A lurch to the left
by Bryan Gould
Thu 17th Sep 2015
One of the main obstacles to making sense of today’s politics is the insistence of commentators that any shift in political position can only be described as either rightwards or leftwards. This over-simplified and one-dimensional view of the political landscape means that many of the possible directions of political travel – directions that cannot or should not be characterised in such limited terms - are simply not recognised or are overlooked.
When a party elects a new leader, as the British Labour Party has just done, this lazy shorthand automatically describes the change as a shift to the right or – more usually and, as in this case – a “lurch” to the left. But such language significantly misrepresents what has happened.
The use of this language is not entirely accidental. For one thing, it has the advantage for those using it of immediately locating the current orthodoxy in a centrist position, with any departure from it being easily represented as quite literally eccentric. Many Labour politicians, even candidates in the leadership campaign, seem to accept this concept; when they agreed that Labour needed to change, the only change they could imagine was a move towards “the centre” or, in other words, towards right-wing orthodoxy.
And it provides defenders of that orthodoxy with a handy label to apply to anyone, irrespective of the direction they wish to travel, who challenges the existing norm. “Leftwards” is often used to mean not only “extreme” and “unrealistic” but “backward-looking” as well.
Much of the commentary on the new Corbyn leadership, even from apparently neutral sources, has used the language in this way. In both the abbreviated form of the news bulletins, and in the longer “think pieces”, the Labour Party is seen as having taken a significant step to the left.
To be fair, Jeremy Corbyn – for at least much of his political career – might well have claimed and relished such a label. It is certainly the case that much of what he has said and done in the past, and during the leadership campaign itself, might properly be described as left-wing. But to treat his accession to the leadership as signifying simply a “lurch” leftwards is to give seriously inadequate attention to many of the ideas and policies he has now introduced to the public discourse.
Much of what he has said in the leadership campaign – and much of what has clearly resonated with large numbers of voters – may be at odds with current orthodoxy but is not intrinsically left-wing. It is increasingly seen as a proper response to the obvious failures of that orthodoxy.
His campaign has appealed to those who are disturbed by increased poverty and widening inequality, who understand that we are a weaker and less successful society when we treat so many of our fellow-citizens as worthless, who agree with the OECD that inequality is not the price we must pay for economic success but is a major obstacle to it – and they will see these insights as both rational and ethical starting-points for an overdue attempt to resolve our manifest problems.
They will be surprised to be told that what is to them a common sense response to what they see around them is a “lurch” anywhere, let alone leftwards. Are they moving “left” when they conclude, with the IMF, that austerity is a destructive and ineffective response to recession, that if qualitative easing is needed to rebuild the banks’ balance sheets it might also be helpful if used to promote productive investment and employment, that economic policy should be made by elected and accountable governments and not by banks pursuing their own commercial interests?
The common factor underlying all of these attitudes and sentiments is not their “leftwards” direction, with all its connotations. Some are “left” in some sense, others merely common sense. They are linked principally by a common belief that – if the market is allowed always to prevail – there is no role for democracy, since the whole point of electing a government is to ensure that the
harsh doctrines of the “free” market are moderated in the wider interest. The message is that, while the market serves the powerful, government serves everyone.
Corbyn’s appeal to the voters is the best evidence so far that the “free-market” hegemony that has held us all – and not least Labour politicians – in thrall for so long is now on the wane. Corbyn’s task now is to show that he will not head back into an old left laager and will not require the wagons to be drawn up in a circle. Instead, he must combine old and enduring values with a new conviction – supported by credible and workable policy - that the power of government can and must be used in the common interest.
He has already made a good start. He has taken good advice and earned support from leading economists who are part of the new mainstream. Those Labour politicians who have been so outraged by his success that they have refused to serve on his front bench would do well to help him in that task, rather than endorse a language and an analysis – a triumph of label over substance - that so clearly serves the interests of the privileged.