Is the Left useless?

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Simon Jenkins (no lefty) begins an article in the Guardian today saying:

The British left is a disgrace.

There is no shortage of those wanting to agree with him in the comments that follow, although most point out that if he is describing the Labour leadership of the last 15 or more years as being of the Left then he is sadly misguided.

His argument is this:

For whatever motive – and reducing a budget deficit is hardly dishonourable – Cameron is seeking to redefine the individual's relationship with the state, more radically than anyone since the 40s.

On health, benefits and housing Jenkins argues that Cameron is seeking to destroy the welfare state. And I suspect he is right – that is what Cameron is seeking to do.

Of course, whether he succeeds or not is another matter. As all papers note this morning, The Ministry of Justice is planning £2 billion of cuts out of its £9 billion budget. 15,000 of its 80,000 staff will be made redundant as a result. No one, quite clearly, knows the impact. The aim is to cut first and wonder what the impact will be afterwards. Or as a Guardian editorial puts it:

It is that the coalition is putting the cart before the horse, by brokering totals before deciding what needs to be done. It is time to borrow from Sir Humphrey and plead with the government: "If you are going to do this damn silly thing, then don't do it in this damn silly way."

Pragmatically this seems true. And pragmatically the left can, to some degree, afford to sit out this summer saying “it will all go wrong” sure in the knowledge that it will. I have no doubt that’s true. Nor has an old Blairite, Matthew Taylor, writing in the FT today where he warns that the Coalition risks a massive error – promising more than it can deliver whilst simply supplying mayhem in reality.

In that case it could be argued that the Left just has to sit and wait for the ConDems to lose it with the public – as surely they will when prisoners are released early, those who should be in custody get bail and probations services collapse, alongside all the other mayhem shortly to be released on society. This will surely happen.

But it’s not enough. To quote the Guardian editorial again:

Bevan said the language of priorities was the religion of socialism. It should in fact be the religion of good government, of every stripe. Brokering first and thinking later is the opposite of that.

I agree with that.

And that does require a vision of what the Left is trying to do. Jenkins has an easy target in the remnant of New Labour (which we can only pray is not revived after the Labour leadership election) because there’s not a shadow of a doubt that the disgrace of that leadership was that it was not of the Left at all - embracing in its totality the mantra of rational choice theory and the market based ideology that followed.

In that case the Left has to reorganise itself – and say what it is for. Regaining power would be good. Regaining power for a purpose would be so much better. And the definition of purpose is twofold. One is pragmatic – that is to deliver workable solutions in government. I write a lot of such ideas. That in itself is unusual, and one reason why I suspect this site is quite well read.

But the other is to deliver a new narrative for life in the UK. This is something much more telling. It is to persuade the country of the need for a new understanding of living in this community that justifies change, a new direction, and a purpose for delivering difference within those pragmatic policies that underpin good government.

This is an issue to which I may turn. Because without it the Left is useless. Having conviction and goodwill is not enough. Being able to persuade others to share it is essential. That’s the job the Left has to do. And watching the ConDems fail won’t be enough to deliver that. Even pointing out that the ConDes have no interest in social justice will not deliver that. Labour has to say what success, social justice and a good life are. That’s the real challenge.