I fear, is that nobody under 50 – and, therefore, nobody truly at home with new media – has experienced a left political culture that would inspire the energy, flair, chutzpah and obsessiveness of a Guido. The belief that the left must constrain its ideas and watch its language lest it upset the bourgeoisie has been ingrained since at least the mid-1980s. Staines is at heart an anarchist who, as his website’s name suggests, wishes to undermine all MPs, not just Labour ones. McBride and other victims might disagree, but Guido is successful because he is fun. The left, 40 years ago, had similar streaks of anarchy, irreverence and humour, qualities that were evident even in Neil Kinnock before he became Labour leader. Now, the left just craves respectability.

Here’s one example of the left’s timidity. You’d be surprised how many senior police officers, politicians and doctors privately agree on the correct approach to drugs: legalise the lot, including heroin and cocaine, regulate their sale (as we do alcohol and tobacco) and tax the proceeds. Why should one of the world’s largest industries go entirely untaxed?

The left should be shouting this view from the rooftops, since the “war on drugs” is so obviously a failure and the people and communities hit hardest are overwhelmingly working-class. As an excellent new report from the pressure group Transform says, drug supply and availability are increasing, not falling. Health harms are also increasing, because there are no consumer standards. (Imagine how much more lethal alcohol would be if you didn’t know whether you were buying whisky or pale ale.) Social harms, caused by unregulated drug businesses using violence and extortion as they compete for market share, blight urban areas. And more than half of UK property crime is to fund drug misuse.

Almost anybody who studies the drugs problem with an open mind for more than five minutes concludes that legalisation is the best answer. But if they dare voice this view, they are said to be “pro-drugs” or indifferent to the harm they cause. In fact, the prohibitionist case rests on reducing harm. Chris Mullin’s diaries, which I reviewed here recently, reveal that both David Blunkett and Tony Blair were prepared to contemplate legalisation of heroin. However, Blunkett gratuitously told Mullin, then chair of the home affairs select committee: “I don’t accept that it’s benign.” Who does?

I tried to cheer myself, and glean new ideas, by reading a “reimagining socialism” forum on the website of the Nation magazine, our US counterpart. I clicked eagerly to the opening essay, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. The Jr put me off for a start, as it always does. What do Americans mean by it: that I should have heard of Sr and pay more attention because this is his son?

Then I read the following: “Can we see our way . . . into a just, democratic, sustainable . . . future? Let’s just put it right out on the table: we don’t.” Oh dear. I think I’ll continue reading the Financial Times, where I am at least entertained by the despair of the monied classes as to how they can ever rebuild their shattered system.

When I read of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela and its success in London this month, I think of Andrew Fairbairn, a former chief education officer of Leicestershire, who died in 2007.

Fairbairn made the county a widely imitated model for music education, ensuring every child could learn an instrument for free, employing a team of local authority music advisers, and establishing the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, made up entirely of local children, for which he persuaded composers such as Michael Tippett to write special pieces. He spent his retirement, in 1984, raging – and bending the ears of journalists like myself – about how music in our schools was being eroded by spending cuts, the national curriculum, tests, targets and league tables. As he and others pointed out, the fall in the numbers learning instruments was sharpest in the lowest social groups.

Over the same period, Venezuela was developing its El Sistema music programme, which enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands from the favelas and allowed many to escape crime, drugs and illiteracy. Latin America has some of the most brutally unequal societies on earth but, particularly now that it has leaders such as Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez (who has provided El Sistema with extra funding), it at least shows signs of social progress. We, meanwhile, seem to regress.

That tireless defender of civil liberties, Henry Porter, recalls in the Observer that Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, once said that “the force with which activists and agitators deliver their argument” would help achieve international agreements on global warming. Yet, as we saw this month, agents of the state do their best to suppress popular protest and treat “activists and agitators” as potential terrorists. Here is yet another issue on which, as I have repeatedly urged, Miliband can make a principled resignation.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek