Cross-posted from Obliged to Offend
By James Bloodworth
Ever since the inception of New Labour, the left in Britain has been characterised by timidity when faced with an electorate ready to embrace change. The reluctance to break with a right-wing status quo has not been confined solely to the British labour movement either, but has become a commonplace right across the contemporary European left. This is at least partly why on the back of the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s the left is in the doldrums almost everywhere, despite the fact that it was the failure of right-wing orthodoxy that got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.
The timidity of the left in espousing its principles has led to a widespread belief that all we do is oppose things, rather than present an alternative. Often, when someone of the left appears in the media, no-content progressivism fills the space where policy proposal might be, warm-sounding buzzwords standing in for anything that might possibly upset a vested interest or two.
Is this because, as Peter Mandelson once put it, we are “all Thatcherites now”? I don’t think so somehow. The super-rich lording it over those of us who have nothing to sell but our labour has not become palatable simply because a perma-tanned cliché around the ex-Prime Minister said it had – coincidently, at about the time their own bank balances began to disappear off into the stratosphere.
People’s lives are today more than ever dictated by forces completely outside of their control. There is widespread acknowledgment that we are being ripped-off by banks, transport companies, the energy industry, and a political class which parrots whatever it thinks a handful of voters in marginal constituencies wants to hear. If there was ever a time to let go of the timidity that has characterised the movement for so long and to start making a few basic demands, it’s now; and in this vein I’ve compiled a short list of five practical things the left should start arguing for right away.
The list is by no means exhaustive, and I welcome further contributions. It has also been written based on where we are politically now, rather than where many of us would no doubt like us to be.
1. Higher taxes for the rich
Perhaps the most basic demand but one the left is far too hesitant to make. While combatting tax evasion and introducing “Robin Hood” taxes are all well and good, what about the white elephant in the room: making the rich pay more tax? I wholeheartedly support attempts to make the rich pay what they already owe; but I also want to close the gap between the rich and poor, as you probably also do, if like me you believe gross inequality leads to a dysfunctional society.
2. The public release of official records showing the annual income of every British taxpayer who earns over £100,000 a year
They do it in Sweden, and there is as yet no sign of George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia. As well as safeguarding transparency, this would also force employers and CEOs to justify their exorbitant wage packets to their employees. The Chief Executive of Tesco was paid £5 million in 2005. In the same year the average Tesco employee was paid £12,713. Is it credible to assert that the Chief Executive is 430 times more industrious and productive than the average Tesco employee? Let’s hear that argument, then.
3. The right to recall MPs who break manifesto pledges
How can something be called democracy in any way, shape or form when a person has little idea of what they are voting for? While it might be reasonable to grant politicians a degree of leeway based on the practicalities of government, it should be possible to recall any MP elected on a platform which they subsequently dump once in government. The prospect of a ministerial car and a pat on the back from a Lord should no longer be allowed to turn our politicians into pledge-breakers.
Not unrelated to this, but touching on a much bigger subject, one of the first tasks of a modern socialist movement should be to redefine the word “democracy” beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism. By that I do not mean less democracy, but more, much more.
4. Return the utilities to public ownership
The market engenders freedom, so it is said, and nowhere is this more apparent than the utilities, where consumers are “free” to pay as much as companies require them to for services they cannot do without. The alternative (there is always an alternative, because champions of the market despise coercion) is the freedom to go and live in a cardboard box in the forest.
Most people are angry about the price of electricity, gas and train fares, but the left does not at present make the connection in the public mind between huge price rises and the collections of sports cars the bosses of the utilities have in their driveways. None of us can do without these things, so how about we start to run them for the benefit of all of us, rather than a tiny elite.
It might also be useful if we let go of a fear of being labelled “left-wing”, and instead start making David Cameron afraid that his toleration of this racket will leave him out in the political cold.
5. Tackle the exploitative buy-to-let housing market
Again this relates to a modern distortion of the notion of freedom. We all need somewhere to live, but today the freedom to make a large amount of money out of this need seems to trump the need itself. As a first step, adequate social housing should be built with controlled and sensible rents which undercut the private sector. This in itself would bring down the price of rent substantially.
Most people below the age of about 30 will never own property, let alone a “portfolio” to exploit. It’s time the left spoke up for these people, rather than parasitic accumulators masquerading as respectable businesspeople.