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Mick Hume

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 environment.

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 needy.

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 together.

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 of people.

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 ideas.

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

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