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It’s not the Labour left that’s stuck in a time warp

Julian Petley, co-author of the book Culture Wars, once observed that the British press had ‘perfected a way of representing the ideas and personalities associated with socialism as so deranged and psychotic that they presented a danger to society.’ It’s no secret that New Labour was evolved in part to counteract Labour’s image problems in the 1980s. The order of the day became finding the centre ground and sticking to it, rather than attempting to operate outside it and running the risk of remaining ‘unelectable’.

While many of us on the left did not necessarily agree with the political trajectory taken during the New Labour years, we understood that there was no inherent shame in trying to look like a credible party of government. The political landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s was undeniably bleak for socialists, and reflected something the outgoing Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had said several years earlier:

You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

As if by prophesy, 30 years later we are again at a moment of profound political change. The certainties that have shaped political discourse for so very long are again being challenged, if not by the political class then by workers and students right across Europe and beyond. Questions many of us have long been asking about our economic system are today routinely being raised by those with little history of political struggle – people whose sense of injustice has developed as they’ve seen living standards fall and prospects for the future become increasingly bleak.

The right’s response to the crisis has thus far been defined by a willingness to take the easy way out at every juncture. In place of solutions they’ve clung to ideology. Instead of compassion they’ve hacked away at living standards. Their plan for the long-term consists only of a global race to the bottom. In summing up, their response has been to dig in and entrench themselves further in the failed orthodoxy of laissez-faire capitalism.

Through it all, much of the media has portrayed murmurings of dissent not simply as illegitimate but as disorderly and threatening. They have casually dismissed the Occupy movements and thrown handfuls of mud at any figure who has evoked the most basic right every working person must have – the right to withdraw one’s labour – and, as if looking admiringly at the authoritarian capitalism of the east, called enthusiastically for further restrictions on this right at every given opportunity.

Yet, in the face of this torrent of hostility the public mood toward the economic policies of the right has hardened. The latest opinion poll published by the BBC finds 61% believe Wednesday’s public sector strike is justified, a total that includes almost four in five 18 to 24 year olds. This is on the back of a YouGov poll from a few weeks back which found that 44 per cent of Londoners supported the aims of the Occupy LSX group, with 30 per cent opposed and 25 per cent answering ‘not sure’.

Rightly or wrongly, many inside the Labour Party routinely go along with the evocation of right-wing policies when doing so brings electoral gain. As someone on the left of the party, I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that my ideas would make the party ‘unelectable’ if adopted – as if the sole purpose of politics was the abandonment of all principles in exchange for political office.

I have previously accepted, however, that at times they might have had a point: the outlook for the left was, for many years and for a number of reasons, downright depressing. Resentfully, I bunkered down and grudgingly towed the line.

Today however, things are different. If nothing else, the above-mentioned figures should make it clear that it will not be crass characterisations of the ‘looney left’ that will eat into Labour’s support at the next election, but an unwillingness to properly stand up for the rights of working people in the face of this unprecedented onslaught of austerity.

The Conservative Party rarely needs reminding that it is the party of capital; yet far too often the Labour Party seems intent on forgetting that it is the party of labour.  There has indeed been a sea change in politics. This time, however, the boot is on the other foot: it is most certainly not the left that is acting as a drag on Labour’s electoral chances.

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