What does it mean, being on the left?

A new website, OpenLeft, founded by James Purnell MP, former cabinet minister (the one who in his resignation letter invited Gordon Brown to ‘step aside’ as party leader and prime minister), under the auspices of the think-tank Demos, James Purnelldescribes itself as “a project aimed at renewing the thinking and ideas of the political Left. We seek an open conversation across the Left about the kind of society we want and how we can best bring it about.”   OpenLeft says that “To kick off the debate we have asked ten leading left-wing figures to answer six questions that go to heart of what it means to be on the Left. Read their responses below, and click Join the Debate to add your own.”  Not one to look an ex-cabinet minister’s gift horse in the mouth, I accepted the invitation with a characteristically lengthy attempt to describe by quoting examples what I take to constitute a position on the political left — too lengthy, it turns out, for OpenLeft which has published my reply in truncated form.  No complaint: it is indeed rather long.  But here, for the record, is the full text of my answers to Mr Purnell’s six questions, or rather seven if you count the interrogative heading:

What do you think it means to be on the Left?

There is a broad left-to-right spectrum of values and priorities and most people can quickly see where on the spectrum they belong. The two ends of the spectrum may be summarised (in simplified form) like this:

  • Liberty, human rights >>> <<< Discipline, restraint, order, social responsibility
  • Change and reform >>> <<< Stability, continuity
  • Compassion >>> <<< Competition
  • Concern for the underdog and the vulnerable >>> <<< Respect and admiration for the rich and successful
  • Scepticism about most forms of authority; tendency to be rebellious >>> <<<Respect for most established authority, natural instinct to support and conform with it
  • Belief in maximum equality, including equality of outcomes >>> <<< Belief in equality of opportunity and the need for inequality of outcomes for reward and incentive
  • The public service and government as principal agents for essential services, change and reform >>> <<< Minimum government, small public sector, maximum role for private sector and individuals
  • Taxation as means of financing public services and reducing inequality >>> <<< taxation a burden on private initiative, to be minimised
  • Prison mainly for reform and rehabilitation >>> <<< Prison mainly for punishment and retribution
  • Responsibility of rich people to help the less well-off >>> <<< If most poor people worked harder they too could be rich and successful
  • Need for rich countries to help to relieve poverty in the third world >>> <<< Most development aid is wasted and lines the pockets of corrupt and incompetent third world politicians
  • Trade unions as a necessary protection for employees’ interests >>> <<< Unions often hamper managers in their responsibility for managing
  • Politicians as necessary and valued agents for change and reform >>> <<< Politicians meddle in business and the economy for ideological rather than practical reasons
  • Private sector and the profit motive generally equate to exploitation of the consumer and the employee >>> <<< Private sector the only creator of wealth, and the profit motive a necessary incentive
  • Society should promote the interests of those least able to help themselves >>> <<< Advancement purely on merit in a relentless meritocracy, and the devil take the hindermost

There’s often something to be said for the propositions or concepts at both ends of a particular item, and individuals may find that on some items they can comfortably endorse or sympathise with both simultaneously: several are not genuine opposites. Most would prefer to re-word most if not all of the choices and to refine them, as indeed Eysenck did 40 years ago.. But most will also feel an instinctive affinity with one end of the spectrum in each case more than the other, and will probably wind up endorsing the majority of first propositions or the majority of the second.

What is it about your political beliefs that puts you on the Left rather than the Right?

I instinctively as well as by conscious choice identify myself with all the first alternatives in my list and with virtually none of the second.

What do you consider made you Left wing?

Reading George Bernard Shaw and the New Statesman as a teenager. Experiencing the manifestations of the British (or English?) class system during my national service in the army (and subsequently).

How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?

Much more equal in both wealth and income. Far fewer class distinctions. Culture and the arts accessible to all. More realism about Britain’s limited role in the world and the value of a more active role in the EU. Withering away of the more populist, reactionary and unscrupulous tabloids. Greater public control and regulation of the financial and banking sectors and the utilities. An extension of public (including municipal and co-operative) ownership into significant areas of the economy.

What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?

1. Abolition of private, fee-paying schools and medicine (inconceivable under any government, I know, but you asked the question!).

2. A huge improvement in the standards of state education from nursery school onwards.

What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?

The evil influence of the most irresponsible tabloids. The yawning cultural gap between our Two Nations, and the tragic deprivation which it entails. The way so many of our major companies rip us off with complete impunity. Gross over-centralisation of political power and the constant itch of our rulers to micro-manage us. The blindness of our political leaders who can’t see that with devolution we have moved half-way into a federal system and that completing that process will solve so many of our otherwise insoluble constitutional problems and anomalies. The pathetic risk-aversion of our leaders in all political parties and their cowardly lack of radical reformist ambition. The economic illiteracy of huge swaths of our governing class, the media and the general population. The betrayal and corruption of the Labour Party.

Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?

The post-war Attlee government. R H Tawney. The younger Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan. Michael Young, Peter Townsend, Tony Crosland and Dick Crossman. John Maynard Keynes. Lord Beveridge. Michael Foot (no, seriously). Thomas Jefferson. Georges Jacques Danton.


On the same website I have had what seems to me an interesting and amicable exchange of views with Sunder Katwala, the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, about the place of “equality of opportunity” and the “meritocracy” in the values and objectives of the left.  I argue that if equality of opportunity, an obviously desirable aim in itself, is the limit of one’s ambition as regards equality generally, it doesn’t go anything like far enough and is an icon of the right, not the left;  and I recall that the much-missed Michael Young, who coined the term ‘meritocracy‘ as a warning of the injustices and cruelties of a dystopian meritocratic society, was bitterly disappointed towards the end of his long life to find the term ‘meritocracy’ being used by Tony Blair and others as a legitimate and supposedly progressive objective for a Labour government.

It’s fashionable to dismiss the ideas of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics as having long ago ceased to have any meaning.  I think that on the contrary they are as useful as ever, and I hope that the debate sparked by Mr Purnell and his OpenLeft website will help to revive them.


9 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    From Andrew
    July 24th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Hi Brian,

    Interesting post. Can I ask what you mean by ‘our Two Nations’?


    Brian writes: Andrew, thanks. I was referring to Disraeli’s lament in his novel ‘Sybil, or the Two Nations‘ about the class division in England. He wrote:
    >”Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.”

    The same division seems to me as deep and lamentable as ever. We have a kind of cultural apartheid to which Disraeli’s comment applies as accurately as when he wrote it (in 1845). The living conditions of the poor are nowadays of course not generally as horrendous as those described by Disraeli, but the cultural (and indeed the economic and financial) gap is just as wide.

  2. Alan Douglas says:

    You ask for “Abolition of private, fee-paying schools and medicine”

    Do you REALLY think that cutting off the best will improve the rest ? Don’t you have enough years of state mediocrity alreadyhere and in many other nations, to show that state mediodrity will never lead to the best for all. I grant you it will lead to equality for all, but that equality is lowest common rather than universal best.

    Rather, we need to create a system where the best is driven to apply to wider and wider circles, and some system of empowerment of the consumer, such as school vouchers, seems to achieve this where it is used.

    Btw, I too experienced the class divide from the looking-up end, and I too gained my knowledge of how things are from the New Statesman, until I had a sudden realisation that I disagreed with everything they wrote !

    Alan Douglas

    Brian writes: Alan, thanks. You make a forceful point. This is all purely academic, since no foreseeable British (or English, Scottish, etc.) government is going to abolish the public (i.e. private) schools in real life. But yes, I do think that doing so “will improve the rest”. The same resources of excellence — the outstanding teachers (not all of them, but some), the fantastic physical resources of many private schools, and above all the energetic aspirational activism of middle-class parents would all contribute to an enormous raising of standards in the state sector from which millions of ordinary children instead of just a tiny privileged minority would benefit. I would not accept your definition of this as “cutting off the best”: it would be levelling up, not down. It would be a process of allowing the best to pollinate the rest.

    But because this is all miles away in the world of pure fantasy, I think it’s a pity to waste time and energy debating it — although as one of the touchstones for distinguishing between the left and the right in politcs, it has its uses. To generalise, the right tends to concentrate its concerns on preserving and promoting “the best” (which in practice too often translates into preserving privilege for a hereditary, social, wealth or meritocratic élite); whereas the left is more concerned to do something for the excluded, the vulnerable, the failures, the unprivileged, the victims of a harsh and unforgiving meritocracy. Both concerns are perfectly legitimate — society does need to foster excellence. But exclusivity is a high price to pay for it.

  3. jim says:

    ‘Abolition of private, fee-paying schools and medicine ‘

    So it would be illegal to pay someone to teach your child, or treat your illness? I would be fined or put in jail for doing so?

    Is it any surprise that socialist governments end up in totalitarianism with this sort of attitude? Do as I say, or I’ll punish you, by force if neccessary. How very caring.

