Tuesday 21 July 2009

Turn Left

There are only so many ways round you can ask 'what does it mean to be of the Left in Britain today?' before you start to sound like Yoda in the small hours of a party conference booze-up. Nonetheless, yesterday's launch of Demos' new Open Left project, spearheaded by James Purnell, threw up some very interesting points.

Purnell believes that left ideology necessitates 'choice in public services', which is a tad rich coming from the man who single-handedly purged the welfare state of its last remaining shreds of compassion earlier this year with his intricate schemes for lie detector tests, workfare-style sickpay deals and a punitive scheme for addicts and alcoholics. Will Hutton, fashionably late as always, talked a great deal about the language of fairness and 'just deserts'. The tone of the debate was consistently philosophical, which is absolutely fine when debate is also inclusive - but the elephant in the room was its narrow field of vision.

Purnell opened his talk by declaring that he had been refreshed, since leaving the cabinet, by the expansive vision and energy in the wide, wide political world of....thinktanks! I listened for the sniggers, but there weren't any. And looking around I saw why: in a roomful of 100 people meant to be talking about the future of the left, there were precisely no activists and nobody who looked like they'd ever spent time on state benefits. There were, however, plenty of Guardian journalists, a lot of folks from Demos and the Fabian Society and five - five! - people I personally knew from Oxford university. So where were the have-nots in the debate? Surely it was their conversation to have as much as anyone else?

I stood up to explain that I was living in a household of young people with the bad luck to be unemployed and suffering from chronic health problems, and that whilst the panel was equivocating over the real meaning of fairness most of us were lucky if we could afford one meal a day. I asked the room why we were not talking with and about the people suffering most in society today. I asked the room how many people there present had been unemployed for long periods, or had ever worked for the minimum wage, or had not been to a top university. By this point I was so angry that I properly started shaking. People came up to me afterwards to congratulate me rather patronisingly on my 'passion'. Why? Had they spent so long in think-tank land that they'd forgotten what an actual angry person looks like?

This, surely, is at the heart of the dilemma. Labour was established in 1900 as a party to represent the interests of the working class, but the urban and industrial working class as it was between 1790 and 1980 no longer exists. The large swathe of people working low-paid jobs in industry who gave the Labour party its name and its purpose no longer exist as a block with a unified purpose of reasserting control of the means and rewards of production. But there are still many millions of people in Britain who are poor, disadvantaged and subject to what Purnell called "arbitrary authority". If Labour isn't the party for those people, then what on earth is it?

John Cruddas pointed out that the Labour Party "has lost because we've embraced a neoliberalism which is brutal and individualist". The notion of collective good has been lost. Collective good is at the heart of what it means to be of the Left, and central to its instigation is, in Cruddas' words, "a notion of socialism, which is important to retain, whereby we preserve and nurture forms of interdependence and solidarity." In layman's terms: being of the Left is more even than the utopianism, the statism and the egalitarianism that Purnell lays out in his LabourList article today. Being of the left is about materially supporting, practically helping and politically including those less advantaged than ourselves, because we share a common humanity.

The labouring classes of today don't work in mines anymore. They work in callcentres, care homes, shops and hospitals; they are women as well as men, black and asian as well as white; they are single parents, the mentally ill, the sick and the unemployed, scrambling for a living in hard times; and they need a party that represents their interests just as badly as the factory workers and miners of the 1900s did. If it wants to survive at all, Labour needs to step outside the think tank bubble and ask not how the disadvantaged fit its agenda, but how it can best serve them.

Because if someone doesn't start coming up with answers soon, as Cruddas, Will Hutton and neophyte Lewis Imu pointed out, then extremist groups like the BNP will step in to fill that gap. In the last elections 900,000 people voted for the BNP, most of them from poor and disadvantaged communities, because no other party in Britain today is even bothering to consider what people on low incomes or no incomes, people living in the teeth of the downturn, really care about. Unless Labour can relearn that language, then the party is finished. And if the Left doesn't rediscover its social conscience double sharpish, we may as well all go home.


GEEK POINTS: The first person who can tell me why the picture above has been chosen to illustrate this post wins a hundred shiny geek points and a fabulous prize that I will invent later.


  1. Too easy - doctor who episode title, the one about the potential stealing scarabby beast. I assume you picked it for this because "life-draining insect" is a pretty fair description of Purnell, right?

