Left field

Last year – in 2014 – there was a curious debate about the views of the French President, François Hollande, in which the President himself participated, in a manner of speaking. It was about his politics, or more particularly, about where on the continuum of the political left his views were located. In mid-2013 M Hollande had declared in an interview that he was a socialist, and that he couldn’t see that the label ‘social democrat’ was appropriate. By early 2015 that had all changed. In a press conference that was largely dominated by questions about his complicated private life, he described himself as a ‘social democrat’ and announced changes in economic policy that had many of his political allies accuse him of selling out to capitalism. Interestingly, vocal criticism of his supposed sell-out to capitalism came not just from the ideological left but also from Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

In Britain the apparent rise within the Labour Party of the ‘hard left’ Jeremy Corbyn has had commentators scramble for their dictionaries of left wing terminology to work out how to describe what he and his backers stand for. Mr Corbyn himself has been helpful, pointing observers to the 1970s, a decade during which, he thinks, the Labour Party did things worth studying now. Of course the 1970s was a decade during which the binary ideological divide between left and right defined most political commentary. On the left there were some who were more ‘pragmatic’ than others – and who was ever more pragmatic than Labour’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson? But the political tribes identified their differences by labelling some as left and everyone else as right. And this indeed was reinforced in the 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher coalition standing in opposition to the declining Soviet Union and the political left in the West.

After the Cold War, and in the heady days of Clinton/Blair centrist policies, such distinctions were less easy to sustain. Those who craved the politics of ideological commitment were pushed to the margins. But are we about to return to the comforts of ideology? Is Corbyn the future, rather than François Hollande and his meanderings on the political stage? Is the left about to retire from the soggy centre ground and go, well, left?

Actually, there may be a more interesting question. If Jeremy Corbyn were to get into government in Britain (and I’d say the prospects are not huge), would Britain’s ensuing socialism be of the 1970s type as he suggests? In other words, would we see the re-emergence of left wing statism? Would we have not just British Rail, but also British Leyland? Is it really true that the left – the pure left, those who say they don’t want to have their politics labelled socialist while actually reconciled to capitalism – have not found a frame of reference to express their socialism beyond the assumptions of the 1970s that a big state does everything best? And if they haven’t, how comfortable can they be in the knowledge that they share these assumptions with other economically dirigiste movements, including Ms Len Pen’s Front National?

Still, the political debate may be about to get very interesting indeed.

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2 Comments on “Left field”

  1. Jane Kidd Says:

    “Very interesting indeed” has been missing from politics for too long time.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Hollande’s metamorphosis from socialist to social democrat in the space of a few months is emblematic of the travails of the contemporary Left, or better one should say Lefts, since the Left has never been an homogeneous field, both in terms of the ferocious historical debates among socialists, communists and social democrats, and in terms of the various European versions of such parties. Hollande’s private life aside (personally I think it is best for a country to be governed by a leader who is no political robot and does not become his job, but has a fulfilling love life as well), other social democrats leaders in Europe are also losing popularity to the point that members of their same party revolt and defect to the further left or far right.
    In the age of “post-politics” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-politics) and anti-politics it is mavericks like Farage, Berlusconi, Trump who have taken center stage. The lowering of political discourse had had the effect of making mainstream what was once regarded as racist slur (the debate on immigration is a good example).
    And yet the public loves political mavericks because they appear ‘authentic’. Corbyn is not in the same maverick league of the characters mentioned above, however his appeal has much to do with the same thirst for authenticity, with him there is no ambiguity, no spin, and yet Corbyn is more of a reactionary than a revolutionary, his version of the Left is one that looks nostalgically backwards. The Left must instead look forward and device policies that address the challenges of the near future, thus shaping a model of governance that responds to such challenges. Labour must live up to its name and engage with a new working class and a labour market shaped by the unfolding digital revolution. Ideology is not dead, it never was, it survives even in the most pragmatic of political approaches which seem to deny it, but we do need a new political vocabulary to articulate it, one which is not tribal or dogmatic, but open and cooperative. And we also need a modern state as the theatre for the contestation of ideologies and the place of the public. I am no believer in the socialist statist inclinations of the ‘70s, still I see no credible alternative forum for the articulation of the public good, for mass representation, organised accountability, and the expression and enactment of collective solidarity.

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