Home > Labour Party News > The shoe is on the other Foot – It’s not Labour’s left that’s stuck in a time warp

The shoe is on the other Foot – It’s not Labour’s left that’s stuck in a time warp

This is a cross-post by James Bloodworth


Julian Petley, co-author of the book Culture Wars, once observed that the British press had ‘perfected a way of representing the ideas and personalities associated with socialism as so deranged and psychotic that they presented a danger to society.’

It’s no secret that New Labour was evolved in part to counteract Labour’s image problems in the 1980s. The order of the day became finding the centre ground and sticking to it, rather than attempting to operate outside it and running the risk of remaining ‘unelectable’.

While many of us on the left did not necessarily agree with the political trajectory taken during the New Labour years, we understood that there was no inherent shame in trying to look like a credible party of government. The political landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s was undeniably bleak for socialists, and reflected something the outgoing Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had said several years earlier: ‘You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.’

As if by prophesy, 30 years later we are again at a moment of profound political change. The certainties that have shaped political discourse for so very long are again being challenged, if not by the political class then by workers and students right across Europe and beyond. Questions many of us have long been asking about our economic system are today routinely being raised by those with little history of political struggle – people whose sense of injustice has developed as they’ve seen living standards fall and prospects for the future become increasingly bleak.

The right’s response to the crisis has thus far been defined by a willingness to take the easy way out at every juncture. In place of solutions they’ve clung to ideology. Instead of compassion they’ve hacked away at living standards. Their plan for the long-term consists only of a global race to the bottom. In summing up, their response has been to dig in and entrench themselves further in the failed orthodoxy of laissez-faire capitalism.

Through it all, much of the media has portrayed murmurings of dissent not simply as illegitimate but as disorderly and threatening. They have casually dismissed the Occupy movements and thrown handfuls of mud at any figure who has evoked the most basic right every working person must have – the right to withdraw one’s labour – and, as if looking admiringly at the authoritarian capitalism of the east, called enthusiastically for further restrictions on this right at every given opportunity.

Yet, in the face of this torrent of hostility the public mood toward the economic policies of the right has hardened. The latest opinion poll published by the BBC finds 61% believe Wednesday’s public sector strike is justified, a total that includes almost four in five 18 to 24 year olds. This is on the back of a YouGov poll from a few weeks back which found that 44 per cent of Londoners supported the aims of the Occupy LSX group, with 30 per cent opposed and 25 per cent answering ‘not sure’.

Rightly or wrongly, many inside the Labour Party routinely go along with the evocation of right-wing policies when doing so brings electoral gain. As someone on the left of the party, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that my ideas would make the party ‘unelectable’ if adopted – as if the sole purpose of politics was the abandonment of all principles in exchange for political office.

I have previously accepted, however, that at times they might have had a point: the outlook for the left was, for many years and for a number of reasons, downright depressing. Resentfully, I bunkered down and grudgingly toed the line.

Today however, things are different. If nothing else, the above-mentioned figures should make it clear that it will not be crass characterisations of the ‘looney left’ that will eat into Labour’s support at the next election, but an unwillingness to properly stand up for the rights of working people in the face of this unprecedented onslaught of austerity.

The Conservative Party rarely needs reminding that it is the party of capital; yet far too often the Labour Party seems intent on forgetting that it is the party of labour.

There has indeed been a sea change in politics. This time, however, the boot is on the other foot: it is most certainly not the left that is acting as a drag on Labour’s electoral chances.

  1. Mulder
    November 30, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Unfortunately, the leaders of the Labour Party lack the courage or strength in their convictions to really seize the moment. Ed Miliband seems stuck in his Blue Labour philosophy, which is focused too narrowly on cultural critiques that may be helpful but shouldn’t form the basis of Labour’s philosophy. Ed Balls IMO doesn’t actually believe in anything, and will simply say what he thinks will further his own career chances.

    The Labour Party needs a strong voice willing to look at not only at symptoms but the root causes of our malaise as well. Bashing bankers and focusing on extreme cases of corporate malfeasance is all well and good, but even the Daily Mail can do that. A strong, coherent critique of Capitalism needs to be made, because that is what this crisis boils down to IMO. And note how I don’t say “Neoliberalism” or “Crony Capitalism” or any of those terms that indirectly suggests that there is a better, more human Capitalism around the corner, and the system that we have in place is a perversion of Capitalist ideals.

    At the moment, by occupying the centre ground, Labour are losing the opportunity to frame the debate and push it in a leftwards direction. I think there is a real demand for an alternative to Capitalism, and it’s a crying shame Labour aren’t willing to supply it.

  2. Chris2
    November 30, 2011 at 5:07 am

    It is not just an alternative to capitalism that is needed. Perhaps more urgent is the need to escape from the illusions of electoralism. As events across Europe are showing, there is no possibility of implementing socialist policies by winning elections.
    The left is unelectable not because of its policies but because the system is rigged to ensure that even if, against all odds, the left wins an election it cannot take power.
    This has something to do with the draining of sovereignty from the nation state but it has much more to do with the fact that, in reality, we are all living in an Empire run out of Washington. We have been since the late 1940s and the grip of the Empire has been tightening ever since.
    The position is far from hopeless unless we refuse to recognise it and persist in misinterpreting the past according to the mythologies of reformism

  3. skidmarx
    November 30, 2011 at 10:22 am

    By “the other Foot”, I take it you’ve become an admirer of this man?

    One of us.One of us.

  4. December 3, 2011 at 4:17 am

    I like Michael Foot, but I like Paul Foot, too. Which is best? There’s only one way to… and so on.

    Really liked this post. Except the left/right spatial metaphors. It’s the 99% and the 1% nowadays, innit?

    Now, the next time anyone says your ideas are “unelectable”, James, here’s an interesting retort: we are now trying to be the biggest community organisation in the country – so we are now just as interested as organising communities as getting candidates elected to office. That’s a politer response than pointing out that deference to the 1% provides diminishing returns…

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