    Good job saying something that needed to be said in the middle of this neo-liberal circle jerk that most recent attempts to relaunch the left seem to become. Surely it can't be this difficult, can it? Why do they (that is, those who have the resources and media attention to get these things started) keep getting it so wrong?

  2. It's a Red turning left, and looking back?

  3. Damn, beaten to it by Edward Parsons. I knew, honest.

    I like this paragraph:

    "The labouring classes of today don't work in mines anymore. They work in callcentres, care homes, shops and hospitals; they are women as well as men, black and asian as well as white; they are single parents, the mentally ill, the sick and the unemployed, scrambling for a living in hard times; and they need a party that represents their interests just as badly as the factory workers and miners of the 1900s did. If it wants to survive at all, Labour needs to step outside the think tank bubble and ask not how the disadvantaged fit its agenda, but how it can best serve them."

    Sums it up perfectly.

  4. yesterday's launch of Demos' new Open Left project, spearheaded by James Purnell

    See: 'yesterday's launch of Demos' new childcare project, spearheaded by Josef Fritzl'. I mean, what the *fuck*? /rage-fuelled-inarticulacy

    Purnell opened his talk by declaring that he had been refreshed

    In a Profanisaurus sense of the term, that might partially explain his behaviour.

  5. Given that very few people argue for starving people on the streets, it really is time we formalised welfare arrangements into some kind of basic citizens income. Lets get that done right away - do away with minimum wages and benefits traps. However, the real elephant in the room is that people will only want to provide others with help if they identify with them.
    That means there must be some conditions attatched to the reciept of this income - which means all anti-social bastards and criminals can fuck right off.
    I say we adopt some kind of points system for criminals (for example murder= 10 points manslaughter= 7 theft= 4) - once they get over 10 points they are sent to siberia to work and make whatever life they can or themselves. Good luck to them, we wash our hands of you.
    A liberalisation of welfare payments must be combined with a stricter enforcement of laws and social norms. Otherwise it is just going to enable the anti-social.
    There is also the big question of what we should do about immigrants. What kind of qualification period would we need for someone to recieve the basic income?

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. The idea of a party for everyone who's disadvantaged under the current system is attractive but I'm not sure it would work -

    Socialist parties originated as parties not of "the poor" in general but specifically of the urban poor. Which was a fairly homogenous group.

    and the old socialist parties had a clear program - not getting into the question of how workable it was - for bettering this group, namely nationalization & planning.

    Now by contrast if you tried to make a party for everyone who was poor under the current system, what would it actually do? and what do you do about the fact that most of these people don't see themselves as being part of a homogenous group (they're not?)

  8. I stood up to explain that I was living in a household of young people with the bad luck to be unemployed and suffering from chronic health problems,

    What, another one? I thought you'd bailed to Mile End?

  9. Ooh, sharpish. Actually, I moved to Mile End yesterday. But the mere fact of having to bail for the good of my own mental health, due partly to the fucked-up benefits and healthcare system which the government has done nothing to change, has made me very depressed, guilty and angry this week.

  10. By the way, Edward, here is your prize :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLdQ3UhLoD4

  11. Re 'no other party in Britain today is bothering to consider... etc' (I can't cut and paste so apologies for misquote). It seems that this article gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. Yes, Labour are bad, but claiming that nobody else is offering any different is grossly unfair. Heck even the Green party are to the left of labour. But there are several small socialist parties in Britain with committed activists working very hard. You may question their methods or ideology, but there is absolutely no way you can claim they don't care about the 'people living in the teeth of the downturn'...?!

  12. If it wants to survive at all, Labour needs to step outside the think tank bubble and ask not how the disadvantaged fit its agenda, but how it can best serve them

    OK then; How?

    Surely the think tank bubble exists precisely because the man on the Clapham omnibus doesn't care a fig about politics untill it becomes painful. At which point they counter-react by joining the BNP.

    I don't know, all this ponitificating about the insularity of the people who are actually engaged with the political system seems to be just another way of excusing those who aren't of their fundamental responsibility to GET INVOLVED.

    Not to mention that it short-shrifts the involved as their very involvment is taken, by you, as prima-facie evidence of their insularity.

    I mean, you would imagine that the biggest politcal crisis of the last 50 years might encourage a rise in independant candidates, but there is no indication of that what-so-ever.

    And the soft-fluffy-head-in-the-clouds tone of all the open left respondants really does make me dispair for the left today.

