The problem with “the problem with the Left”-style articles
Sunny tweeted an article at me this morning (the blog-equivalent of being flipped the bird?) entitled “The problem with the Left and their political parties“. It makes a variety of assertions – that the Left blame of leaders is leading to despair, that the Right is more pragmatic and inclined to think strategically than the Left. There’s an assertion that really the Left can’t fix that much, so why bother trying?
The conclusion of the article is that Lefties are too focused / aren’t focused enough on parliament, and that we’re all infighting-happy. Truthfully, if the people’s front of Judea had been mentioned, I think we’d be on track for highest number of clichés in the one article. So allow me to make the case for the defence.
First contention; the Right are not more pragmatic nor inclined to think strategically. A whole host of elections in 2008 were won by the Democrats in the USA (and the US is the example Sunny employs to make his case) because of bitter Republican Primaries, which were divided between Tea Party people and other wings of the Republican Party. Following the primaries, the winner could not always motivate the activist base of the Party, even in some seats which the Republicans had held since Barry Goldwater.
If the scales are about to be rebalanced in favour of the Republicans this November, it’s because the Democrats are divided and have failed to deliver on key pledges, while the Republicans have attempted to shed the legacy (and through the Tea Party movement, the personnel) of a ballooning deficit, a failed war and higher taxation. It’s a false premise to assume that the Right are more pragmatic etc, therefore.
Two other factors deserve consideration. Large numbers of the Republican activist base are less ideologically diverse than their equivalent on the Left. Whether it’s the Tea Party libertarians or the values voters, the same candidates can fill both bills; small business owners who promise reduce the deficit, shrink the liberty-hating federal government and to inscribe the Ten Commandments where the Bill of Rights used to be.
The other factor is the role of business. If someone can’t appeal to the money, they can’t get elected. This helps to simplify things for the Republicans, as it does for the Democrats, but the difference is in the attitudes of the activist base to business. Whereas for Democrats, support from business usually means someone unwilling to support labor unions and other policies the activist base wants, for the Republicans, extreme religion, libertarianism and business can walk together.
There are contradictions between the various strands of Republican ideology, but they are much less pronounced than the wider contradiction that makes itself felt within Democratic politics – the attempt to bridge the divide between labour and capital. It’s this contradiction that is so poisonous to the link between movement and leadership on the Left – not a failure to be pragmatic, on the part of the wider Left movements.
It bears saying that Republican leaders suffer the same phenomenon; disconnection from their movement, once they are faced with the reality of governing a capitalist economy. Their movement doesn’t react any better to this than the Democrats do – and this was easily visible at the last election, where McCain failed to win more than half the States at primary level which Republicans went on to win in the General.
If there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats in this respect, it’s simply that Republicans can get their base motivated by social issues, and still pursue their economic agenda, while Democrats can’t. There are few social issues left to fight, with homophobia, institutional racism and sexism all in retreat – the majority of the key Democratic issues (including race) are ultimately on an economic footing.
Sunny concludes his article with a dig at the ‘liberal movement’ which assumed its job was done when Obama was elected. Having made my case about the problematic link between leaders and movements in Left politics, I’d like to flip that. It was the Democratic leadership which assumed the job of its entailed popular movement was done, not the movement itself – and the answer is to make politicians more accountable to their party.
Second contention; approaching the electorate to tell them that actually we can’t really change all that much is not a recipe for success either at the ballot box or with Left-wing activists. A large part of this country feels profoundly disconnected from its government. The need for great change hasn’t been this obvious since the 1960s.
Unfortunately that disconnection often translates into bargain-basement libertarianism or even survivalism (witness the outpouring of sympathy for Moat online). We need to change that – and we do so through organisations that have inscribed at their core the need for comprehensive change.
Our political parties and our unions are on the front line there.
Third contention; the degree to which Lefties are focused on Parliament is a problem. A small minority (all in leadership positions and think-wank jobs, and this should tell us something) believe that asking our political class very politely for the things we want will eventually pay dividends if we present the right argument, with the right evidence. A very British revolution indeed. The only problem I see here is that people like this tend to be go-to figures for the mainstream media and also tend to have a strong presence on the web.
The degree to which Lefties aren’t focused on Parliament is also a problem. I don’t know whether or not the people at Democracy Village are members of political parties, but I agree that their ideas are woolly in the extreme. That said, it’s my view that the only meaningful form of engagement with politics is to be a member of a Party (and a union). The sort of thinking that goes on in DemocracyVillage and elsewhere is really just think-wankery inverted, for a non-professional class of idealists.
We can correct this. The Left has specific parties and people should be members of them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Party, the SWP or even the Greens that matches your particular Left view, parties are the key to Parliament, and democratic organising is the key to any given political party.
Fourth contention; that we Lefties are in-fighting happy, while the Tea Party movement is tightly focused on destroying the Democrats. This is a misrepresentation, again. The professional politicos attached to the Tea Party movement, and the serious degree of corporate finance which backs them, are serious about destroying the Dems. The average Tea Party punter is as howl-at-the-moon crazy and unfocused as anyone else in the general population, who hasn’t descended to the level of blogoland anorak.
The Left does fight within itself, a lot, and so does the Right. It’s the nature of people with strong beliefs to fight with others of strong beliefs. The British Right and British Left both have splits; the BNP, UKIP, Tories and Lib-Dems all occupy overlapping political territory. Thus Lib-Dems, Labour, Greens and TUSC occupy overlapping territory. Within the Tories, groups like Cornerstone are the equivalent of the LRC, though the organising principles are different. And no one who watched the nonsense about Speaker Bercow can contend that the Left is more self-righteous in denunciation than our opponents across the aisle.
All of this is by way of saying what? The Left should celebrate the freedom to criticise and tenacity shown by those investigating the leadership contenders and those others who haven’t run for leader but clearly think of themselves as being political minds worthy of shaping the debate (thus Cruddas, Purnell, etc).
We should bemoan not some inherent tendency to split but contingent problems with our democratic organisations.
We should agree with Sunny that politics is a fight – but simultaneously while fighting people who are clearly ‘the enemy’, you have to be able to articulate your own vision in contrast to others who are or present themselves as being on ‘our’ side. Government allows for one answer to the questions that confront us – not the number of competing answers that exist within the same political party.
Finally we should allow that it’s not this competition even among nominal friends which weakens our movement. That competition is inevitable. What weakens the movement is an inability to reach a collective decision and then implement it; it is the separation between those who implement and those who feel it their right to decide.
A propensity to ignore this is the problem with “the problem with the Left” articles.
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