Has the left become illiberal?


by Sunny
21st June, 2010 at 10:00 am    

The academic Francesca Klug, who I have immense respect for, asks: Why has the left become so illiberal?

My instinctive reaction is to point out that the left is not the same as New Labour. The left includes a whole bunch of people who are very much pro civil liberties (OurKingdom and their Convention on Modern Liberty did an excellent job of bringing them together), including the massive environmental movement that has always been anti-establishment.

My second gripe is that Francesca doesn’t go into how the atmosphere whipped up following 9/11 and 7/7 contributed to this massive assault on civil liberties, in particular the part played by the neo-con left who egged on Blair to push further on terrorism related legislation.

That aside, this bit certainly rings true:

But whilst Labour may have been more Methodist than Marxist, we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the intellectual tradition which never really saw the problem with the state — provided it was in the right, or rather left, hands.

One of the reasons, of course, why this seam of thought has been dismissed so lightly by socialists over the decades, is that it was associated with a liberalism antithetical to the state in principle and hostile, or indifferent, to its potential to address inequality.

Both points are spot on. Even now, when Anthony Barnett argues that the Labour party needs to re-evaluate the way it thinks of the state, he is somewhat dismissed. I don’t think they get it. And in that I include groups like Compass and the Fabian Society – both of which I’m a member of. I think this is a huge shame because it’s a big fucking problem.

Part of the problem is, as I keep saying, that the left thought when tony Blair was elected in 1997 that their job was done. They’d elected their man and he would do the job. But if you have a party that sees the state as the answer to everything, then inevitably its sole purpose in life becomes the desire to stay in power and “deliver our values” without actually asking whether how they did things improved. It didn’t. Equality didn’t rise. The attack on “benefit scroungers” did nothing to improve society.

The challenge for the left is to recognise these three points:
1. we have to recognise that the state is not the answer to every problem. Sometimes it is the enemy.

2. the state is usually also the establishment. The left cannot ever try and become part of the establishment. So even if a left-wing government is elected, the job isn’t done. The campaigning should infact start in earnest.

3. civil liberties aren’t just a “middle class concern”, because ultimately such authoritarianism is used to undermine and attack the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Those are the people the left should be standing up for.


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32 Comments below   |  

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  1. sunny hundal

    Blog post:: Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/djwPnw


  2. Roger Thornhill

    “@sunny_hundal: Blog post:: Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/djwPnw” what do you mean "become"?


  3. Colin Heinink

    RT @Kopmatt88: Was it ever liberal to begin with? No. RT @sunny_hundal: Blog post:: Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/djwPnw


  4. Jonathan Lintern

    RT @sunny_hundal: Blog post:: Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/djwPnw < I'm afraid my comment rambles horrendously.


  5. Anthony Barnett

    @sunny_hundel takes up Klug on the illiberal state. Tks Sunny! http://bit.ly/aBW7wN


  6. earwicga

    RT @sunny_hundal Pickled Politics » Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/cN7SdN


  7. Mike Power

    Shorter Hundal. It's not the left that is illiberal it was those nasty New-Labour types that were in power for 13 years. http://is.gd/cXqmi


  8. Matt

    Was it ever liberal to begin with? No. RT @sunny_hundal: Blog post:: Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/djwPnw


  9. thabet

    Has the left become illiberal? by @sunny_hundal http://ht.ly/21k0h


  10. Casey Vanderpool

    Pickled Politics » Has the left become illiberal? http://bit.ly/bTXDNA


  11. links for 2010-06-21 « Embololalia

    [...] Pickled Politics » Has the left become illiberal? My instinctive reaction is to point out that the left is not the same as New Labour. The left includes a whole bunch of people who are very much pro civil liberties (OurKingdom and their Convention on Modern Liberty did an excellent job of bringing them together), including the massive environmental movement that has always been anti-establishment. (tags: civil.liberties uk socialism labour.party) [...]




  1. MyCrippledEagle — on 21st June, 2010 at 10:37 am  

    You touch on one of the problems of the left in your final sentence – “Those are the people the left should be standing up for.”

    It should read, “Those are the people the left should be standing up with.” Middle class liberals cannot win in the long run by standing up FOR those parts of society.

    The loss of class consciousness within vulnerable and marginalised sections of society is both a symptom and a cause of the increasing top-down focus of allegedly left-wing parties (such as New Labour) and left-wing pressure groups and think-tanks. The Westminster- and London-centric nature of many left-wing campaigns seeks to take on the right on their own turf, whether it is in parliament, via the media or other such methods.

    This represents a huge strategic mistake for the left, whose power exists, first and foremost, in numbers. In many cases the left has not recovered from setbacks suffered in the 1970s and ’80s, when the trades unions were eliminated as a powerful political force. I’m not saying the unions were perfect, but they united the working classes against the forces of capital.