    Fuck it, I'm with Brown and neo-liberalism all the way

  13. I'm voting Green unless you can give me a good reason not to.

  14. To give a little more body to my last post;

    I am irked that you dismiss those who do try to redefine the left, as insular, while offering no way to draw the wider crowd into the debate.

    Among other things.

  15. @Vanilla Rose;

    Because the Greens are a bunch of childish, prissy righteousness addicts with no valid ideas (bar the Citizens income). Who, quite deliberately, refuse to examine the consequence of their policies focusing solely on occupying the moral high ground.

    For Example;

    • The Green Party will put consumers, animal welfare and the environment first. We need more organic, local production - to reduce wasteful transportation, provide local employment, and strengthen links between producers and consumers;

    Which sounds great, until you realise it will add 50% atleast to th cost of most food, and will cripple those on low wages.

    High minded ideals leading straight to hell...

  16. Hang on... why was my post deleted?

    Is it against the rules to criticise racists now?

  17. Another wonderful post. Thank you.

  18. Nice write up. Good to have briefly met you at the launch (I'm the fellow Wadhamite English person from too many years ago). I can't really post too much criticism seeing I am interning at Demos, but wrote up a little something... at http://sylviahui.typepad.com/sylvia_hui/

    Keep it up

  19. Good post. The changes in Labour patterns definitely are important. The decline of unionised heavy industry has left Labour short of both voters and union cash.

    The challenge for Labour is to find a way of helping the most disadvantaged people that is also supported by enough less disadvantaged people for the party to be elected. But that's always been the challenge for Labour.

    Not entirely sure about the BNP thing. I know it's the received wisdom (and I'm not suggesting you're any more wrong than any other commentators) but is there actually evidence that most BNP voters are from poor and disadvantaged communities?

  20. @ David Floyd:

    is there actually evidence that most BNP voters are from poor and disadvantaged communities?

    There's this post on BNP demographics which draws on figures from YouGov. (I would also suggest a possible BNP/UKIP divide, with those from a higher socio-economic background going for the latter?)

    My own evidence is only anecdotal, but drawn from friends of mine in previously core Labour areas where many who voted BNP in the last European election did so as a result of what they perceived as Labour's failure to solve endemic problems of unemployment and deprivation. Which suggests it's not actually an upsurge in racist sentiment among 'poor and disadvantaged communities', but rather a continuation of protest voting with more objectionable results?

  21. David, I'm working from the YouGov figures too: 'In the country at large, professional workers outnumber manual workers by 20 per cent to 18 per cent. Among BNP voters the pattern is very different: 36 per cent manual workers, 11 per cent professionals.'

  22. However, the main feature of BNP voters seems to be disadvantage and insecutity rather than poverty - average income is only slightly below the median. Most of those polled were most worried about losing their jobs, and about community breakdown.

  23. Good post (I recognised the geek nreference when I read it over at LibCon. Incidentally, my geek-o-meter keeps telling me that Purnell reminds me of the actor who played Sark in Alias/Adam Monroe in Heroes; much as I don't mind the actor, it makes me even more suspicious of Purnell and his motives.) You could probably add the way in which market-driven tuition fees were designed around what the 'Russell Group' (Oxbridge et al.) wanted to the charge sheet as well.


  24. did you really imply that you are a member of the starving unemployed? "most of us... one meal a day"? In Australia I have listened to westerners claim to be aboriginal, straights claiming to be gay, and that need to annex other people's credibility by annexing their suffering is always disturbing and immoral in the same way. How was NY and writing for HuffPo? I completely understand your disdain for the Guardian journos, HuffPo is much cooler and you don't yet make lots of money out of your undoubted writing skills.

  25. The problem that BNP voters have is a poverty of spirit rather than anything of a material nature. Giving them money will solve precisely nothing.

  26. Mark what do you mean by a 'poverty of spirit'?

  27. That people who view identity through the prism of discredited racial theories are sad and small and have nothing to offer the future except hate.
    That people who base their identity on nationalism without any understanding of what their nation actually stands for are idiots.
    And that former labour voters who decide that the best response to their current difficulties is to vote for facists, 1) do not appreciate how good things are and 2) do not take their responsibility as electors seriously.

    Basically, I think they`re a bunch of cunts - even worse than people who vote labour.

