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The left needs to go on the offensive

I was recently pondering how, from the rule of Thatcher, the centre of British politics has been dragged rightwards as all political parties have accepted neoliberalism. One Nation Toryism lies all but dead; the LibDems seem to have succumbed almost totally to the “Orange Book” tendency; and then of course there was the rise of New Labour. But nowadays even the Trotskyites seem to have shifted rightwards!

For instance in 1973 the Labour National Executive proposed to bring twenty-five of the country’s monopolies under public ownership. These days you would not even get Trotskyite leaflets calling for such a radical programme. A Trade Union and Socialist Coalition manifesto would rather simply call for policies such as the renationalisation of the utilities, a reversal of cuts to public services and the defence of unemployment benefits. This political timidity of even the Trotskyites exemplifies just how far the left has been set back by Thatcher.

Admittedly at least part of the reason for this state of affairs is the economic realities of post-Thatcher Britain. Public ownership of the means of production seems a rather peculiar thought in today’s post-industrial society. These days nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy probably means Tesco being made into a state owned firm, which I doubt is a sound basis for a proper command economy.

Nonetheless we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Thatcher has bent the political landscape to her will. Not only in that she made even the Labour Party bow to her economic policy but even the opponents of neoliberalism are living in her shadow. The left’s locus of identity is defined by neoliberalism using defensive language to campaign to either protect what little we have left or stop the latest neoliberal onslaught. For example there are always campaigns to “defend” council housing; “defend” the NHS; “oppose” privatisation of utilities; or “repeal” anti trade union laws.

These are all brilliant campaigns that I am proud to take part in. However in constantly using this defensive language we are letting ourselves be defined by our political opponents, which in turn means we will struggle to break out of their political dominance. Following the financial crisis we have a new opportunity to forge a new political consensus in Britain. However, if we are to do this we need to transform the language of the left and make new demands to conduct an offensive struggle, taking the fight straight to the Tories and put them on the back foot.

The Robin Hood Tax, UK Uncut’s calls for better tax regulation and the Living Wage campaign are all excellent examples of positive demands for a better society being put forward. Rather than “defending” council housing and the NHS we should focus our language around demanding better investment in social housing and public services; rather than “opposing” privatisation of utilities we should call for proper state run services; and instead of demanding the “repeal” of the anti union laws we need to demand decent workplace rights. Ed Miliband’s call for a British investment bank to create more jobs is a good example of a policy that can actively challenge the current economic system. Furthermore, the public sector trade unions have not only defended pensions over the strikes but also in promoting their “Fair Pensions for All” campaign. If we are to build a new left consensus it will only be by making these kinds of positive demands for a fairer society.

Though it was far from a perfect settlement, Labour did manage to bend the Tories to a social-democratic consensus between 1945 and 1979 and, given the current economic crisis, we have the opportunity to have a similar victory now. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know how exactly we will go about doing this, but it certainly won’t be by framing all our demands around “defending” and “opposing” things but rather in demanding positive measures to challenge neoliberalism.

One Comment

  1. Tom Griffin says:

    I agree that there is an opportunity to move to a new left settlement that can replace neoliberalism in the way that neoliberalism replaced Keynesian social democracy.

    But its important to understand the flaws in the post-war settlement that paved the way for neoliberalism.

    It was a corporatist top-down settlement which reinforced the emergence of a distinct managerial class. When the post-war boom came to an end, much of the upper layers of that class threw in their lot with privatisation. Much of neoconservatism has its historical roots in the right-wing of the US labour movement.

    We need to find a more participatory, commons-based model of public ownership if that story is not to be played out again.

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