Is it all over for Labour? Should the party ignore leftist rants against individualism and consumerism, or is an egalitarian, public-spirited leftism no longer possible?by David Aaronovitch / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Dear John 8th September 2009
Let’s not call this exchange “Can Labour win,” because we both know it won’t. Soon I will be liberated from the weary responsibility of treating a well-meaning but tired government fairly, and you from being disappointed by it. Unconstrained, we can make for the sunny uplands of opposition, where everything seems possible and nothing in fact is. Except thought.
So let’s call this, “Thoughts about the future of the left” and here are some of mine. But first let me try and cut through a predictable misreading of recent history, so that we aren’t basing our discussion on false premises. The government just departing was not in thrall to some evil thing called neoliberalism. The idea that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, with their overwhelming emphasis on state-funded services and the role of government, were mad neoliberals was always a leftist (or occasionally a rightist) fantasy. Many of the things they tried to do are still the objectives of any good progressive.
But this is 2009, not 1997. In a recent issue of the New Statesman, political theorist Stuart White set out a useful taxonomy of progressives. He discerned four strains of reform thinking: left communitarianism, left republicanism, centre republicanism and right communitarianism. The latter consists of Phillip Blond-type “red Tories.” I see you as suspended between the first two—epitomised by the increasingly eccentric Neal Lawson and the more staid David Marquand. I’m sure you’ll put me right.
I found myself mostly defined by White’s description of centre republicanism, with its emphasis on dispersal of power, enhancing fairness and maintaining freedom, while embracing modernity. I mean by that a position which doesn’t regret (as communitarians do) the revolutions in technology, communication and mobility that have brought the world together, but understands that the consequences have to be managed.
The better world does require that we abolish unjustifiable inequalities, gross unfairness and barriers to human fulfilment. We can agree that progress cannot be measured entirely or even mostly by GDP. Of the alternative ways of gauging the just society I am most convinced by Amartya Sen’s idea of capability (see James Purnell’s article, p42)—a less restrictive concept either than equality of income or happiness, since it takes account of the different ways in which people want to lead their lives.
In the Sen tradition, German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel lays out five priorities for a just…