    **Not that I don`t share some of their concerns. Immigration is a tricky issue - we have to keep our poor in relative comfort for the purposes of security and good taste (poor people a long way away aren`t such a problem) and we can`t afford to keep the whole world in that manner without it effecting our quality of life (no x-box 3).
    Unfortunately, parochial tribalism isn`t really feasible in the modern world - it`s going to have to be about shared ideas rather than heritage. **

  28. Sorry I forgot - no-one votes labour any more.

    Replace labour with Lib. dem.

  29. On BNP voters, what you say about disadvantage and insecurity makes sense.

    The general trend in terms of support far right parties both here and abroad, now and in the past - which is borne out by what you're saying - is that they attract voters who've got a bit to lose but not a lot.

    A far right vote has typically been a vote motivated by fear rather than despair.

    It suits the mainstream media, crammed full of people who have experienced neither fear nor despair with regard to their economic situation to stereotype BNP voters as racist thugs - disgruntled men (mostly young men) from what's described as 'the underclass'. In reality, the vast majority of people in this group are not voting at all.

    It seems that most of the people who are voting BNP are more likely to be in the aspirational working class/lower middle class bracket.

  30. The left needs to go left, not just right and The Right Far Right..

  31. I have to agree with anonymous a few quotes back. Penny you dont seem to get that us unemployed, skint, low class folks dont see you as much different to any other young, Oxford graduate, Guardian journo. What makes you better? Cos you stand up in meetings of your peers and get shakey on our behalf?

    This tone of snobbery and appropriation creeps in and ruins so many of your otherwise quite good articles.

  32. In answer to your question: nothing. Nothing at all makes me better than any young Guardianjournooxfordbratling. I'm one of them through and through, and just because I've got the foresight to recognise and mention my own privilege doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But because I've been given opportunities to build a platform to shout from I feel it's only fair to use that platform to speak for those who haven't had the same opportunities. We do not progress as a society by sticking to the morality and problems of our own class and background.

  33. Better to speak for yourself.

    If we are going to progress as a society it requires those at the bottom to take some deree of responsibility for themselves.

  34. Anon
    I wouldn't say Penny Red is snobbish. I disagree with quite a few things she says but it's like she speaks fom her heart and that is all that matters. I couldn't care shit her background or qualifications.

    What I noticed the last time I went back to England is reverse snobbery. This is when people look down upon someone because they are educated or posh. A bit like what you've just done with Penny Red.

    Some guy tried to pull it off with. It was in Durham and he was doing a political rant and I answered one of his questions. And then I asked him one.

    He said something like, 'You're not from round here, you've been educated'
    'So what if have or I haven't'
    "Well it matters' he says. ' And then he tried to belittle because my voice sounded educated.

    So I put on me strongest scouse accent and said something like, 'Does it make a difference now that I'm talking to you like fucking this?'
    And I repeated the question.

    Anon: Reverse Snob

    2B cont

  35. @ Spango, I notice you've neatly ignored the money that would be saved by not paying for Trident, and reductions in fuel bills resulting from energy efficiency. To name but two examples.

  36. I took her to a supermarket.
    I don't know why but I had to start it somewhere.
    So I started there.
    Also I needed some milk.

  37. *grin*
    Cut your hair and get a job
    Smoke some fags and play some pool
    Pretend you never went to school
    And still you'll never get it right
    Cause when you're lying there at night
    Watching roaches climb the wall
    If you called your dad, he could stop it all...

  38. It matters because you don't understand the experiences of who haven't experienced the privileges of being middle class, private and oxbridge educated. You don't know about people who really are poor and dispossessed and don't possess the advantages that will pull you and your housemates back into the middle classes give a few years and the recession aging. You are speaking for them from your platform but you are not speaking to them. Speaking for someone who can't is great but you need to be bloody sure you are their mouthpiece and not put words in their mouths. The latter is arrogant, presumptuous and inappropriate.

  39. It's a totally fair comment. What I've got to go on is research, the experience of my friends and family, and people I've met. Not all of my housemates are middle class, though - that's a presumption on your part. You're assuming lots about my life experience that I haven't mentioned on this blog.

  40. That`s the problem isn`t it. The working class are perfectly capable of talking for themselves. Penny, are you suggesting that the lower classes are too thick to express themselves, or what?

    According to you they don`t actually want anything but more.
    Shouldn`t be too hard for them to say that for themselves.

