The left and principles vs pragmatism


by Sunny
25th July, 2010 at 10:39 am    

In a recent blog post, which tried to summarise a long discussion we’ve been having about the socialist left, Madam Miaow said:

For Sunny it’s “discipline” and “pragmatism” that excuse Ed [Miliband]. He’ll be evoking the spirit of realpolitik, next. For others it’s about principle and the will to fight for those with no power. You takes your choice.

Unfortunately, she didn’t properly reply to my earlier post asking, how should lefties deal with party loyalty and ‘collective responsibility’?, except by sighing, so I’ll work with the above quote.

It’s a false dichotomy. The idea that politics is about principles vs pragmatism isn’t politics – it is political idealism. There is always a middle-ground that many socialists and many centrists (within the Labour party) don’t really want to acknowledge.

Let’s say that in the last government Gordon Brown decided to give John McDonnell a position in government to advance trade union rights. His job would be to look at what legislation was needed to strengthen TUs and how best to implement that. Just assume that GB actually wanted this to happen. John has a choice: he could take the job and concentrate on improving TU laws, or he could say that he was still pissed off over the Iraq war and therefore resigned from govt a few weeks into his job. Did he make the right choice by resigning? Madam Miaow may think so, but the Trade Unions have lost out by having a strong advocate for them in government. And the government’s policy on Iraq doesn’t really change (which was to pull out soon anyway). I would have preferred if he took the job. Does that make me a sellout?

This principle vs pragmatism dichotomy is false for many reasons. It doesn’t take into account changing political situations, nor that sometimes a little progress is better than no progress at all. Obama didn’t have the votes to pass healthcare with a public option. So should he have rejected the deal entirely even though he had gone furthest than any Democrat on the issue?

Just look at what’s going on within the Tories. Iain Duncan Smith spoke of welfare reform and Liam Fox spoke of strong defence before the entered parliament. Both key Tory policies. But the prevailing Tory view now is that spending cuts have to be drastic. That has meant both heavy hitters have had to compromise quite significantly. Even the Tories have had to compromise strong defence for spending cuts – even Ronald Reagan wasn’t that draconian.

My point is that there is a middle-ground. There has to be a middle ground otherwise you’d get nothing done at all. And unfortunately, the history of the socialist left within the Labour party over the last two-three decades has not been that of achievement. In fact it’s been riven by factionalism and infighting precisely because many have decided that the choice was between principles and compromise rather than a mixture of the two.

Now. Socialists argue that they’ve compromised in the past and it’s not worked (Tony Blair et al). I think there’s two things going on here. Firstly, attitudes on economic issues have shifted and unless the Labour party shifted along it would have stayed out of power. The public, for example, would not take seriously any party that advocated nationalisation of BT, British Gas, British Airways (the railways, yes), and the number of people who believe in ‘equality’ over ‘fairness’ has fallen a lot (see the Fabian / Rowntree research).

Secondly, the left has utterly failed to organise, intellectualise and move forward strategically within the Labour party. That could be because of: dearth of new talent; failure to organise on the ground and shift debates within the party; argue for unpopular policies (see first point) that de-legitimised other stances). This is not dissimilar to the Obama problem – he has failed as much as the progressive movement has in building a movement that would keep Democrats on their toes rather than letting the Tea Party movement take over the agenda.

The problem is that the shock from Tony Blair has made many socialists unwilling to go down that route again. But the net result is that the party loses left-wing voices and becomes even more right-wing.

I’ll end with a question for Madam Miaow, Harpymarx and Dave Semple: which living politician do you admire (not within the Campaign Group) who has sometimes compromised their principles but you accept is on the same side as you and would support?


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  1. sunny hundal

    Blog post:: The left and principles vs pragmatism http://bit.ly/bF4orm


  2. Sophia R. Matheson

    Pickled Politics » The left and principles vs pragmatism: The idea that politics is about principles vs pragmatism… http://bit.ly/aYfzP2


  3. Steve Akehurst

    RT @sunny_hundal: Blog post:: The left and principles vs pragmatism http://bit.ly/bF4orm < Excellent as always


  4. Denise Taylor

    Pickled Politics » The left and principles vs pragmatism: The idea that politics is about principles vs pragmatism… http://bit.ly/aYfzP2


  5. Lauolefiso Stibbie

    Pickled Politics » The left and principles vs pragmatism http://bit.ly/deQJzk


  6. Simon

    Pickled Politics » The left and principles vs pragmatism http://bit.ly/apMe87


  7. Marcel Duda

    Pickled <b>Politics</b> » The left and principles vs pragmatism http://goo.gl/fb/hqlcq


  8. sunny hundal

    @obotheclown you have so much to learn… http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/9335




  1. Madam Miaow — on 25th July, 2010 at 10:51 am  

    Sigh! redux.

