Is the British Left Defunct?

My recent post, I Never Left The Left, The Left Left Me has had a lot more hits and generated more discussion than I’d expected. John Brissenden left a thoughtful, fairly lengthy comment that I wrote a very lengthy response to; I thought it would be useful to share John’s and my reply as a new post, and invite further comments. This subject (the loss of civil libertarianism on the left) has been on my mind for a long time, and I wrote the original post to begin the process of defining what I think the left should become (or alternatively, what should replace the left). Myself and John appear to agree on many/most things – this is written in the spirit of friendly debate… so if you feel like commenting please keep it friendly!

John’s comment:

Moronwatch, I write this as a fan, so you know, more in sorrow than in anger and all that, but I’m struggling to see anything here beyond the anguish of someone on the hyphenated Left.

The gist of your post seems, from the title onwards, to be hankering after some non-existent Golden Age of the Left, and therefore inherently conservative. Anyone on the Left (a usage I personally hate, incidentally: can’t we just call ourselves socialists?) must, by definition, want to see a fundamental shift in existing relations of power. Yet, in your criticisms, as I read them, of positive discrimination and of “political correctness” – and I assume you’re familiar with Richard Herring’s take on all of that – you seem to be arguing for the maintenance of those existing power relations which suit you.

I don’t know your ethnicity, but I’m guessing from your comments that, like me, you are a white male.

The freedom of speech which you claim is under attack from the left is a privilege. And it is a privilege which you would not enjoy to the same extent were you a woman, or for that matter, a person of colour. I remember an occasion when you and I, trapped within patriarchy as we are, went to defend a woman on Twitter who had been attacked as being “fat” by some corpulent Moron. So I know you know what I’m talking about, and I further assume that you are aware of the horrific abuse that women who express opinions no more controversial than yours or mine face when they express those opinions online. You will also be familiar with the fact that people who happen to possess a vagina are subjected daily to ridicule, abuse, unwanted and often disgusting sexual advances, quote apart from more severe forms of abuse and discrimination.

So the freedom to make jokes about rape has to be considered in that context. And, as far as I am aware, no one prevented Richard Herring or anyone else from making such jokes. The simple fact is that they’ve had their freedom of speech. And others have the same freedom to call them out on it, as long as the power relations I have described persist.

Now, if you were to say that there is a tension between a class analysis and what has become known as identity politics, I’d agree with you. As Tom Waits says, human beings are just monkeys with guns and money. We’re all just trying to work our way through this mess. But that is not the same as saying that those who are working, through their daily lives, to confront and change a bewilderingly-complex system of inequitable power relations have suddenly “left” you. As long as those power relations persist, you and I don’t get to make that judgement unless we’ve decided that current power relations are just fine the way they are. And I don’t think you have decided that.

My response:

Hi John,

Thanks for the contribution.

I don’t think I’m remembering a Golden Age. The left I grew up in was frustrating and often even reactionary for a number of reasons. There were the so-called “Communists”, who were so right-wing that many of them joined the SDP when it broke away from Labour, leading to a big collapse in CP membership long before the Berlin Wall fell. There were the trade unionist Old Labourites, who were working class and for social equality, but often socially conservative. There were the pro-terrorism groups of the far left. And so on…

Yet, Labour and the broader left in general had two features that seem to be largely missing today: namely, a deep belief in civil liberties, and close contact with Britain’s urban, working and poor people. As I was getting tired of activism for various reasons (post-miners’ strike), smart suits and posh accents were suddenly becoming the standard Labour look. There was a very abrupt change in style, a decade before Blairism. If you want to look for a Labour era to be proud of, look to Roy Jenkins’ social reforms in the late-60s, dealing with the death penalty (abolished), abortion (legal), gambling (legal), homosexuality (legal), etc. – that, and the Attlee government reforms of the 1940s, are the two moment in recent history for the British left to be proud of.

