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Published on October 14th, 2014 | by Chris Cooper-Davies
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The sorry state of the true British Left

Last Thursday, York Hall in Bethnal Green hosted the People’s Assembly Against Austerity’s People’s Question Time. Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, trade unionist Mark Serwotka, John Rees, and comedian’s Russell Brand and Ava Vidal gathered to berate the current Westminster status quo; condemn Tory austerity and, indeed, any cuts to public spending at all; advocate the adoption of green public policies; promote nuclear disarmament; discuss the intricacies of strike action; and ponder- fleetingly- the problems of the British left, the true British left that is- not the traitorous Labour Party.

The panel had little of substance to say on why the left in this country has failed to galvanise significant public support in the wake of the recession, and why, unfortunately, the party of protest- the party against the establishment- has emerged from the other side of the political spectrum in the form of UKIP.

They simply lamented that the left is eternally factitious, with different groups constantly falling out over minor points: an unfortunate reality which leads to schism after schism after schism. If the left could just organise and unify, Mark Serwotka argued, it could achieve anything. Sadly, this explanation is unsatisfactory.

It fails to answer the million dollar question, the elephant in the room. Why was the true left, optimised by Labour pre 1997, unelectable for the Thatcher years and only again electable when it threw in many of its core radical principles for centrist ones? In other words, why was Labour’s electability dependent on it appealing to middle England alongside its core voters? Why was it forced to concede that wealth was OK- that greed was OK too- as long as there was equality of opportunity and a strong NHS and welfare state?

The answer had much to do with the changing face of Britain over the last half century. Since 1945- and Labour’s revolutionising of British society- Britain as a whole has grown wealthier. Yes, much of the extra cash stayed firmly with the one percent- the all powerful capitalists, but much of it was also lapped up by the middle classes which grew rapidly – indeed, so considerably there was even talk that we had achieved a classless society! Standards of living across the country sky rocketed as previously luxury consumer goods such as fridges, microwaves and televisions became common place. Capitalism- and the worse of the inequalities it spawned- was checked by a combination of Labour’s post war political projects and a European wide economic miracle.

In many respects it was the natural product of the success of Labour in bringing huge swathes of the population into the middle classes- In making them feel that they had opportunity where previously they had none- that caused for the Thatcherist back lash of the 1980s. What she stood for- individualism, opportunity, greed and neoliberalism- was preferable to labour’s brand of quasi socialism, flagging somewhat since its heydays in the late 1940s.  It was this phenomena that got Thatcher elected three times consecutively and, crucially, it was this phenomena that made labour- in its true left guise- unelectable until 1997.

In 1997 Labour got the rebranding it needed. It repealed its commitment to nationalisation and preached a new type of social democracy. One which now appealed to the descendents of the segment of the population it had liberated in 1945, Britain’s thriving middle classes. A commitment to the redistribution of the wealth of society was kept, but a commitment to look out for those with money already was added to the mix. Labour didn’t mind if you wanted to get by on your own- or even get stinking rich- as long as you paid your taxes. On the back of this re-branding, Blair was elected in three consecutive elections. If Labour want to emulate such electoral success in the future, they would be unwise to stray too far from such a model.

The weakness of the true left in Britain therefore is down to one fundamental factor. It is no longer the darling of democracy. The middle classes are simply too large; only students and a rag-taggle band of aging trade unionists still adhere to the principles of a bygone era of British progressivism. The state-ist political projects the People’s Assembly preach are not being held back by infighting or a lack of organisation. There are simply not enough Brits out there who believe wholeheartedly in the irrelevance of austerity and ‘sensible’- as the less progressive minded among us term it- economic policies.

By successfully transforming the nation after the Second World War, the true British left made itself irrelevant. Marx wrote that capitalism would spawn its own grave diggers in the form of the proletariat; in the UK, socialism did likewise in the form of the middle classes.

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About the Author

MA history student at SOAS

  • Jack

    This article could have remained very poignant had it ended at “The panel had little of substance to say.” I’m completely sick of hearing about Russel Brand convincing the easily-led that he knows anything about the way the world works. He, just like his ‘followers’, is a stupid child.

    Very good post. I do think your article misses a more fundamental point about the ‘true left’: just like the ‘true right’, it has slowly eroded because it has been scrutinised, tested, and found to be both ethically questionable and economically disastrous. The middle-classes are bigger, but there are also more people who have come to realise; “Oh wow, there really is only so much money you can spend.” Perhaps that has more explanatory power?

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