The future of the left since 1884

The utility of politics

In the week where the Prime Minister was commenting on the arrangement of Jeremy Corbyn’s tie, I noticed an essay by James Meek which portrayed the Labour leader in a clingy green and brown number, with a funny hat and...


In the week where the Prime Minister was commenting on the arrangement of Jeremy Corbyn’s tie, I noticed an essay by James Meek which portrayed the Labour leader in a clingy green and brown number, with a funny hat and bow and arrow. Robin Hood, according to James Meek, “defies the system… stands up for the little people”. Robin Hood is “Jeremy Corbyn, He’s Russell Brand. He’s Hugo Chavez”. So far, so standard fare.

Then Meek makes a more compelling argument. This kind of Robin Hood myth is “cathartic rather than curative”. A socialist Robin Hood wouldn’t be a forest bandit undertaking occasional raids on random riches, instead a socialist “would tell the sheriff he doesn’t want his money, but his power… he would demand control of the system”.

This speaks directly to the utility of politics and, perhaps, gets to the heart of the debates in the Labour Party right now. Henry Drucker said of the term ‘solidarity’ that it both epitomised and caricatured the defensive incrementalism sometimes attributed to the Labour movement. Solidarity is essential, in that it builds on empathy, compassion and cooperation to make something more powerful. But as with arrows shot across a rich man’s carriage, it’s cathartic rather than curative. It won’t transform the system.

That isn’t an easy job. When David Miliband wrote in 1994 that there is a “disjunction between the short-term calculus of electoral politics and the long-term nature of economic and social problems” he had no idea – I imagine – that analysis would be relevant to his brother’s leadership of the party over 20 years later. Ed Miliband has, as his recent essay on equality reinforced, a clear sense of the long-term problems our economy faces. He was right to consider the 2008 crash a pivotal moment for mainstream social democracy too. While an ambitious fiscal response to the crisis prevented catastrophe, quite reasonably many perceived social democracy as then letting the people who’d crashed the car get away with their no-claims bonus intact. But while his version of the long terms problems was and is compelling, the short term calculus appeared to clash. The day-to-day of opposition took over.

Right now, there are fair criticisms being levelled at the Opposition for not demonstrating a capable grasp of the day-to-day. Meanwhile huge amounts of time are being spent and energy expended on organisational battles as people vie for internal levers. Studies of political change demonstrate the importance of institutional control, but also highlight the electoral failure that results from purely internal facing politics. It’s hard to disagree with Philip Collins (though, I must confess, I rarely disagree with him) when he talks about the intellectual crisis facing Labour. What’s the ‘new’ project? How will it sweep into Number 10 and what change will it bring about?

When Collins writes that Labour must be “a demand for power… It is not about good or bad opposition but the pursuit and wielding of power” he isn’t pushing a purely electoral point. There isn’t a viable strategy for the Labour Party of saying whatever it takes to win an election. As an institution it would implode were that the case. Rather its mission of social and economic reform for the furtherance of power and opportunity for all must be derived from the world around us, from a critique people relate to and solutions people believe are credible. It’s with that relevance and ambition from which electoral success is derived.

Miliband (D)’s comment from 1994 came in a book he edited titled Reinventing the Left. It still reads well, today, because the task is the same but far harder. Conservative ideology is less radical than during the era of the new right – they are more interested in conserving a world order than deconstructing it. But social democracy across Europe lacks coherence. The messaging from Labour’s frontbench is eclectic, with the impossibility of order (John McDonnell’s ‘no borders’ comment), the desirability of more public control of the economy, the endorsement of globalisation through the defence of European migration and the opposition to globalisation through concerns over Europe’s free trade deals

There are signs of what is required beginning to surface – that is taking in the world around us and seeking solutions that adhere to social democracy’s core aims. The Changing Work Centre, co-hosted by the Fabians, Tristram Hunt’s comments on equality, and a variety of thinking on environmental policy that doesn’t just scream ‘we have to say something green’. In other words policy development with modern relevance. Alongside the daily internal battles, let us hope this is only the beginning of something compelling.


Karl Pike

Karl Pike is a lecturer in public policy and British politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He was previously an advisor to the shadow home secretary and the shadow foreign secretary.


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