Monday, 6 December 2010

A Story of Two Lefts

Once upon a time life was simple. There was the left, and the right, and that was that. In the 1960s something a bit odd happened, a ‘New Left’ arose. The new left embraced so-called ‘post-material’ concerns. That is to say traditionally politics was entirely about economics. Either you believed in the free-market, in which case you were right-wing, or you believed in redistribution of wealth in which case you were left-wing. The New Left brought a new series of political concerns and baggage with them, which weren’t about economics at all, but about values, and opposing the rigid social order and conservative social values of the immediate post-war years. They were anti-war, anti-nuclear, and anti-elite. They believed in gay rights, smashing the political system, in feminism, anti-racism and in environmentalism. Not only were they beliefs different but so were their tactics, rather than forming or joining political parties they set up civil society groups, and charities. They marched in the streets against Vietnam and racism. They fought with the police. We all know of Martin Luther King Jr, some of you will be aware of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, or of the May 1968 riots in France.

These groups were the result of several connected societal changes. On the one hand there was increased post-war prosperity as the post-war economy boomed. For the first time only a minimal number of Westerners had to worry about where their next meal was coming from or how they’d pay their bills. The politics of want and need were largely drawing to an end. At the same time a more educated, knowledgeable, connected population had new awareness of the world around them. The New Left was particularly popular amongst students and academics, and in the new intellectual middle classes. This education also largely led people to shed previous identities and divisions – class or religion in favour of the new values politics.

Across the West politicians had to find ways to deal with the new movement. In the US the Democratic Party essentially split between an intellectual liberal side and a more populist, white working class side. In 1972 they ran George McGovern for the Presidency, largely on an anti-Vietnam ticket. He supported abortion and there were rumours about his views on drugs. He lost in a landslide. Yet there is often discussion in the United States of a so-called ‘culture war’ between these cultural liberals and those with an altogether more traditional view. The split in the Democratic Party remains too. During the 2008 Presidential primaries Barack Obama was typically seen as representing liberal intellectuals and ethnic minorities, whereas Hillary Clinton was supported more by the trade unions (still predominantly white and working class).

In Europe new political formations started to appear, but the most notable was the ‘Green Party’. There are often said to be four ‘pillars’ of the Green movement: ‘ecological wisdom’, ‘social justice’, ‘grassroots democracy’ and ‘nonviolence’. Green parties are essentially the ideological descendants of the New Left.

Yet they posed a challenge to the older, more established, centre-left parties in Europe, and they all took on some form of the new ideals. In Britain both the Labour Party and the Liberals immediately took on some of the ideals. The Liberal Party moved from a party which had only 2.7% of the vote and six MPs in 1956 to a party capable of winning 19.3% and fourteen MPs by 1974. The return to power of Labour in 1964 under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, after thirteen years of opposition, did not lead to the expected outburst of socialism. Wilson nationalised little and pursued an economic policy that was vaguely centrist for the day. Yet meanwhile he allowed the action of backbench MPs, Liberals and cabinet ministers to lead to a mini-social revolution, liberalising laws on censorship, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and immigration, as well as abolishing the death penalty.

In defeat Labour continued to embrace New Left concerns. Not only did its infamous 1983 manifesto (‘the longest suicide note in history’) contain sections of traditional socialism (nationalising huge numbers of industries, raising taxes and increasing the size of the welfare state) but it also embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from NATO and gay rights. The Lib Dems too embraced post-materialism. Indeed I would argue that the Lib Dems are, at their core, a post-material party. For if one wishes to redistribute wealth one still joins Labour, if one wishes for low taxes and a free market economy one joins the Tories. The majority of Lib Dems I have met, however, would describe their priorities as civil liberties, political reform and Internationalism.