    Brian writes: Jim, if you re-read what I wrote, you’ll see that I acknowledge that it’s “inconceivable” that any government, either of the left or the right, is going to abolish private schools (or private medicine), so the argument is purely academic. I merely make the point that the existence of the private sector in education, and mutatis mutandis in medicine, has extremely damaging consequences for the vast majority of children in this country who rely on state schools for their education, and indeed damaging for society as a whole, since it drains off talent, standards and facilities that would otherwise be available to all, and perpetuates the class divisions in our society which are so harmful in so many aspects of British life. Abolition of private education would thus bring immense benefits. But as I have repeatedly made clear, I know perfectly well that it’s not going to happen. Don’t worry: this particular privilege for the élite few is quite safe for the foreseeable future, and probably longer.

  4. Alan Douglas says:

    I would love to agree that abolishing the “elite” will spread their excellence downwards.

    Let us take 2 opposing examples – move a studious pupil into a “normal class” – what you get here is the studious one being obstructed and probably bullied, even if only by mockery “Here comed Mr Goody Two Shoes” and “So the rest of us aren’t good enough huh?”. Certainly his studious habits will be interfered with, again if only by noise and disruption. (I was in this situation, both sides, at school).

    Opposing – move ONE rowdy disruptive pupil into a studious class, and this one pupil’s noise will severely affect all the rest of the class. Sadly a fact of human nature, the lesser behaviourial aspects will be immitated most easily by some of the rest, with the result that the rowdiness will gradually wreck the class.

    Funny that during years of non-socialism, there was a schools system which helped the brightest rise from the poverty of their lives into what you would probably call the middle classes – the Grammar Schools. I believe Grant-Maintained (stopped by Blair) also did this. The culture of the bog-standard was promoted to the skies, and it is now stated that “socal mobility” is WORSE than before 1997. Could there be a connection ? You KNOW there is.

    Your ideas are of course perfectly good, but your choice how to get to the ideals is frankly rotten, as PROVED these last 12 years, not to mention in the USSR etc etc.

    The only system that has a hope of working would be allowing each to rise to the level that THEY want, without hindering others who want greater, or lesser, achievement. Enabling the best to flourish creates a vacuum which sucks the next tier UP, if not prevented by state control.

    No native in the 3rd world ever wanted a bicycle until the “best” person got one, then aspiration set in and widened rapidly. Imagine if the first bicycle had been forbidden cuz ALL had to have one or none. THAT is the system you seem to be advocating, no ?

    Alan Douglas

    Brian writes: No.

    It’s a pity, but perhaps significant, that just one sentence in a long post is the one that’s attracting all the comments, when I have made it clear from the start that the ‘proposal’ is not a serious proposition that’s ever going to be contemplated by any government, at any time. It was just my (apparently provocative) way of dramatising a serious point about the malign effect of our apartheid system of education on state education and on society at large. So let’s focus on something else now, right? The correspondence here on (not) abolishing the public schools is now closed. Period. Nothing to stop you and anyone else pursuing the debate elsewhere, if you’re that obsessed with it.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, does abolish in ‘abolish private schools’ refer to private (meaning, bring the schools into the state system) or does it qualify schools (meaning, close the schools altogether)?  I have thought from time to time about the proper place for the so-called public schools, such as our own seat of learning of sixty years ago, and it seems to me that there is still a place for them in a fairer society.  I would make them boarding schools for boys and girls who for whatever reason cannot live with their parents (or with the custodial parent) because said parents are working in places where the children either would be too much on their own or couldn’t get decent schooling.  If there is a question of more candidates than places, I’d give preference to children whose parents are abroad on the country’s service or in employment connected with Brirain’s prosperity; but otherwise, it wouldn’t matter whether one’s mother was ambassador in Ulan Bator or one’s father was a lance-corporal in the Falklands, or both parents were drilling for oil in the Canadian Arctic: candidates would be chosen strictly in order of application.  My feeling (perhaps not yours) is that public schools have in general mellowed in the last half-century: less emphasis on many character-forming games, less militarism (the Corps!), less swingeing punishment, and less compulsory religion.  Coupled with a flexible but firm discipline, and an awareness on the part of the kids that they’re damn lucky to be there, and the commonality of having parents doing a good job abroad, there would be the basis of a great school spirit.  I say ‘school spirit’ with hestitation, since as you know I am not a great one for playing up for the honour of the house and so forth, but I don’t know how else to put it!

    What we do with the old-fashioned prep schools, the 8 (or sometimes younger) to 13 places, many of which were (still are?) hell-holes, we can decide another time.

    Brian writes: Tim, I realise that your comments are not 100 per cent serious, but please see my response to the second comment by Alan Douglas above. Yours is positively the last word on this subject, here anyway. There’s plenty of more serious material in my post that’s worth discussing, and the arguments against abolishing the public schools have been more than adequately deployed by now — not to mention some of the intriguing practical implications of doing so which you both constructively and amusingly discuss. As I keep repeating, it’s all academic anyway, but those with a fixation on the subject (no, not you) have now had their say and it’s time to move on.

