Wednesday 22 July 2009

Why are you on the left?

The Demos Open Left project has launched with a series of short personal pieces about what it means to be left - and is inviting people to join in and answer these brief questions.

My contribution focuses on equality and fairness, and the idea of a society of equal life chances, which will probably not be an enormous surprise to Next Left readers.

Here is the more personal bit about how I think I came to be on the left.

What do you consider made you Left wing?

Without identifying any specific moment, I knew where I was coming from by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. I grew up in the north-west during the 1980s before the family moved to the south-east, so that had an impact. I was interested in history and in politics. We had the Daily Mail in the house, and I started getting The Guardian too. I discovered George Orwell and read as much as possible.

The other things that dominated my world somehow became more political. I was absurdly obsessive about football – and was interested in the emerging fanzine and supporters’ movement before the Hillsborough tragedy, when that seemed very urgent.

Then, when I was 16, Norman Tebbit proposed his ‘cricket test’. Well, I had supported England since I was seven or eight. My Dad didn’t – which was probably a good enough reason to go for England when they played India. (Viv Richards’ West Indies were magic: was that was the real ‘cricket test’?). I felt the divisiveness of that quite personally – my Dad worked for the NHS yet was being accused of treachery for liking Kapil Dev. So I was confused: could I keep supporting England now that had been made a loyalty test of support for Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit?

The Open Left project should be judged, like any other, on the ideas it produces. I think there are three important positive features of the initial approach which it has taken.

Firstly, we need more space for discussion about core values and first principles, as well as about policy and political questions. The Open Left project is one more contribution to a growing sense that we need to return to questions of fundamental purpose, mission and values, having not attempted that since the early 1990s, in a different political, economic and international context.

Secondly, the early contributions to Open Left show that a 'what are we for' discussion revolves centrally around the values of equality and fairness. We do not have, and can not expect, unananimity about where that will take a next left politics. As Stuart White put it recently here, "'equality' is a demand that covers a range of reasonable ideals". But the foundational point of agreement that inequality matters is important too. Gradually, since around 2006, equality has begun to return to being more central to Labour's political discourse - having been marginalised and said to be a central point of contention between New and Old Labour with a stark choice between ideology or pragmatism (and electoral success).

Thirdly, the project can help to show that voices from different strands of the left can engage in serious discussion about what they agree and disagree about without fearing this will descend into some all-out factional war. That fear has done too much to constrain political debate during the New Labour era. The much greater danger is not having a much more open debate of this kind.

1 comment:

Tom said...

I think that we should take in a bit of Kant when we're thinking about why we're on the left. Rather than thinking about a collectivism and an equality within that as a good in itself, we need to concentrate on what impact this has on Human anjoyment of life; namely, in treating people as a means unto themselves, we should be looking at how we can best guarantee empowerment and happiness to the most, whilst insuring that those not covered by 'the most' have flexible access to this category.

In my view, given the current economic context (capitalism, and a neoliberal conception of capitalism at that), greater equality is the best route to distributing power, and thereby the individual control over one's own life which we term 'freedom'. To get there we need what I would term 'fluid equality'; where outcome is relatively equal, but people have choices to pull themselves up or voluntarily sink... just not too far from the median! I think it's important that the opportunity to take advantage of equality is continually renewed. Adults should not suffer for what they were like at eleven, even if they were really atrocious then.

Because equality is the primary route to empowerment/freedom, I welcome the return of the concept to debate. The years between 2000 and 2006 or so were quite frankly infuriating in this regard.

I remember a huge session about poverty at a Progress conference in which the e word (and indeed the term 'relative') were completely absent, much to my predictable chagrin. Glad things have looked up!