In November 2008, shortly after Barack Obama’s election victory, his combative chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, revealed the new administration’s approach to the sudden economic downturn. “Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” he told the New York Times. “They are opportunities to do big things.”
The left, however, never seems to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Social-democratic political parties across the west are in danger of allowing the financial crisis to “go to waste”. Instead of seizing this once-in-a-lifetime chance to promote a radical, progressive and even populist political and economic agenda, much of the left has retreated into a familiar and introspective comfort zone, in which navel-gazing and self-flagellation become substitutes for action.
Since the crash of 2008, I have been deluged with an endless string of invitations to meetings, seminars and conferences on the future of the left. The titles tend to reflect the underlying doom and gloom: “Where next for the left?”, “Whither the left?”, “Which way’s left?”
For the past 18 months, these fatalistic congregations of British liberals and lefties have been accompanied by a slew of equally depressing books, articles and pamphlets. The latest offering this week is an ebook, jointly published by the centre-left Labour pressure group Compass, and the leftist journal Soundings, and entitled After the Crash: Reinventing the Left in Britain.
In their introduction to the collection of essays, the academics Richard Grayson and Jonathan Rutherford write that “the crisis has left the elites trapped in the discredited neoliberal orthodoxy of the past”. But are they “trapped”? Or has the right, in fact, been oddly liberated — to advocate “swingeing” cuts to public spending, to defend a resurgent bank bonus culture, and to condemn “big government” — which, according to David Cameron, “got us into this mess”? Eighteen months on, few, if any, of the leading neoliberal ideologues have recanted their belief in the sort of market fundamentalism that unleashed the worst financial crisis in human history.
The irony is that leftist analyses, for example, of the fragility of financial markets and the corrosive effects of inequality, have been vindicated by events. Never before in living memory have such swaths of public and expert opinion endorsed policies and positions long advanced by the progressive end of the political spectrum. The public is to the left not simply of New Labour, but the political and media classes as a whole.
Give us a tax
You might not know it from reading the right-wing press. In January the Telegraph claimed the latest results from the respected British Social Attitudes survey revealed that:
The public has concluded ‘enough is enough’ for increased taxation and raised spending on key services such as health and education, with support at its lowest for almost three decades.
True. But what the Telegraph failed to focus on is that the same survey revealed the most popular view, held by 50 per cent of the public, was for taxes and spending to remain as they are. Only 8 per cent supported cuts.
Meanwhile, specific taxes targeted at the rich have been welcomed by voters. The new 50p top-rate tax for high earners and the tax on bankers’ bonuses remain two of the most unequivocally popular policies this Labour government has implemented. So what do ministers go and do? Lord Mandelson promises the 50p rate will be abolished as soon as possible, and Alistair Darling makes the bonus tax a one-off, temporary measure. Whatever happened to New Labour, the party of opinion polls and focus groups?
The reality is that the public is far ahead, and to the left, of the government on financial and economic reform. Polling by YouGov in February, for example, revealed that 76 per cent of those surveyed wanted the government to introduce a law to cap bonus payments; 51 per cent said they backed the so-called Robin Hood tax, or Tobin tax, on financial transactions; and 68 per cent said they supported rules to split retail and investment banking. The latter view is backed by the Trotskyist governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, and the former by “Red” Adair Turner of the Financial Services Authority.
Then there is the role of the state. The right could offer no real alternative to the de facto nationalisation of the banks in 2008 — and the late Michael Foot went to his grave having seen a key section of his 1983 “suicide note” manifesto implemented by a (New) Labour government.
But the hankering for state ownership of the so-called commanding heights of the economy is not restricted to the financial sector. Polls show voters in favour of the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, the railways and the telecommunications industry.
In fact, throughout the Thatcher era, more people voted for high-spending, tax-raising parties than voted for Thatcher. Despite three decades of tacking to the right, under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, the public has remained rather collectivist in its attitudes. Happily, recent events have only served to entrench this British mindset — and Labour’s belated semi-conversion to a populist, Keynesian social democracy surely explains the narrowing of the Tory lead since the new year.
Give us a route map
To talk, therefore, of a crisis of left-wing thinking is defeatist nonsense. It is the market-worshipping right that should be in crisis. But there is a serious question as to whether, after a decade-long Faustian pact with the City, Labour, as it is currently constituted, is capable of delivering the radical, progressive agenda voters crave.
The party once sought to split the difference between free-market capitalism and democratic socialism by taking the “Third Way”. In the end, under Blair and Brown, this turned out to be less a new route map for the left than a neoliberal dead end.
So here the “Where next for the left?” brigade has a point. But will the forthcoming election provoke a political realignment on the left that cuts across party, sectarian and geographical lines, and incorporates, say, the traditions and ideologies of smaller parties like the Greens and non-party, community-based organisations such as London Citizens?
The ubiquitous Jon Cruddas, Labour MP and former deputy leadership candidate, argues in his contribution to the Compass/Soundings ebook that alliances of this kind are not alien to the Labour Party’s own history.
Crisis? What crisis? There is no need for post-mortems; the patient is not dead. The left should be much more confident, triumphalist even, for this is a progressive moment.
This article is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in the Guardian.