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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