I voted Labour till 2001. The Iraq War and secret support for rendition and torture, meant that many senior Labour figures were/are war criminals or guilty of crimes against humanity. Not just Blair, but Brown, Straw, David Miliband, Reid… many of these people’s supporters are still at the top of the party. Is the harbouring of people who may be guilty of such crimes not enough to convince you that Labour is a dead force for progressivism? The only senior Labourites to resign were Robin Cook and (belatedly) Clare Perry. There have been a number of “last straws” for me: the Iraq War; the introduction of detention without trial and the attempt to extend it to 42 days; support for the human rights abuses known as the war on terror; continuation of immensely draconian drug policies; turning a blind eye to a rise in police brutality and their impunity; ASBOs; increase in prison population; the draconian “extreme porn” possession law; the failure to invest in what working people need most: housing and transport… the list could go on for a long time.

When the Tories came to power, Ken Clarke, to his great credit, tried to deal with the failed policy of locking people up in prison. When a Tory Home Secretary is more progressive than any of his Labour predecessors, hasn’t Labour died as a progressive force?

The conservatism extends to the grassroots. In my first podcast I spoke to well-paid, intelligent, trade unionised, working-class women whose jobs are under attack by Labourites (and also Greens), because they take their clothes off for a living. Some on the left are trying to push prostitution underground, from its current, semi-legal status. The moral agenda once pushed by the Tory blue-hair brigade is now mainstream left-wing orthodoxy. Bare flesh is a menace to society! Does that sound progressive to you? The tragic thing is, that the sexual revolutions that have happened since the 1960s have made Britain a safer place for women than ever before. The “objectification” brigade, far from protecting women, are trying to turn the clock back, putting sexuality back in its secret box (where abuse can take place, unseen by the outside world). The new morality agenda of the left is nothing to do with protecting women from abuse, and everything to do with middle-class people intellectualising their bigoted dislike of working class women who use their bodies to earn money.

A genuinely progressive government today would examine the following issues: Decriminalising drug possession; Regulating drug supplies; Legalising and regulating prostitution fully; Replace the IPCC with a genuinely independent body to hold the police to account; Roll back detention without trial; Roll back ASBOs; reduce prison populations; invest in housing and transport…

As for political correctness: yes, I’m a white (Jewish) male. However, as I’ve blogged previously, I’ve spent much of the past few decades as a minority among black communities. I can attest that there’s a racist minority in sections of Britain’s black communities; unfortunately, today’s left is made up of white, middle-class people who have no direct experience of urban life (beyond Notting Hill or Hoxton, anyway). Not only are they blissfully unaware that racism cuts both ways, but they even excuse black racism as somehow “our fault”. It doesn’t seem to dawn on many of the Oxbridge PC-left, who have little experience of black British society, that black people can be every bit as conservative or bigoted as anyone else. I’ve witnessed black-British racism (usually of the casual type) against West Africans, whites, mixed-race people, Asians and Somalis. The white, middle class left is either unaware of these issues, or afraid to comment; it is left to brave outspoken commentators like Darcus Howe to respond.

I tend not to use the word Socialist much, because in the 150 years or so of Socialism, the word has been appropriated by a huge diversity of people and movements, many of them authoritarian. Since (I believe) liberty has become detached from socialism, I prefer the term Social Libertarian, to demonstrate that the two sides are inseparable. Authoritarianism is THE great danger of the present day, and to me, authoritarians are the enemy of progress, regardless of whether they call themselves socialists or conservatives.

My grandfather’s generation of poor, 1930s East End Jews, saw similar when fascism arose in the East End. None of the main parties (including Labour) took the fascist threat seriously, and many Jews turned to the Communist Party as the only anti-fascist force. Now again today, fascism and police brutality are on the rise, and no mainstream political force seems to understand what’s going on – indeed, they are pandering to the anti-immigration sentiment. I have sympathy for many of the young people who find the BNP or EDL attractive – the far-right, unlike today’s left, knows how to speak the language of today’s urban youth.

