A few home truths
The post-election debate on the British left has been riddled with confusion
and self-delusion. If we are to work out how to deal with the problems of
the fourth Tory term, there are a few things we need to clear up.
A first confusion in the debate is the idea that the Labour Party lost because
voters were too greedy to support its social policies, and voted for Tory
tax cuts out of selfishness. One left-wing Labour MP caught the spirit of
the emerging consensus by calling for Labour to develop an alternative to
the Tories 'especially on the greed factor'.
What do they mean by 'greed'? It conjures up images of satiated fat cats
who still want more for the sake of it. No doubt that is a true enough picture
of some top Tory supporters. But these few should not be confused with the
millions of working class people who voted Conservative again on 9 April.
The majority of those Tory voters adjudged to be greedy are far from satiated.
They are economically insecure people, worried about their jobs, mortgages
and other debts. They want a better, more prosperous future for themselves
and their families. And although many are bitter about the slump, they decided
that the Tories were a better bet than Labour to create a more stable economic
Labour now dismisses the decision to vote Tory as a symptom of greed. But
whatever we might think of the decision itself, it was usually informed
by an entirely legitimate aspiration-the ambition of working class people
to raise their living standards. That is the same aspiration which, in a
different context, has recently prompted German workers to join big strikes
for higher pay. Like British trade unionists fighting for decent wages in
the past, those strikers have been lambasted by the right-wing government,
employers and media-for being 'greedy'.
The left's arguments about 'the greed factor' distract attention from the
important point. The fact is that people did not want what Labour was offering.
The problem begins with Labour Party policy, not with the selfish attitudes
of the public.
And what was it that Labour was offering? Here we come to another post-
electoral confusion. The notion that people voted Tory out of selfishness
suggests that Labour's principle of 'collectivism' was rejected in favour
of Tory individualism. From this, many have concluded that the left needs
to move further to the centre to fit in with the conservative, individualistic
mood of the times.
But Labour did not offer voters an alternative to individualism. Its manifesto
had nothing to do with truly collective politics, no mention of people organising
together to solve the problems that confront us all. Instead, Labour tried
to compete with the Tories in appealing to the electorate as individuals.
This was why its spokesmen got bogged down in the endless argument about
how personal taxation policy would affect each man, woman and family.
The Tory promise of lower taxes in a direct appeal to the hard-up individual
wallet. In response, the Labour Party insisted that most families would
be better off under its budget. It also asked the same individuals to be
charitable, and make some small personal sacrifice fund services for the
To many people it must have seem that they were being asked to choose between
their own individual well-being and that of somebody else. The Tories were
always likely to win such a contest - especially in this insecure economic
climate. A lot of people would opt for the promise of a few more pounds
in the pockets, rather than the prospect of paying more to finance the sort
of lousy state services which they have come to detest Those who want to
create an effective opposition movement today have got to learn the lessons
of these election debates.
There is clearly no point trying to compete with the Tories in appealing
to naked individual self-interest. But we also need to get right away from
Labour's idea of charitable socialism, which gives the impression that left-wing
politics is about social workers and do-gooders looking after the weak.
This was the patronising philosophy summed up by Glenda Jackson after her
election as a Labour MP, when she declared that she was going to Westminster
to care for the poor and needy. That sort of sanctimonious talk might go
down well with the chattering classes of Jackson's Hampstead and Highgate
constituency, who can afford to feel charitable. But it has little appeal
to those aspiring to improve their own lot.
The alternative we need to develop is one which can relate to people's aspirations
for a better life-the very same sentiments which the left now condemns as
'greed'. Far from being a problem, that basic aspiration for self-improvement
is the key to changing the way society is run. What is required is to channel
this ambition in an anti-capitalist direction, by demonstrating the inability
of a system based upon private profit to fulfil its promise of a decent
life for the vast majority.
So where will the opposition to the Tories come from? That is the other
great confusion clouding the post-election debate. Many commentators from
the old left have adopted a statistical approach to the issue. Starting
from the fact that the Conservatives secured only 42 per cent of the vote,
they have noticed that most people did not vote for John Major. They therefore
conclude that there exists an 'anti-Tory majority' in British society, just
waiting to take over. Prominent left pundits agree with Paddy Ashdown that
Labour and the Liberal Democrats should co-operate in bringing that majority
The trouble with statistics, however, is that they can prove anything. For
example, the government could plausibly argue that, since the Labour Party
secured just 35 per cent of the vote, there is a much stronger 'anti-Labour
majority' than anti-Tory.
Those employing the statistical approach are trying to discover a ready-made
mass opposition movement, a majority that is already there to be mobilised.
What matters, however, is politics rather than statistics. The important
question is not 'is there an anti-Tory majority on paper?', but 'what does
the Labour-Lib Dem "majority" stand for in society?'.
Judging by the two parties' election programmes, the answer is that it stands
for much the same as the Major government. On all of the big issues today,
there is less difference between the three parties than ever before. In
which case, why should one combination be any better than another?
The Liberal Democrats express this problem acutely. On an issue like education,
they may favour slightly more public spending than the Labour Party. Yet
they also pride themselves on being more committed to free enterprise than
the Tories. It is hard to see what would be gained by collaborating with
such a staunchly pro-capitalist party in order to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives.
In other words, even if the paper anti-Tory majority one, could be magically
made into a political reality, it would bring no benefits to the majority
In the fourth Tory term, the politics of effective opposition cannot be
based on mobilising what is already there; they will have to be based upon
what we can create from scratch. The first step is to forget about statistic
juggling, and accept that there is no real majority for any political alternative
today. Let's also accept that trying to find a short-cut to such a majority,
by peddling the bland politics of the lowest common denominator, is worse
than useless. After all, that was how the opposition parties got themselves
into this mess in the first place.
The cold fact is that only a small minority is prepared to give active support
to the project of changing society. Which is why a magazine like Living
Marxism is not written for everybody; it is designed to identify that minority.
If our opponents think this elitist, so be it. Our minority is not a deliberately
exclusive one, like the British establishment. It is open to absolutely
anybody who wants to revolutionise the way the world is run. In practice,
however, we know that will mean the self-selecting minority of people who
are prepared to embrace politics which the majority is not yet ready for.
But how can we galvanise that minority in conditions where many on the left
are so downcast after Labour's defeat? And how can such a minority start
to make a worthwhile political impact? The secret lies in the sphere of
The election campaign was the perfect illustration of how important ideas
are in politics. The major parties had plenty of money and huge publicity
machines. But since none of them had a single inspiring idea or vision to
put across, none of them could galvanise a dynamic base of support.
By contrast, ideas are all that Living Marxism has. The magazine's aim is
to develop a new generation of anti-capitalist ideas which, by inspiring
a minority, can make a disproportionate impact against the colourless background
of contemporary politics.
If you want to play a part in developing those ideas, there are several
opportunities ahead. You can come to the Prospects for Change weekend of
debate in June (see page 32), and the week-long Towards 2000 event in July
(see centre pages). And you can join a local Living Marxism readers group.
Of course, if you think our aims are unrealistic, there is an alternative;
you could stay home and wait for 'the anti-Tory majority' to defeat 'the
greed factor' in the 1997 election.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992