Churchill famously said that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter. Similarly, I would say that the best argument against the Far Left is a five minute conversation with the average SWP member.
This thought occurred to me whilst at a demonstration this morning protesting against the County Council’s budget cuts at Shire Hall. Some of the protestors had some sense, but some of them, it seemed to me, really are clueless about the realities of politics not only in the current climate, but in general.
Some of them were advocating that all councillors, including Labour ones who are opposed to the cuts, should resign and force by-elections in light of the budget, as if that would achieve anything meaningful. It might provide a few restless SWP activists with an opportunity to vent some of their rage and satisfy their lust for frantic, albeit toothless, activity, but it would not make one iota of difference to the cuts that are coming to bus services, social care and libraries, and it would cost thousands of pounds that councils can ill afford.
Others, overwhelmed with misty-eyed fantasies of romantic 1926-style resistance, advocate a General Strike. Given that a General Strike didn’t work when we had a far larger trade union movement and the realities of the law would mean that any unions involved in sympathy strikes would probably be bankrupted by legal action, this is possibly even further away from a viable or vaguely sane tactic.
In other parts of the country the Far Left argues that Labour councils should attempt to set illegal budgets and not implement any cuts at all, despite huge cuts to their formula grant from central government. This tactic, which worked so well in the mid 1980s (er...), is possibly the stupidest. Due to changes in the law, council officers would merely be legally empowered to implement a legal budget, which would contain huge cuts made with no reference to anyone’s political priorities. It would see a return to ‘grotesque chaos’ and end up being counterproductive, probably hurting the people who we, as Labour councillors, come into politics to protect worse than would otherwise be the case. The argument is seriously put forward that if every Labour council refused to set a legal budget, with mass public support, we could somehow bring down the government. Such unanimity and public support simply does and will not exist, and even if it did, central government still has, ultimately, both the money and the legal power to make any fight between local government and Whitehall so uneven as to be a pointless waste of time.
If we start to blame Labour councillors for the effect of the cuts that are being caused by Eric Pickles’s decision to slash central government funding, we are falling into the neat trap set for us by the government. Their strategy is devastatingly simple, and potentially very effective. They are making the biggest local government cuts in the poorest areas, which are almost uniformly Labour -dominated, safe in the knowledge that Labour councils will have little realistic choice but to try to deal with the huge black holes in their finances by making cuts. Then, Cameron, Clegg and co will turn around and blame Labour councils for the cuts despite the obvious fact that they are being caused by the decisions being made by central government. It will obscure the nature of the cuts in the minds of voters and could allow the government to wriggle out of the blame for the pain that is coming. Our message must be clear – cuts to this degree and at this speed are the result of an ideological, political choice on the part of the Tory-Lib Dem government, and the responsibility rests unambiguously with them, not Labour councillors put into impossible positions by cuts to their grants.
It is hardly surprising that the tactics advocated by the Far Left are, to put it politely, highly ineffective. This is because serious people who are realistic about actually having a concrete impact on the policies of central and local government, who want to actually get rid of this government at some point and implement an alternative, are not in the SWP or the Socialist Party or Workers’ Liberty or the Communist Party or whatever the fringe party de jour is. They are in the Labour Party and always will be, and, as such, they realise that we are constrained by the need to carry the public with us, to convince actual voters of the justice of our cause, and to pursue realistic strategies which may involve compromise and complexity.
The psychology of the Far Left is, in general terms, a mystery to me. The essence of being on the left is, I would have thought, the desire to right the wrongs of the world, to change our society for the better, to make concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary people. This desire necessarily, to me, implies pursuing strategies that might actually result in the achievement of power and the actual real-world implementation of the kind of policies we want. The strategies for implementing change advocated by the Far Left are so unlikely that the only way that anyone can take them seriously is by colossal amounts of wishful thinking. Their thinking goes along the lines of: ‘All it takes is for the revolutionary consciousness of the masses to be awakened, and lo! The glorious day is upon us!’ – if we continue to plug away and make the same old arguments for the same old dogma, eventually everyone will come round to our way of thinking. Anyone with a modicum of common sense can see that this is nonsense. It degenerates into a senseless clinging to the purity of principle at the expense of the acquisition of power, which is utterly useless to the poor, the elderly, working families and the other people whom the left exists to protect. It reduces the left to a toothless pressure group, with as much influence on public policy as that implies.
A Labour veteran – former branch Chair, active in the party for many decades – recently summed up my feelings on Labour politics. He said that the most radical elements of the left, those on the hard-left of the Labour Party, are always the well-off ones who are not greatly affected by government policy. This is a generalisation of course, but if you are at the sharp end – if this cut will hurt you or if that policy is something you rely on – then you are likely to want to a strategy that will actually work. The knowledge that you remained completely faithful to your principles while losing power and letting the Tories in is, to such people, absolutely no consolation at all. As Kinnock said in his famous 1985 speech against Militant, some on the Left end up like “latter-day public school-boys”, since to them “it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game”.
This mental attitude embodied by so many on the Far Left is what Weber called the ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ which, if not tempered with an ‘ethic of responsibility’, leads to people obsessed with the salvation of their own soul but completely heedless of the consequences of their actions. Indeed, it seems to me to be a mutation of the religious impulse, the idea that “the Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord” (to quote Weber again), that what matters is being right, being acceptable to God, not the unworthy temporal concerns of the veil of tears. Unfortunately, politics is not like religion. Religious belief is a matter of saving your own soul according to your individual conscience, whereas politics is necessarily a question of collective change in the real world, which, if it to avoid inane infantilism, must recognise that holding unimpeachable principles and supporting justice does not necessarily lead to good in the world. In other words, the idea that “from good comes only good; but from evil only evil follows” is clearly not true in the world in politics. The actions of good people, if are irresponsible or without a realistic appreciation of actual circumstances, can often, despite the best of intentions, have bad consequences.
I cannot emphasise enough how the Labour Party must avoid lapsing into this attitude, which characterised much of our reaction to the last Tory government. I have only been a councillor for 3 months, but already the reality of being in opposition is getting very boring. Opposition is shit. You have very little power to help people, you oppose and shout and berate and get nowhere, or at best you manage to achieve occasional minor and tactical successes whilst the general course of Tory policy continues unabated. You can only do what we come into politics to do with power. I can only imagine what the 18 years of Tory government last time round was like – it must have been mind-numbingly awful. We cannot fall into the same traps. We must avoid the siren voices on the hard left who want us to make exactly the same mistakes of the 1980s. The Labour Party must remember that it is NOT a pressure group. This is not to say that we need to revert to power without principle, which at times seemed to embody New Labour. Just as principle without power is sterile idleness, power without principle is an utterly soulless and pointless exercise in managerialism. Nonetheless, the danger we face most keenly at the moment is falling victim to the siren voices of the hopeless day-dreamers of the Far Left.
Of course, luckily, most people who are sensible enough to realise this are already in the Labour Party, and those who embody the mindset of the public schoolboy, for whom winning the game is unimportant, are on the Far Left fringes. However, to those on the Left outside of the Labour Party, I leave you with a wonderful quotation from Nye Bevan, hardly a right-winger or a soulless New Labour hack: “I have no time for those who appear to threaten the whole of private property, but who, in practice, would threaten nothing; they are the purists and, therefore, barren.”
2 days ago