    New Labour has drifted to the centre of the political spectrum, thereby denying the left a voice in Parliament, despite clinging to large swathes of left-wing support as the lesser of several evils. The ‘contagion from the right’, which affected many left-wing political parties in Europe in the latter half of the 20th Century, has resulted in a disconnection between MPs and those they are supposed to represent.

    This disconnection and lack of a united working class voice can only result in one thing – an illiberal approach to government which, as you note, does not deliver true left-wing values, but values they assume to be desirable. For individuals to be heard, either someone in power needs to be listening, or a collective voice must be so loud that it cannot be ignored.

  2. Anthony Barnett — on 21st June, 2010 at 10:45 am  

    Good one Sunny, this is a huge issue for the candidates, The Coalition, with strong media backing, is going to plug the idea that Labour can’t be trusted with the State: it lies, it permits corruption, it spends irresponsibly, it spies on us. There is a degree of truth in this. Unless this is acknowledged and dealt with, Labour will not be trusted again by a critical mass of swing voters. At the moment they are saying “we meant well, can’t question our motives, perhaps we were too indifferent”.

  3. Rumbold — on 21st June, 2010 at 10:57 am  

    Good piece Sunny. Too many on the left see the state as inherantly good, and any attempts to scale in back are attacked as uncaring/evil.

  4. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 11:09 am  

    “The left cannot ever try and become part of the establishment.” Does this explain your incorrigible oppositionalism? ;-)

    A fair point, but where does the anti-state road lead? While i think there is a huge gap between socialist (essentially a softer capitalism) and communist (reimagining society as one big “state”) i think the problem in practice is that less state = more inequality, as we shall shortly discover.

    The entire Lib/Tory plan focuses on shrinking the state they view as inherently bad (i’m afraid Sunny, each fundamentally because of their own narrow class interests). Certainly, like all human endeavours, there is inefficiency, waste, etc in the big state. It is not a solution, but to paraphrase Churchill, of all the alternatives it appears least worst.

  5. soru — on 21st June, 2010 at 11:30 am  

    I think a better question is _why have liberals become so right wing_?

    When and why did they stop caring about social justice, stop telling an optimistic story of human progress and start banging the drum for reactionary scaremongering about mostly imaginary threats?

  6. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 1:43 pm  

    The funny thing is when people talk about “social justice” it’s as if we’ve learned nothing about human relationships, like with 18th Century Whigs.

    As Marx and Engels knew very well, there is no such thing as “social justice” – it’s an empty-meaning opiate. All that matters (as i pointed out on the “race” thread) is power, which is what state/ no state is all about. Hence “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

    Less state does not mean more freedom, it simply means more capitalism, which means less freedom. This is what the 1918 Labour Party understood full well and what Clause IV is about:

    “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

    Dropping Clause IV, Labour literally removed the ground beneath their feet. At the time it was seen as “out-dated” etc, but actually people appeared to have ACTUALLY FORGOTTEN how the world worked and why socialism was invented.

  7. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 3:35 pm  
  8. Sunny — on 21st June, 2010 at 3:41 pm  

    Jonathan – no I get that fully, and I think it’s a very valid point. Although I’m sceptical on whether we can still have the mobilisation and class conciousness of the 70s and 80s ever again.

  9. saeed — on 21st June, 2010 at 5:43 pm  

    good to see a serious blog post on the state of the left which doesn’t fall into sweeping condemnations of supposed leftist appeasement of militant Islam

  10. Fred — on 21st June, 2010 at 6:23 pm  

    Less state does not mean more freedom, it simply means more capitalism, which means less freedom.

    That must be why the most capitalist country in the world, the USA, has the least freedom.

  11. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 6:48 pm  

    @9 some might say it is because of the left’s preoccupation with identity politics post-1989 it forgot what it was all about…

    But let’s not get off-topic ;-)

  12. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 6:51 pm  

    I would add however, that surely “liberality” is bourgeois, quite literally – the Liberals, who Sunny and the Guardian supported, have demonstrated quite plainly they are the heirs to the Whigs, who exemplified the preoccupations of the bourgeois, ie – socially liberal, economically free market.

    Although I think there is plenty of room for tolerance in socialism, liberals (and their self-serving liberality) are plainly enemies of the people ;-)

  13. Don — on 21st June, 2010 at 7:02 pm  

    liberals (and their self-serving liberality) are plainly enemies of the people

    Damn. Busted.

  14. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 8:10 pm  

    Finally, i would argue, if you are not socialists, then you are not “of” the left. As “liberals” you are definitively of the right.

  15. Don — on 21st June, 2010 at 8:15 pm  

    I suspect that this may be a loose usage of the word ‘Finally’.

  16. boyo — on 21st June, 2010 at 8:40 pm  

    …. ;-)

  17. MyCrippledEagle — on 21st June, 2010 at 9:05 pm  

    @Sunny (8) – I’d like to think that we’re in a transitional phase at the moment. The traditional union stronghold of heavy industry has diminished, and the service sector, with its workforce willing to travel for work and who see themselves as ‘middle class’, and do not realise their state of wage slavery.

