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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Filed in: Civil liberties,Party politics