Dead Men Left

Friday, March 18, 2005

John B from splendid blog Shot By Both Sides, responding to my snarls about the Liberal Democrats, suggests that we should refer to the Lib Dem Vince Cable-Mark Oaten axis of evil as "left-wing free-marketeers".

"Left-wing free-marketeers"?

Whilst I don't hold John personally responsible for George Bush's election victory - that honour belongs to Ian "Operation Clark County" Katz - this quip does neatly summarise how the US left manage to stuff up the elections so badly.

Without even the pretence of challenging the free market, the mainstream left, particularly in its "left-liberal" guise, has taken its arguments entirely into the sphere of culture. Brown's greatest claim is that he has created "stability" in the British economy for the last eight years; this is self-aggrandising, of course - Black Wednesday had more to do with it - but it also ignores the underlying political question of whose stability, from which other practical questions emerge: why it is that inequalities have widened so much under New Labour, or how working hours could have increased, and so on. Political arguments over the economy are replaced by managerial decisions, buttressed on occasion by (untested) claims as to the all-conquering powers of globalisation and financial markets.

The soft left has been forced, by necessity, onto the shaky terrain of "culture". In November 2004, this was fatal: Bush's team skilfully turned the cultural arguments against the Democrats, even as the scale of their economic mismanagement became all too obvious. Working-class Americans were persuaded to vote against their bottom-line economic interests by dubious cultural arguments.

Conversely, when we have in the UK a small scion of the political class wanting to do broadly the same economics as Bush, but not seriously questioning the long-established and hard-won tolerant political consensus over gay rights, women's rights, or anti-racism, they get labelled "left-wing free-marketeers".

There is no "left-wing" edition of free market. To support unrestrained market forces, as the Liberal Democrats unquestionably do, is to support a reactionary economic policy. What's more, it's to concede the most critical grounds that we have, the point at which all the other claims about not being racist or sexist or whatever can be tied together: an appreciation of the economy as a uniquely contested zone has enabled the left in the past to create solid blocks of support from the different oppressed groups in society. It did so by talking about class, and how class affected economic outcomes, and what it could do to offer an alternative.

This is Paul Foot's major theme in The Vote. The left can't win anything unless it starts to at least talk about economics.