    However, the forces of capital have the upper hand, despite the shocking examples of capitalist moral bankruptcy exhibited over the past few years. This is due to the lack of a powerful critique from the left, where fragmentation is still a massive issue.

    I do remain hopeful that sooner or later an apparatus for expression of class consciousness comes about which wields the kind of influence seen in the 70s and 80s, and challenges capitalism’s inherent inequalities. The protests over the Iraq invasion showed that if prodded enough, people can be mobilised (ignoring for now the lack of further progress).

    Boyo (comments 11 & 12) does raise further important issues, namely liberal focus on identity politics rather than broader class struggle, its bourgeois nature and belief in the myth of a ‘fair’ free market.

  18. Shamit — on 22nd June, 2010 at 12:02 am  

    Interesting article. Good points.

    Campaigning alone does not bring change – change comes through legislative power. Yes campaigning can play a key role but it takes a government to drive through coherent changes. And the last government had some major successes and that happened because the left elected a credible government.

    Vast majority of the electorate do not view politics with partisan perspectives but more along the lines of what works.

    If we walk along Boyo’s lines where ideology tries to trump the laws of nature – all you do is alienate people.

    A lot of people would consider themselves middle class because they have professional jobs not because the money they earn. But they tend to shy away from the traditional lefty ideology because they are aspirational too and many of them believe one of these days they are going to make it.

    Fighting that aspiration is not only politically stupid but detrimental for the country as a whole – a broad left should bring those groups back into the fold.

    left should try to build as broad a base as possible – Blair did that – and right now Cameron is making his church as broad as possible and claiming serious chunks of centre left.

    And left should focus on what works – how can we best deliver as much equity as possible in opportunities – but let us not try to penalise parents who work harder to provide more opportunities for their children -

  19. Shamit — on 22nd June, 2010 at 12:11 am  

    “I do remain hopeful that sooner or later an apparatus for expression of class consciousness comes about which wields the kind of influence seen in the 70s and 80s, and challenges capitalism’s inherent inequalities.”

    Those days people bought the class argument and this inherent inequalities analysis.

    Now, they don’t. They all want the designer clothes and want to have a good life – and while some may find quality of life in 70s and 80s wonderful – most of the country did not.

    How well do you remember Prime Minister Neil Kinnock? Because the party could not be trusted – Kinnock could not become PM.

    I guess the left has a choice – whether sit in the sidelines and almost move back to political oblivion (1979 – 1997) or come back with themes & policies that appeal to the compassionate as well as the aspirational sides of the voters.

    Focus on what works – and create a broader appeal not lurch to the left that does not deliver in today’s world where complexities and pace of change cannot be tackled by ideological dogma. Ideals blended with pragmatism with a view to benefit society as a whole should drive our thinking not think about the glorious 70s and 80s -it was not glorious by any means.

  20. Shuggy — on 22nd June, 2010 at 12:12 am  

    Hmmm, quite liked the thing you link but reckon the left’s historical illiberal streak has a more straightforward origin: at least since the Bolshevik Revolution there has been a division between those who insist on the primacy of liberal democracy and those who have concluded that a commitment to this is not necessarily consistent with the pursuit of greater economic equality. Arguably the tragedy of Blair and New Labour was that they combined illiberalism with this whole business of being – what was the form of words? – ‘entirely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’ or something?

  21. MyCrippledEagle — on 22nd June, 2010 at 9:45 pm  

    Shamit, it’s only my opinion, but I feel you’ve completely missed the boat with regards what it means to be left-wing. And I don’t mean ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’.

    New Labour was not a ‘credible’ left-wing government – their new policies are Tory-lite, with higher taxation and public spending, but the same basic ideology, ie that the pursuit of personal wealth is inherently a good thing. You refer to this as ‘aspiration’, but I prefer to call it greed. It’s all very nice to imagine a world where everyone everywhere gets richer, but the reality is that this does not happen within a capitalist system.

    Such aspirational (or greedy) behaviour is not human nature, but a product of a system which values above all the accumulation of personal wealth. Any attempts to temper this without constructing a contrasting narrative are a halfway house and, perhaps more importantly, ultimately doomed to fail.

    I never claimed that the 70s and 80s were glorious, just that back then there was a real sense of class consciousness which has been lost. There is an appetite for socialist policy from voters, but the lack of a unified narrative from the left, so often engaged in navel-gazing and infighting, has allowed the far right to occupy the power vacuum with its rhetoric about immigrants.

    When the BNP and other right-wing parties are fought properly on the ground, as seen in the council elections earlier in the year (I refer to the Hope Not Hate campaign), voters will come out and vote for genuine left-wing policies at election time. The problem is overcoming the right wing’s monopoly on the press and other forms of control.

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