    Jeremy Corbyn remains my most admired politician in the UK. Aung San Suu Kyi internationally.

    At the moment, to answer your question, Diane Abbott gets my support despite compromise, but I’d expect the logic of her politics to eventually take her down the same route as the other contenders, only slower.

  2. HarpyMarx — on 25th July, 2010 at 1:09 pm  

    But it is what Madam Miaow argues and an issue of principle.

    Well Sunny, I am stuck as all the MPs I sorta kinda admire are in the Campaign Group. So to be honest at this point in time I can’t think of any politicians who has principles. Btw: there is compromise and there’s sell-out and capitulation. But then I am a unreconstructed Trot.

    “Secondly, the left has utterly failed to organise, intellectualise and move forward strategically within the Labour party. ”

    So show us the way then Sunny and join and tell us Labour lefties where we are going wrong…

    And I think I will pen some thoughts on your post re ‘party loyalty and collective responsibility’ … Also this issue of ‘collective cabinet responsibility’… which mealy-mouthed Ed the younger used as an excuse for not publicly going against the Third Runway (and which he opposed on a personal level) it could have been possible for ministers to take a collective stance on an issue they opposed by resigning. If you really oppose something a la Robin Cook then why not grow a backbone and resign from the cabinet.

    If Ed M. had done this on, say, the Third Runway then I would have considered someone with principle if he had defied collective cabinet responsibility (or should that be irresponsibility).

    Anyway Sunny, I will reply fully some time later as I think you use false arguments.

  3. Sunny — on 25th July, 2010 at 2:18 pm  

    Jeremy Corbyn remains my most admired politician in the UK. Aung San Suu Kyi internationally.

    Those are very easy choices to make Madam Miaow. And besides, Aung San Suu Kyi works in a completely different situation than ours, if you are trying to compare. There isn’t much space for compromise in her position when she’s actively trying to bring down the dictatorship.

    Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott etc are in the Campaign group (which I asked you to exclude) and you already admit that you would probably start thinking of the latter as a betrayer of principles soon. I’m not sure how that’s pluralist, or answers my question.

    Harpymark
    Btw: there is compromise and there’s sell-out and capitulation.

    Ok, how about some real world examples of difference between the two?

    Also this issue of ‘collective cabinet responsibility’… which mealy-mouthed Ed the younger used as an excuse for not publicly going against the Third Runway

    I don’t think that’s mealy-mouthed Louise. It’s a fact of life. He could have resigned, but the Third Runway was dead anyway because the Tories said they were against it, and I would have preferred he stay and fight the corner on other issues (my John McDonnell example is relevant here).

    Take my John McDonnell example – would you rather he have resigned or improve TU rights?

  4. Madam Miaow — on 25th July, 2010 at 3:33 pm  

    Well, there’s me told.

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re demanding, Sunny. I’m offering those two as politicians I admire and had no idea they might be excluded on the grounds of being “very easy choices”. Very easy choices because they put principle before pragmatism, mayhap?

    Like a large number of voters, I’m hard pressed to think of others who I’d give the time of day. Bob Marshall Andrews for his stand on Iraq? Peter Kilfoyle? I’m sure there’s a slew of other I don’t know about but I doubt they’ll ever get a look-in.

    Re Miliband Minor, I never said he should have resigned — although that would have stood in his favour now. But he should have spoken out before he started hustling for votes.

  5. Refresh — on 25th July, 2010 at 4:03 pm  

    I back the Campaign Group. The others are mealy mouthed, and sticking around to advance your own little patch becomes irrelevant if your post is also there to lock you in. Not just lock you in but also water down, disorient and demoralise your supporters, and you are the fig-leaf.

    Sunny, in your example John Prescott acted to keep the TU onside. That was his role. Didn’t do anything for them but kept them onside nevertheless.

  6. Sunny — on 26th July, 2010 at 2:17 am  

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re demanding, Sunny.

    I’m simply asking whether there is a middle ground for you between principles and pragmatism, with some examples.

    But he should have spoken out before he started hustling for votes.

    when? The labour leadership contest started pretty much straight after the election. If you don’t agree with the Collective Cabinet Responsibility doctrine – fine, but it exists and it silences dissent within the cabinet as a matter of constitutional requirement. You can’t just ignore it.

  7. HarpyMarx — on 26th July, 2010 at 8:04 am  
  8. Madam Miaow — on 26th July, 2010 at 9:41 am  

    When? As I’ve already written in my piece, at least by the time of Chilcot. Speak your beliefs, or if the CCR gags you, then resign. That’s if you really feel strongly about issues.

    Pragmatism has to have an aim, an objective. What was Ed’s?

    This is all marketing.

    Harpy’s piece is very good.

