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. 😉