Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
In 1963 Harold Wilson, then leader of the British Labour Party, made a famous speech where he contrasted the then governing Tories with Labour. He painted the government as a party of the past, and described a future Labour government shaping Britain in the “white heat” of a scientific and technological revolution. Wilson would later write about replacing the cloth cap with the laboratory coat as the uniform of the British working class.
As with many things about Harold Wilson, the hyperbole struggled to match the reality of him in government. But what was interesting was the fact that Labour, as in 1945, was the party of new ideas. The left stood for change, the right the party of the rotten status quo. Across Europe, with the SPD in Germany in the 1960s, or Mitterand’s election to the French presidency in 1981, the left were the parties of progress.
What’s striking today is how, from Ireland through the UK to France and elsewhere, the left are now the party of resistance to logical change.
Consider the attitude across Europe of left parties to raising the retirement age. Almost universally there is opposition, early retirement now seen as a totem that must be protected. This despite the fact that the current retirement band, from 50 to 65, takes no account of the increase in life expectancy. It’s not impossible now for someone who takes early retirement at 50 to live beyond 100 and therefore have spent most of their life retired.
That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons for early retirement. Brickies, firefighters and miners all lead working lives which could leave them physically in rag order in a way many office workers will never be. There have to be exceptions. But what’s striking is the refusal of many on the left to confront the reality. That being 65 now is not the same as being 65 in our grandfathers’ time.
Many of the parties of the left, who actively demand more public spending, then refuse to support pension reform which is needed to generate the very revenue required to fund the spending they call for.
It’s almost impossible to find a party of the left in Europe that has any new ideas about how to manage change. Instead, opposition to free trade, Uber and flexible employment laws is in danger of becoming the standard response, not because they think this will make things better but because they literally have no other ideas.
The left has now become the party of the blacksmith, the gas-lamp lighter, the town crier and the guy who walks in front of cars with a red flag.
What’s most depressing is that now more than ever we need a strong left. Technological change is about to bring a huge challenge to the amount of adequately paid work available compared to the pool of jobseekers. Maybe public works programmes, or a universal basic income will be necessary. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like the left, paralysed by a dirth of new ideas and a Corbynist paranoia of betrayal towards those who do confront the old sacred cows isn’t up to it.
The refusal of the left to consider the inconsiderable could end up strangling the left through simple atrophy. In the UK and France the traditional left is running on the usual “free stuff” platforms and still losing elections. Because they’re just not credible.
Take the minimum wage. It’s not inconceivable that if a country were to introduce a universal basic income, it could make sense to then abolish the minimum wage to allow for the creation of the flexible “gig economy” type jobs that would top up UBI. But can anyone imagine the current left even countenancing that on principle? Even if the evidence emerged that it created more opportunities in a rapidly-automating economy with a labour surplus? To even consider it would lead to denunciations of being a political Judas.
The problem with the European left is that it has gone from being a dynamic flexible force for change into a rigid defender of status quos and fetishes. It does not see the modern world and globalisation as a force to be harnessed and managed but something to be feared and hidden from, behind borders and tariff barriers. Even though these are very old ideas that barely worked in their day and simply don’t apply in an age where many products have no actual physical form.
There has got to be something learned from the fact that the left have actually gone backwards during the greatest crisis of capitalism in living history.
Having said that, there is a model for the modern left. Consider that the welfare state in both Ireland and Canada was not built as much by the left as the pragmatic centre and centre-right. Despite hysterical finger-pointing by the left, Theresa May, who is not seen as an extremist outside of Corbynista Labour, has that potential too. To make the Tories the British Fianna Fail, a party that trims and bends between aspiration on one side and support for social welfare on the other.
Outrageous to suggest that? Perhaps.
But remember: it’s the voters who decide where the mainstream is.