It’s time for the rise of a new progressive movement with balls – and I don’t care if that sounds sexist. 😉

14 thoughts on “Is the British Left Defunct?”

  1. Racism is used (by some) to mean the system of prejudice and other factors that results in people who are not members of the dominant race (which is to say non-white people) in many ways getting fucked over by society. This is distinct from racial prejudice, which members of minorities can and do exhibit.

  2. I come to this conversation as someone who does not profess to be particularly well informed. As with an increasing number of people in the world my thoughts and opinions are largely formed through anger and frustration at the direction ‘my’ country (the UK) is going.

    I also reject the left/right dichotomy. There are ideas, to neuter them at birth and lose half the audience by labeling them either black or white seems counter-productive and overly simplistic. Wrongly Socialism has become a term that also feels anachronistic but of course the principles are timeless. Problems such as gun crime and war cannot be analysed in this regard so the cap does not fit and therefore can only be a waste of time.

    Semantics aside I do feel ‘the left’ is now defunct in the inert and obstructive UK party-political system. I believe this process was completed in the past few days with the re-engagement of Tony Blair by the Labour party. Coincidentally TB also believed in a progressive third way,unfortunately at the expense of the Labour party’s credibility. Nadine Dorries also sees the limitations in polarising left and right. I’m in good company.

    THe people of the UK have suffered under this un-elected government and PM and have been crying out for political representation of this suffering. It has yet to manifest itself, in fact the Labour party has been silenced by it’s own interests and those of it’s backers and the skeletons in it’s own closet. They cannot be representative as their paws have also been in the hackgate, expenses and banking scandals. We have been failed, criminally by our MPs. If the left are politically representative of the people and their concerns then yes it is dead.

    The 2 million people march that rightly opposed the most recent excursion to Iraq and who have since been vindicated, is the purest form of national consensus in my eyes. Infinitely moreso than the war criminals that put London on the front line by invading Iraq (for oil and regional influence) and that lead to the horror of 7/7. Tony Blair’s willful blindness to the facts of which most informed people were aware leading to that invasion was a crime, not least against the people of the UK and those the Labour party purported to represent, but also the Labour party itself. How can a party allow itself to be a vehicle for such ‘people’ and actions ? Even more concerning, how can it allow itself to make that mistake AGAIN ? After all that has been discussed and proven ? Miliband senior and the Blairites are hard enough to stomach but the WAR CRIMINAL whose actions and decisions facilitated the deaths of over 100,000+ civilians in Iraq and of course elsewhere.. Are we collectively that stupid ? Are we so mindless as to not see the harm this man and his associates has done ? Are there no other good men and women who are more representative of the average Brit ?

    If ‘the left’ is defined by Labour MPs then yes, on the whole it is defunct. I suspect there are one or two MPs who still represent the views of the people of the UK but they are involved in a farcical pantomime of a political system which is rotten to it’s establishment core and seemingly restraining the country from progress.

    I see the world and UK in a more have/have-nots or 99%/1% sense. Naturally therefore the natural UK vote should be with ‘the left’ as a socially-minded, inclusive mindset. The Conservatives should be left with the 1% whose interests they so clearly represent. Yet somehow, due to Punch and Judy, pantomime and mudslinging politics I am left with Yvette Cooper whinging about ‘this coalition government’ repeatedly. Where is the substance of the left ? Where is Ed Miliband’s projecting of the essence of being socially minded, egalitarian and progressive ? Where is the passionate defence of public services, support of their strikes and slating of corruption ? Why is William Hague unchallenged in his hawkish sabre-rattling re: Syria and Iran ? What there is, is insufficient. The British people are well-educated, compassionate and loving, peaceful people. We love other cultures, we love fair-play, we love animals, we like a drink and we like an underdog. Why then are we lead into wars by those that (falsely) claim mandate ?

    The older I become the clearer it becomes that our politicians are the holding music on a premium rate phone-line required to get the roof fixed. The leak persists and the music is becoming more inane and infuriating. They do not represent the UK adequately so how can they represent ‘the left’ ?

