Friday, 14 January 2011

Soft left or soft thinking? a response to Neal Lawson

In these uneasy days for Labour, there has surely been a renaissance of the Kinnockite “soft left”, excited by Ed Miliband’s victory. Fair enough, you say.

But so far the thinking emanating from this renaissance seems not just woolly, but dangerously flawed. A case in point is the article posted in last week’s Guardian by Neal Lawson, Chair of centre-left think tank Compass, entitled “Ed Miliband can help us believe in a better world again”. Hold judgement, for a moment, on the title and the somewhat flowery nature of the prose within it and consider the arguments: the “big tent” strategy; the worry of achieving office without power; and a rather vague concept called the “Good Society”.

Firstly the big tent: he wrongly implies Miliband’s backing for Compass’ controversial idea of opening up its membership to Liberals as well, tartly described by Labour blogger Luke Akehurst as “suicide”. Rightly so: “big tent” has been tried and failed three times in recent history: in 1977, in 1997 and in 2010.

Next Lawson then reveals his deepest fear: that we might be in office, but not in “real” power. The subtext being, confirmed later on in the article, that last time Labour did not achieve anything important. In reality, it seems, he means that Labour did not achieve anything important that he agreed with.

But the key paragraph is where we hear our lives described as “relentlessly anxious, stressful and exhausting”, and that we need to find a cure. There are three problems with this: 1. that it seems to extrapolate the concerns of the nation from a certain kind of middle-class, metropolitan preoccupation; 2. that, as The Economist’s Bagehot observes, it sees the state necessarily as the answer to these ills, and 3. it is a fundamentally weak, “why-oh-why” description which sees us all victims of some terrible plot by the powers-that-be to destroy our happiness. We are not. We are in charge, and the state is not going to be the solution to the stress in our lives anyway.

The rest of the article is devoted to a particularly ill-defined concept, which Lawson has been recycling since 2006: the Good Society. And here we spin off into philosophical flights of fancy, which take in the Aristotelian communes of ancient Greece; some hand-wringing phrases such as “what hope is there for compassion in a world of endless competition?”; or the throwaway, “the last 30 years is what happens when we stop believing that anything better is possible”. No. Thatcher is not the same as a Labour government - you cannot just lump them together and hope no-one notices.

Back in the 21st century the world has moved on, although some portions of the left have not. All this nonsense is well-intentioned: but, if taken seriously, it converts into dangerous fantasy. If we base a serious policy review on, er, more equality and more democracy, do we really believe we are addressing the deep concerns of the British people, who want money and jobs? Who, furthermore, have just voted for a centre-right government and are patently not seeking a radical left alternative, let alone a woolly one? We need an alternative vision: but not this one. And with the backing of hard, costed proposals, on the back of what Britons actually want.

Throughout the article we are given the impression that Miliband shares this world-view; the four mentions of Lawson’s “Good Society” in his Conference speech and so on. Perhaps: although, if so, he has not articulated those ideas much since.

Whatever the truth, I suspect and hope that Ed has already made a judgement: not all those who eulogised him at his election, singing his praises as the saviour of their ideals, are going to be much help when it comes to practical politics. A shame because, as Akehurst says, many members on the soft left are “solid Labour partisans” who “deserve a better vehicle for their politics”. On his journey from newly-elected leader to statesman-in-waiting, he will surely need to make this call.

This post also at Labour Uncut and referenced in John Rentoul's blogpost at The Independent "Commerce and the Common Good".

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