Why a Left Revival Won’t Happen and What Do We Do About It?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, August 20th 2011

The state of Scotland, the UK and the global economy rightly demands that we engage in radical, far-reaching thinking.

To some this is the ideal opportunity for a revival of the left and challenging the conventional group think of the last few decades.

Most of us recognise that Scotland and the wider world are not happy places. The scale of inequality, exclusion and relative poverty in our own homeland, let alone the globe should shock. The recent figures of the Scottish Household Survey (SHS) showing that 52% of Scots have a household income of under £20,000 are a reminder of the limited lives of many.

The old story of the remorseless march of progress and the belief that tomorrow would turn out not just more wealthy, but fairer, more enlightened and benign, has turned out a mirage. Economists and politicians still talk about economic growth as a panacea, but it is no longer related to most of the population; over the last 30 years in the UK and US the top 1% have taken a disproportionate share of growth, while the middle and poor have fallen behind.

To some all of this makes the case for a new left. There are global imbalances, injustice and instability, combined with protest and rebellion in the streets. However, this isn’t what is happening and we need to carefully understand why this is, and why it won’t occur in the future.

First, just because corporate conformities and market fundamentalism have made much of the world we live in, does not mean that any credible opposition to this has to be come from the left. The world isn’t just about left v. right.

Second, the politics of the near-left, of electorally successful centre-leftists everywhere from New Labour to Clinton and Obama, has been one of bending to the orthodoxies of the age. That’s true of the Nordics as well.

Third, some still argue that all that is required is more determined socialists and things will eventually work out. We have been betrayed, give us new leaders, a new party or programme so the argument goes. This now wears thin as the whole left project from the mild-mannered Fabians to Stalinism was based on the holy trinity of progress, modernity and rationalism.

This trinity no longer has the hold on many of us it used to have. How can you believe in progress given the state of the planet? Or that rationalism could remake the human psyche so that we live ordered, tidy lives?

Without these values there isn’t really a left project in existence, and it is no use as Robin McAlpine did earlier this week in ‘The Scotsman’ just to add such values into a red-green politics. Any green politics of any meaning is profoundly against such ideas.

Finally, the last modernists on the planet of any consequence and influence aren’t to be found on the left, but are in fact market fundamentalists. They believe that the human soul and needs can be constantly re-engineered in some pliable way which reduces us to instrumental playthings.

The free marketeers are the last true revolutionaries on the planet: the new urban guerrillas of the boardroom, hedge funds and think tanks. They have a Maoist zeal and a sense that that are the last fanatical believers in utopian politics, or dystopian to most of us. In response, the remnants of the left have either accommodated or as some view surrendered, or come across as conservative upholders of a past age.

Why with this brave new world made by our free marketeers has there not been a mass shift to the left? The age we live in, from the UK and US to globally has been made in the name of the globalisers, deregulators and tax cutters, and yet has it produced the richness, growth and happiness promised, apart from to the uber-rich?

Instead, pro-market think tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) see every problem as the result not of their endeavours, but validation that the revolution hasn’t carried all before it. The answer to inequality in the UK is identifying the welfare state and its featherbedding as the problem. Falling social mobility is down to the failure of state education. Some delusional chap from the IEA this week saw the answer to rising rail fares as abolishing state subsidies and shutting all rural rail lines.

One reason why all of this has not aided a new age of the left is that the forces of power and privilege define much of how politics, business and elites see the global order. And despite everything this worldview still attracts adherents and advocates, with many of those outside it clamouring to be included and incorporated.

What does the left have in response to this? That the world is not fair, unequal and not very nice: the Richard Wilkinson-Kate Pickett argument of ‘The Spirit Level’.

This is not a political argument or project. In Scotland, we are still in many respects shaped by the legacy and memory of the left, while having a contemporary politics without any real left.

One answer to this is to try to revive the left seen in the ambitions of initiatives like the Jimmy Reid Foundation. This worthy idea comes from one of the most conservative parts of the Scottish left, associated with ‘Scottish Left Review’, a worthy enterprise, good on critique of what’s wrong with Labour and the SNP, but rarely articulating a positive agenda.

The Scottish left face enormous challenges, small resources, the declining nature of its traditional constituency, and the shere complexity of many of the challenges from demographics and our aging population, to how we bring up young people, support public services under pressure, and tackle environmental problems. There isn’t an automatic left response to any of these.

Speaking as someone imbued by the politics of the left, its culture and ideas, it pains me to say this, but left-wingers now need to stop deluding themselves. My entire adult life has seen the dilution of left hopes and the retreat from socialism to social democracy to a nebulous progressive politics. There are still many in Scotland who think a renewed social democracy is the answer to our problems.

The left have done many good things, but it has become stuck in talking a partial language while pretending to be a universal project for humanity. The challenges we face are so all-encompassing from the market fundamentalism and vandalism of some of our elites, to the environmental, consumption and ethical issues of the future, that we need a much more ambitious set of ideas than just drawing from the left.

A life without a left might be scary for some, but its old, battered wreckage has proven an inaccurate guide to the future and inadequate protection from free market capitalism. We don’t need to reinvent the left, but have the honesty to imagine a world without a left, and begin the search for a new radicalism which is humble and compassionate.