    The UK is at this time desperate for an anti-corruption, anti-sleaze, anti-war voice. If it wasn’t defunct the left would be voicing it

  3. AM, I can see you felt the same as I did about the 7/7 bombing. I blamed Blair more than anyone else – after all, he’d been warned this would happen. Dozens of my fellow Londoners (including Muslims) were killed, and hundreds wounded. For a couple of weeks afterwards I couldn’t stop myself fantasising about what I’d do if I could get my hands on Blair, the murderer. In my (usually liberal) mind, he’s one person that deserves a painful, violent death.

    Now, to see the millions he’s earned by backing the war, I hate him all the more. Labour needs to be cleansed of the individuals involved, and then should push for them to be tried for crimes against humanity. Until it does, it will always be blighted with what it did – the party, as a whole, shares responsibility for Blair’s crimes.

  4. I’m sure we would settle for a smidgen, a gesture of justice. Not re-employment by a party that concurrently claims to represent the average working family. A unit that is surely universal and the first to suffer in war.

    Blair should at the very least be answering questions and giving evidence at The Hague.

  5. an interesting read. I find myself, as a follower of your twitter antics, being sometimes in complete agreement, sometimes not so much, but appreciative of your reasoning behind your opinion. This is really where i find myself in the spectrum of things, i find the left/right dichotomy a little too restrictive for such a wide breadth of social/political issues. I like to think of myself as an objective reasoner, who questions his own bias before chiming in on anything overtly contentious. To identify with one particular camp has never really appealed. I see liberalism as collective discourse with a view to filling in the gaps in our own experiences. to allow us all to see things a little clearer. maybe that’s a little idealistic, But that’s just me. Keep up the good work!

  6. Has the Labour Party really ever been much more than a glorified Grammar School Debating Society, composed of largely middle class elites who claim to speak on behalf of the working man or woman? Perhaps in the beginning with Keir Hardy. But power corrupted them. From my own experience the “far left” were more corrupt than the middle of the road.

  7. AM’s assertion that “THe people of the UK have suffered under this un-elected government” is misplaced. The current government is legitimate and elected under the form of electoral process that the people of UK consistently express support for. 60.1% of potential voters chose to vote. 36.1% voted Conservative, 29% voted Labour, 23% voted LibDem, Others 11.9%. Thus the current coalition represents 59% of the electorate, even if both Conservative & LibDem voters hoped that their party would win an overall majority.
    In UK we vote for MP’s to act on our behalf and to judge the situation and act upon that. So the Conservative MP’s and LibDem MP’s quite legitimately determined that it was in the nation’s interest to form a stable government to address the crisis.
    If we were to have a proportional list system then there would be far more LibDem MP’s. It takes about 4 times as many votes in UK’s FPP system to elect 1 LibDem or other minority party MP than it does to elect a Conservative or Labour MP. Inherently the UK system does not represent people’s views in a balanced manner, but it does generally foster single party powerful government.
    Of course by having this system which encourages large party formation, we have dominant parties which seek to appeal to as broad a section of society as possible. This then facilitates the penetration of these parties by extremists, left & right, and other special interest groups (femino-fascists who want to impose their own totalitarian views on women, & men)
    We might eradicate this via reforms to our electoral system, but we reject reform time after time, and the two major parties have no real interest in change. The electorate self-evidently prefer parliamentary dictatorship to complex multi-party government. Let’s none of forget that no single party government in recent times has polled a majority of votes, despite apparent landslides.

  8. All of which is undermined by the fact that less than 2/3s of the country vote. And let’s see what happens next time. There is no effective method of projecting the views of the nation and the matters they hold dear.

    I am aware of the idiosyncrasies of our Parliamentary and party system, if it was in such rude health and effective why have we not elected a party or PM since 2005 ? Why are MPs viewed with such derision by the public, expenses scandal aside ?