When Labour came back to power it embraced the ‘Third Way’ as so many other large centre-left parties had. A simplistic reading of this strategy and thinking is to say it simply moves to the centre, but in reality the Third Way attempted to combine three contesting discourses, a traditional socialist one defending the welfare state, state regulation and equality, a more conservative, neoliberal discourse and finally a post-materialist discourse. Labour’s post-materialism was more apparent early on – initially it largely favoured political reform, transparency and increased civil liberties. Political reformers, civil liberties campaigners and Liberal Democrats will question me on this, but I would point to the Freedom of Information Act, the Human Rights Act, and the Hunting Act as post-materialist legislation. I would also point to civil partnerships, foreign aid, and multiculturalism as areas where Labour embraced New Left concerns. Discourse wise it was also fond of talking about the environment, and Robin Cook’s declaration of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ in 1997 may raise guffaws amongst some readers now, but there was at least an attempt there to appeal to internationalist concerns. It is sometimes said that while the right has won on economics, it is the left that has won on culture. This is a gross simplification, but like all good simplifications there is a ring of truth to it.

The three competing discourses are all present in Labour still – they need to be if it is to win re-election. Labour must, at one and the same time, appeal to the working class, the culturally liberal middle classes and to the political centre ground. Failure to appeal to all three at the same time will result in huge strategic problems. Yet there is a clash between the three. For an example take an issue like immigration. Typically it is the working classes who are most anti-immigration, but at the same time it is the culturally liberal middle classes (and ethnic minorities) who are most likely to be pro-immigration. Research from the last election tends to indicate the majority of the general public and a vast swathe of Labour’s support indicating a preference for a more restrictive immigration policy, often favouring Conservative Party policy on the subject, but amongst those who did not favour Conservative Party policy Labour Party policy was often seen as too restrictive. In many countries a polarisation is going on with those supporters of centre-left parties who like liberal immigration policies heading towards green and left-liberal parties whereas those who prefer a more restrictive policy head towards conservatives and the far-right. There is evidence of this here – with the increased vote for the Lib Dems on the one hand and a strong BNP vote in many working class traditional Labour safe seats. Indeed with the rise of the New Left there is the countermovement – that of the far-right. For the BNP and their brethren are not far-right in the economic sense but far-right in their rejection of the universalist, and egalitarian principles of the modern left. They are anti-multiculturalism, anti-feminism, and anti-environmentalism. Perhaps inevitably then, a move to a politics based on new culturally liberal values has resulted in a movement that rejects those values.

All over Europe, not just in Britain, the reality is that left-wing parties are being booted out of government, often in startling style. The reason is simple – no one has found the correct blending of the three discourses of classical socialism, neoliberalism and postmaterialism. To embrace neoliberalism too much is to be accused of compromising beliefs, of being the same as the centre-right and to lose votes to the left. Embracing postmaterialism too much will result in a growth of the far-right. To embrace traditional socialism too much is to leave that space open to the centre-right. To worry traditional left-wing parties more postmaterialist parties are more and more willing to accommodate with the right. In Finland and Ireland Green parties have willingly entered coalition with the centre-right. The same can be said here of the arguably post-materialist Lib Dems. In the Netherlands and Germany Greens are willing to deal with the right too. The opportunity for the development of a right which embraces new left values threatens to be a serious crisis for parties like Labour.


  1. Very interesting reading.

  2. I think this is a great analysis.

    Isn't it telling though, that those 'New Left' parties that "accommodate the right" are almost always punished for it at the next election? These parties, including the Lib Dems, need to have an element of social justice in their platform and when that's undermined by their rightist ally, their civil liberties and internationalism largely become irrelevant.

    The lastest Yougov poll has the Lib Dems at 9%, so they've lost 60% of their vote, with the main part of it to Labour - the party who's most at blame for the encroachment on civil liberties etc.

  3. Part of the inherent problem with a politics based upon values from a party political point of view is it has no loyalties. In the old politics of social class identity is obvious. If you were working class you joined a trade union and voted Labour, and that was that. To be working class and to be a Labour Party supporter were more or less the same thing.

    In the new politics of values we sit around and question parties all the time. Parties that do not reach the high standards of a culturally liberal discourse can easily be rejected and another party picked up. New Left parties, of all shapes and sizes, tend to have voters who float around a lot. This is because they are not tied to any particular party by identity but purely by a sense of principles. If they view that party as rejecting those principles they may, in turn, reject that party.