    I WAN` MORE!!!!

  41. Besides which there are worse things than growing up poor.
    I grew up with emotionally distant parents. Where is my cuddle tax?

  42. I think Anonymous and Penny Red are talking crap but I couldn't be arsed to explain.

  43. There are no poor people. There is no working class or middle class. There are people who work and are rewarded differently. Their work is a pain for most of them .. if they won the lottery .. if. And the ones who are well paid are quite often those who spend long hours doing what they don't want to do. It doesn't matter if you live in a terrace house or a smart detached your life is unfulfilled.

    Some people prefer to live on welfare payments than work. And I mean who can blame them for the payment of low paid work is not much above the welfare payment. Legal and illegal migrants come in and fill the void especially in the hospitality industry. They can't fall back on social security.

    In short all this stuff about poor, working and middle class is old hat analysis.

  44. And there are plenty of people who want to work or are too ill to work and who are fed up with being constantly stigmatised. Sigh.

  45. Also @ Spango - why are you assuming that locally grown food would be more expensive, especially if the environmental cost of imported food were taken into account when taxes subsidies and stuff were arranged? Cite your source of the 50% figure you quote.

  46. [url]http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/22-04-2009-caroline-budget-betrayal.html[/url]

  47. Sorry, that's clearly not the way to make a link here, can someone enlighten me?

  48. If the environmental effect of imported food is taken into account through use of fuel duty, there would be no further need to encourage local agriculture.
    I`d imagine that to grow bannanas in britain is going to use a lot more electricity than it does to grow them in Jamaica

  49. Vanilla Rose: HTML-style, e.g.

    <a href="http://example.com">Example link</a>

    will generate

    Example link

  50. @Vanilla
    'And there are plenty of people who want to work or are too ill to work and who are fed up with being constantly stigmatised. Sigh.'

    I'm sure there are people who want to work but they want a particular kind of work. There are plenty of crappy badly paid jobs that they could do... why are migrants still flocking in if they're aren't such jobs? And in turn the more migrants you have the greater the labour supply and the lower the wages.

    I worked illegally for nearly two years in three different countries and the unemployment rates were about 6-8%. I had no difficulty finding work .. one of my jobs was apple picking in Washington state with Mexicans and other Latin Americans. There was no US citizens pickers but there were millions of them unemployed, on welfare. The work was hard and the pay was so so. I'm not saying that people shouldn't take these jobs. I'm saying this is what happens and why.

  51. The problem is that you are saying things that are not true, you are hardly one of the starving unemployed. You can hardly complain about the state of UK political morality when your own is questionable.

    "What I've got to go on is research, the experience of my friends and family, and people I've met."

    Its nice that they are not ALL middle class. Authenticity is a huge problem in western societies, its a huge driving need for many many people in the left particularly but also right across the political spectrum, and it is used to justify all kinds of doubtful behaviour (statements that amount to "I was shaking afterwards so it must have been real" seem to shut down critical thought). Whether people get their authenticity from decontextualised and idealised feminist experience, islamist experience or maoist experience doesn't matter very much if the objective is merely the authenticity. The result is still the fetishisation and appropriation of the experience of oppression and a disconnection from the real and messy causes of social problems.

    When I first found your blog I could see some familiar energy, a familiar desire to change things, and I liked it (you can definitely write well), but after a while I started to notice your tendency to cultural tourism. It isn't necessary to pretend to be someone else unless what you are there for is the congratulations from stupid people afterwards. I suspect that you find that attention addictive. Social being, as they say, determines consciousness.

  52. Well, sentences 1, 4 & 5 of paragraph 4 clearly do direct us towards a tedious old auction of authenticity but I reckon sentences 2 and 3 are equally important issues whether they're raised by an unemployed person or the Duchess of York.

  53. I really like you, Penny Red, I really really do even though you're a bit of a spark plug and a firecracker. Carry on with your writing career; diplomacy isn't for you. Good for you for standing up for the multitude of helpless and powerless people that have on influence and have no voice that anyone will listen to.

    Cruddas voted strongly for Purnell's Welfare Reform Bill. He isn't destined to be any kind of saviour of the left in the Labour Party.

    As for Purnell's naked audacity to try to recast himself as being left of centre!

    Well, I'm speechless!

  54. Thanks, anon, I'm sure I'll get the hang of that.

  55. Divine and Vanilla
    sitting in a tree

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