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Why doesn’t the Left do better?

In the wee small hours following the Barnsley Central by-election this question was asked of me on Twitter. It seems a reasonable question. After all, capitalism is in far from in rude health and I suspect there are elements of the story the left tells about it that would find a receptive audience. Tales of greedy, wealth-hoarding bankers and the problems they cause for ordinary, hard-working people wouldn’t meet much widespread objection. Maybe they would even be willing to listen to how this system can no longer provide for them, what they need to survive and also their hopes and dreams and to explore alternatives. Maybe. However, last night saw the far-right largely in the form of UKIP as the chief benefactors of discontent with this government.

So, given the conditions,why doesn’t the left do better? One explanation I offered was the division of the left not just into the myriad of sects but also on a more fundamental level between the left that is housed within Labour and that outside. When the left does come together, it is better at exploiting the opportunities presented too as it as we have recently seen in the Irish General Election. Interestingly, ignoring the surge in Fine Gael’s support which is based on the traditional movement to a main Parliamentary opposition, there were strong showings from Labour, Sein Fein and the United Left. However, the electoral system means that the split between the Labour left and that outside it is less problematic here. They can happily co-exist to a greater degree because STV allows you to support both. However, in Britain, electoral challenges to Labour are pretty tactically pointless and their impact in practice is counter productive.

No matter how much the left huffs and puffs at the Labour Party, the left has never succeeded in mounting serious challenge to it and it remains the electoral wing of the labour movement and therefore an organic part of that movement. Nonetheless this does not stop good comrades wasting their energies in these ventures and deprives those of us struggling within of their undoubted talent and energy.

It was suggested to me is that the left is pretty poor at communicating its message. I agree, but to treat that would be to treat the symptom of the disease while leaving the disease untouched. The problem is a lack of organic and living and breathing democratic link with the movement the left wants to win. For comrades outside Labour, the difficulty is forging this link with the labour movement. However, I am perfectly willing to concede that it is difficult for the Labour left to forge links with movements that are born outside of established labour movement and/or political structures. The left’s posture is mainly defensive which reflects the historic defeats inflicted on it in the past period. In terms of the programme it offers for change it either offers an emaciated ‘One Solution, Revolution’ or a defence of the status quo. It has clearly lost the talent of navigating a course from where we are to where we want to be.

Fundamentally, the left doesn’t do better because of its organisational division and programmatic ossification. It would take much more than one blog post to solve this but to pose the question is to at least start the process of generating some answers and now more than ever we need them not just for ourselves but for the wider population which is currently dazed by the sledgehammer blows being rained down on it.


  1. Varus says:

    When even the internally-dysfunctional BNP manage to seize council seats & MEPs, it seems strange that a left-of-Labour party has never been bothered to make a concerted effort and win even a single seat…

  2. Galen10 says:

    The glaringly obvious answer to your question of course is electoral reform, and the introduction of AV+, or preferably STV.

    The surest way to ensure if not a constant left of centre majority, then at least the likelihood that the centre right are excluded from power more than they have been over the past century, is to make it possible for left of centre/progressive voices outside the Labour party to exercise real influence by ensuring they are represented in parliament.

    There are plent of Greens, disillusioned LD’s, nationalists and socialists out there. Many of them are never going to vote Labour, even if the party does manage to de-toxify itself from the poison of New Labour.

    If you are serious about forging links with the left outside the party, then get serious about electoral reform. Present a radical, progressive platform on environmental issues, protection of civil liberties, oversight of the financial sector and ensuring overmighty “too big to fail” banks don’t hold us to ransom in the future.

    Labour didn’t fail to win the last election because it wasn’t New Labour enough, whatever the Blairite ultras think, any more than the Tories lost in 1997 because they weren’t right wing enough.

    Ed Miliband talked about a blank sheet of paper when he won the leadership election, but we’ve seen precious little of substance emerge so far. There are plenty of authoritarians left within the Labour party (like those who voted to stop Compass opening up to non-party members) who don’t actually WANT to build bridges to “comrades” outside the party. When they are seen off in no uncertain terms, I might actually believe Labour are serious about promoting the chances of the left more generally, rather than just their own narrow, sectional hold on power.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. For every Green and independent Socialist out there, there are more UKIP, BNP, EDL and other assorted right-wingers. The Greens and other small parties to the Left of Labour would gain nothing (which is why the Greens are opposing AV, even though they support PR). The main beneficiary would be the Lib Dems and Labour, in most secenarios, would be the biggest losers.

  3. Darrell says:


    Part of this might be explained by the conflicting attitude of the left to electoral politics. Something else which also weakens significantly leftist interventions.


    I support AV+ but not AV so I am serious about electoral reform, just not the kind on offer in this rigged referendum. However, Jon does have a point though he is wrong about the Greens attitude to AV.

    Overall, the balance of forces at the moment would suggest the centre-right and right would gain the most out of AV (not so sure about AV+ which has added proportionality).


    Sorry to be a pain but your wrong about the Greens. Their official position is to call for a Yes vote and actively campaign for that. A significant minority of Greens opposed this but the majority voted for this at their conference, otherwise I think you have a point but as a supporter of AV+ I am bound to say that is a different kettle of fish to AV…

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