    You say ‘we’ reject reform time after time, as though we are consulted annually as to our thoughts. The ill-fitting AV referendum was a farce from the off and was intended to be as much. A classic example of political impotence and breath-wasting. The truth is that it benefits the status quo that the people feel dis-enfranchised and have a sense of voting not making a difference, a feeling which I assure you is pervasive. And who can blame us ? Look at the options, . None of the above.

    Where in your clarification is the left politically represented ? What about those that oppose war or self-regulation of the banking industry ?

    To say that my comment is mis-placed is to suggest that the British people haven’t suffered as a consequence of blind austerity, pervasive corruption and war-mongering in the middle east. Or that David Cameron, wilfully blind to characters like Brooks and Coulson has a consensus backed mandate to lead. Under your interpretation of the Parliamentary system he might have but i’d sooner concentrate on what political representation is intended to achieve.


  9. AM: 1/3 express their view by not voting, i.e. they are indifferent to the outcome, and that’s their choice.
    When you say there’s no effective mechanism for projecting the nation’s views, I am not at sure that I agree with you entirely. The current system is biased to favour the large broad-church type of party with access to considerable funds. It is inherently unfair to people who want something different, because their votes are inadequately represented. The system by and large compels parties to fight for the centre ground to capture the floating voter. But it does produce definitive outcomes, and the British appear averse to post-election negotiations between parties to form coalitions.
    However we must be cautious IMO in asserting that the nation’s standpoint on any issue is not represented, whether it be war or the regulation of banks. I am always reminded of the popular memory of US popular opinion in USA re: the VietNam War. The popular view is that it was eventually tremendously unpopular, but if you actually look ta events there was considerable popular support right up to the end with trades unions demonstrating against anti-war activists. What occurred was the liberal media employed large numbers of people who opposed the war, and it is their perspective that has become “historical fact”. Neither Conservative nor Labour stood on an antiwar ticket, so why should this view be represented. The only party that was clearly antiwar was Respect, and they have 1 MP. That Respect cannot secure more MPs is a matter for them and their supporters.

    Re; Misplaced – my point was that your assertion that the government is unelected is misplaced. 59% of the electorate voted for either Conservative or Libdem, and so they came together to form a government, albeit now unpopular. The number of people that voted for these two almost twice as many as voted for the Labour party. We vote for MPs to act on our behalf, not to do what we tell them on each & every issue, and they duly chose to form a coalition.
    We should also consider what might have happened if the coalition had not been formed. Government by a minority Conservative party would have further destabilised the economy, and we would have slowly but surely headed towards inflation, greater lack of investment, even worse levels of unemployment, and an awful lot of politicking as the parties readied for the next election which probably would have occurred by now.

  10. Oh dear.

    The left is there, you just need to look for it. The problem is that old white men really don’t get it.

    There is nothing *whatsoever* leftwing about allowing women to be raped for money.

    Racism does not “cut both ways”, its a structural system which privilages whites.

    You are right tho, you didn’t leave the left, the left just left you behind.

  11. Mhairi:

    “There is nothing *whatsoever* leftwing about allowing women to be raped for money.”

    That’s true. Rape is illegal and should always remain so. I wasn’t aware anybody was advocating rape.

    “Racism does not “cut both ways”, its a structural system which privilages whites.”

    Tell it to Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian billionaire worth $11bn. Funny how he got through the net, isn’t it?

  12. Mhairi – I clicked on the link to your blog and was presenting with a banner advertising a dating service that said “Meet Mature Women” and was illustrated with a tall leggy blonde. Are you profiting from the rape of women?

  13. Shit! Is that what you think when you hear about meeting women and see a “tall leggy blonde”. Dude, you have some serious issues.

    I’m so, so, so, glad the left let you behind. You are exactly the kind of misogynist racist that we’ve been trying to get rid of for years.

    1. Mhairi, are you really a cartoon middle-class student wevolutionary, or a clever spoof? I lol’d either way.

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