  6. jim says:

    I had written a nicely argued bit on the totalitarian aspect of proposing banning things, but I see opposing thought is not allowed on the Left.

    Brian writes: Oh, come on. There are plenty of right-wing blogs out there that would welcome your nicely argued fantasies about a non-existent totalitarian British left: in relation to this particular post it’s completely off-message. Haven’t you got any comments to make here on anything in this post except the one thing in it that’s explicitly not on anyone’s agenda? Won’t you tell us how many of the first propositions in my list you identify with and how many of the second, so that we can see where you’re coming from? Which writers, movements, periodicals, etc. have inspired and shaped your political values and principles? You choose to comment anonymously so you needn’t be shy.

  7. jim says:

    I wish my ‘fantasies’ of totaliarian left wing governments were just that. History shows us that most if not all socialist governments decend into the cowing of their populace by one means or another. Equally just because something ‘is not going to happen’ doesn’t make it right to support it if it is wrong in principle. If I were to say that I would like a policy of forced repatriation of all non white inhabitants of the UK, would the fact that this will never happen make my views any less abhorent? Of course not. Such views are morally wrong, and should be opposed as such and not just on the grounds of the unliklihood of them ever being enforced.

    As for my political background, I come from a family of Methodists, though I am not a Christian myself. I agree with the basic Christian credo of original sin, which is why I am opposed to the Left so much. The Left thinks that Man is fundamentally good, and his surroundings and upbringing corrupt him. I think Man is fundamentally bad, and can only be socialised by his surroundings and upbringing. I prefer to make policy on the grounds that I know a large proportion of people will not want to ‘do the right thing’ but will follow their own self interest. Therefore public policy and law needs to be drawn up so the personal self interest and public good are aligned as much as possible.

    Take for example the area of fly tipping, which I know a bit about. Ever since the introduction of land fill tax there has been a massive increase in fly tipping. Because some people don’t want to pay to get rid of their waste. So they drive into the countryside and chuck it in the hedges. This is nominally against the law but the chances of being caught are slim to zero. Instead of bringing in a law that will obviously be ignored by the mindless minority, why not devise a system that encourages waste recycling? Put 1% (or however much would be required) on VAT, hypothecate it for a network of waste centres that pay you for waste delivered. Suddenly every bit of rubbish has value. Or something similar. But work from the priciple that it is not enough to simply pass a law banning something, and hope everyone will obey it. If it is more honoured in the breach than the observance then the law is made an ass, and society as a whole suffers.

    My burning hatred of the State as a whole stems from the treatment my parents suffered at the hands of various local government and Inland Revenue civil servants in ther 1970s. I will never forgive the jumped up little c**t from the Inland Revenue who told my Mother and Father that they could not possibly live on the amount of money they had declared as income from their business, and (without any evidence) made them pay surcharges and tax on income they never had, at a time when they had hardly two pennies to rub together. Two more honourable and honest people you will never find, and as they had no money could not afford to contest the case. People like that Tax Inspector are why I detest State officials of all kinds. They have the power of the State machine behind them, backed in the end by force. They are unelected and wield huge power over people’s lives, with little or no control. Which I why I support the reduction in the State apparatus to the absolute minimum, and leaving people to get on with their lives as they see fit, unencumbered by what someone else thinks they should or should not do or say. Including paying for their own medical treatment and child’s education if they wish to.

  8. Paul Higgins says:

    My answers-

    What is it about your political beliefs that put you on the Left rather than the Right?
    I believe in the public ownership of the means of production- both goods and wealth for the good of the many.
    What do you consider made you Left wing?
    Experiencing the unfairness inherent in a capitalist society.
    How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?
    Classless and united in the common cause of one’s fellow man, where people come before profit and wealth.
    What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?
    1. Means of production in the hands of the workers.
    2. Abolition of private housing, education and health care.
    What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?
    The lies told by politicians and the fools that believe them. If we could eradicate the lies or open the electorate’s eyes, other issues would soon be resolved.
    And the grab-all society, where everybody wants his or her slice of the cake, but everybody wants theirs to be biggest.
    Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?
    Marx and Engels, when they wrote the Communist Manifesto, much of which holds as true today as when written. Their only mistake, in my opinion was their belief in the rise of socialism and the collapse of capitalism as inevitable. We have and will have to fight tooth and nail for every reform.

    Brian writes: One can only salute a True Believer. There’s something stirring about such certainties. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know where to begin to discuss politics with someone who wants to abolish private housing — while presumably wishing to live in a free society. Still, I have myself proposed the abolition of private education, and some would say that the same insuperable objection would apply.

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