I sometimes like to introduce myself to Labour party people as ‘the most right-wing person in the Labour party’. I’ve found it’s a very good way to avoid being invited to sit on committees, working groups or panels, which is my main aim in all interactions with Labour party activists and thinkers.
I’m not sure if I’m really the most right-wing person in the Labour party (though as Brian Clough said, I’m in the top one). Instead I think I’m in the minority of people on the left who don’t quietly regard being on the right as being evidence of some gaping internal moral chasm.
It’s not that I’m particularly right-wing which sets me apart, it’s that I don’t mind the idea of being thought right-wing.
Do I believe that the Tories want to see a society where the poor are stewing grass?1 No. I think they’d be horrified.
Do I think the Tories want to see food banks, or increased poverty? No. I think they’re either seen as the unfortunate side effect of essential policies, to be ameliorated where possible, or as an intransigent problem with roots that go very deep and can only really be addressed at the individual, atomic level.
Oh, there are some flavours of the right I loathe, don’t get me wrong. There’s too often a comfort with the xenophobia of others, for example, or right-wing dictatorships. But there are things on the left I don’t like either. For example, every Labour conference has fringe events sponsored by the Cuba Solidarity campaign. Well, call me Mr Moral high ground, but I don’t get why I’d want to show solidarity with a gerontocratic police state. (You get free rum, though.)
Ultimately, I don’t think being left-wing is morally better. I just think it’s practically better.
I think Social Democracy works – it produces better outcomes, it raises more human capability, it educates, heals and employs and it constantly tries to improve. The social market model is a wonderful, amazing thing, and it’s wonderful and amazing in part because it’s messy, and there is a constant ferment of attempts to try to improve the way things work.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work. Sometimes government fails, just as sometimes markets fail.
There can be an odd selective outrage about this. Today I’m reading that the G4S and Serco contracts are evidence of the failures of the market (which they clearly are) but I’m reading this from many of the same people who have argued that covering scandals in the NHS is a cynical attempt to undermine public services. Odd.
What I love about social democracy though, is that when things go wrong (as they always will), you’re not forced to hew to the same way of delivering your sought outcomes because of an ideological fixedness. You’re allowed to use the state, or even the para-state of volunteers, charities, companies and not-for-profits, in many different ways.
So, the old British rail was a bit of a mess, not least because under state ownership it suffered significant underinvestment, leading to worse passenger safety. So a privatisation and regulation scheme was developed. That got investment, and increased passenger numbers, but also led to sustained pressure on fares and some companies weren’t very good.
So now we seem to be settling into an approach where some Train operating companies will be in public ownership, as they still need subsidy, others might be private, while the tracks are run by a hands off company, with fares being regulated by an independent arm of government. That’s messy, but it might well work a lot better than either outright nationalisation or privatisation.
What’s more, you can fiddle with it if bits seem to be going wrong, and the ability to fiddle and bodge is ultimately a very good thing whether you’re a social engineer or a real one.
It’s perhaps for this reason that I find the Labour party’s current search for the moral high ground on every issue so frustrating. I just don’t see how we’re morally better, or how we got to be so sure about it.
Occasionally, I get the uncomfortable feeling that the reason some Labour politicians are in politics is that they think they’re better people than me, and certainly than their opponents. Maybe they are, but don’t let it show, eh?
After all, the search for the moral high ground can leave you dangerously exposed if you don’t always live up to the standards you loudly demand of others. Ask all those strangely muscular right-wing preachers who condemn homosexuality. Or Ken Livingstone.
Should I worry about this strange moral lacunae in my left politics, this lack of a burning certainty that I am righteous and my opponents are not? It certainly makes things a bit harder to explain. ‘They’re well intentioned but misguided’ is a harder message to sell than ‘They’re nasty’.
What’s nasty anyway, though? Harold Wilson said the Labour party ‘is a crusade or it is nothing’. But Wilson was a backstabbing hack who sold out the Bevanites, had corrupt friends and employed George Wigg, so I’m not sure I should take that at face value. I’ve seen enough brutal Labour politics to be fairly sure there are precious few angels in any political frontline.
What’s more, by searching for the moral high ground, I think we lose the opportunity to explain the real reason we’re better: because what we offer bloody well works.
Look around you. The health service. Free education. Road, trains, busses. Pensions, childcare. See that? from Seattle to Sunderland, that’s the social market, and it’s built the most prosperous, fairest, strongest society in human bloody history, and without hardly any forced Labour camps. That’s not because its advocates are better people, but because we’re right, and where we’re wrong (which is fairly often, in truth), we’re allowed to change our minds.
More cynically, I also think it’s a good thing if people on the left don’t give in to the temptation to think we’re somehow better souls than people on the right, if only because we have to convince people who don’t share our glowing self assessment.
You know who doesn’t laugh when I introduce myself as the most right-wing person in the Labour party?
They look uncomfortable, and a bit confused, and because I’m not particularly moral, that’s kind of how I like it.
- Remember though: There’s only one country in the last couple of decades where the poor have been reduced to stewing grass. North Korea [↩]