  9. Sunny — on 26th July, 2010 at 2:45 pm  

    Speak your beliefs, or if the CCR gags you, then resign

    So basically he should have resigned even if his brief had nothing to do with Iraq and that would have had no impact whatsoever on policy.

    I’m assuming that if John McDonnell had been offered a position to improve trade union laws you would have asked him to resign too?

    Pragmatism has to have an aim, an objective. What was Ed’s?

    To work on the environmental brief?

  10. Ean Marcel — on 26th July, 2010 at 2:50 pm  

    Can i write an article for your blog? You can write one for mine and include a link to your site.

  11. HarpyMarx — on 26th July, 2010 at 7:02 pm  

    Thanks Madam Miaow.

    “I’m assuming that if John McDonnell had been offered a position to improve trade union laws you would have asked him to resign too?”

    Sunny why do you constantly come up with scenarios that are fictional, they wouldn’t happen in reality, what if, what if…..

  12. Madam Miaow — on 26th July, 2010 at 8:32 pm  

    The slipperiness of this line of argument is what puts so many people off politics. Those of us who have been capable of making ethical and moral decisions and taking the consequences have no respect for those who don’t.

  13. Madam Miaow — on 26th July, 2010 at 11:34 pm  

    Principles vs pragmatism. Julian Assange of Wikileaks, one of the bravest people on the planet right now. War crimes in Afghanistan. http://bit.ly/9KNfCT

  14. Sunny — on 26th July, 2010 at 11:58 pm  

    Sunny why do you constantly come up with scenarios that are fictional, they wouldn’t happen in reality, what if, what if…..

    It’s a relevant point because I’d like to know how you’d deal with that contradiction in theory.

  15. Shamit — on 27th July, 2010 at 12:09 pm  

    Sunny’s article here makes sense – and is spot on.

    Saying that it surprises me that his preferred candidate in Ed Miliband in the leadership race – who is doing his best to take the middle ground between his brother and Ed Balls.

    The Miliband Senior, is not the preacher the choir chorus of left wing intellectuals (including Sunny wants) but his speeches and policies do talk about at least something new. Even John Cruddas thought so. Funnily, he is hated by the “puritan left” because he was the annointed successor of Tony Blair the most successful labour politician in history. He is the one politician running for labour leadership who is not against aspiration – maybe Burnham is not too.

    The country at large seeks a politician who is not dogmatic or too ideological to lead it – and the labour party and the strong left within it fails to see.

    They fail to see that one of Tony Blair’s biggest success was that the next Conservative PM throughout his election campaign talked about social justice and now Big Society.

    The darling of the unions, and one who says people should not be too rich might play well in the labour blog rolls and the unions – has anyone checked the salaries of the top unions btw – one who supports the graduate tax – another labour party populism that Miliband senior refused to support.

    The whole argument for Ed Miliband’s case for leadership is that the country would hate the coalition government by the time next election comes around and we need a left leader to set us right.

    And association with Brown might be a good thing in the labour party – to the electorate its simply bad news.

    We all can read the polls – yes the honeymoon is over – but the Conservatives still poll at over 44% and electing Miliband junior would ensure the centre belongs to Cameron. Now, that would be good news for Conservatives.

    Voters like me would find it hard to object to the fairness argument made by David Miliband and would have to think twice to vote again for the Tories. I voted for Tony Blair three times and so did many others who switched to Tories because of Gordon Brown and his cronies and now the labour party wants to elect Ed Miliband.

    Who by the way has never taken a decision and is mostly known for telling people what they want to hear. Nothing new -

    David Miliband wrote three election winning manifestos and his brother wrote one – and he now disowns it because he failed.

    ********************************

    If the labour party and the left within it is pragmatic they would want a PM in waiting. If they want an opposition leader only, they should go for Balls.

    The usual latte drinking, ego stroking groupthink within well known lefties makes Ed miliband the best choice for leader however, the voters differ as shows the polls.

    And without power there is no good the labour party can do – so do yo want power or want oblivion in the opposition benches.

    Whether the party likes it or not it needs another Tony Blair – ie someone that can attract a wider base than the 250 odd seats it got this time. And Ed miliband is not the man.

  16. Shamit Ghosh — on 27th July, 2010 at 12:28 pm  

    I was just told by a trusted source that Mr. Ed Miliband still believes that the last manifesto was good – and it should have been more left wing to win votes.

    So, what is offering these very high paid union barons to win their support? Balls not getting GMB support is very wierd –

    I hope the union members are pragmatic than their half a million pound leaders who claim to be the real left and this lot criticises Blair. hmmm.

    Pragmatism went out of the labour party the day TB left office – and Lib Dems despite all the cacaphony in the media were always thought to be loonies and it showed on election day.

    So where do centre left voters land up – voting for Cameron who at least has some convictions and understands aspirations.

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