Yesterday we launched a new project at Demos called Open Left, which aims to renew the thinking and ideas of the Left. We want it to be an open conversation so please do take part.
Britain is a fundamentally better place than it was in 1997 and Labour has lots to be proud of over the last 12 years. But with less than a year until the next election it’s important that we step back and reassess what we stand for and what sort of society we want Britain to be at the start of the 21st century.
If we’re honest, we sometimes haven’t been confident enough to be explicit about our goals and to argue for them passionately in public. And at times all parts of the family of the Left has been guilty of highlighting areas of difference rather than focusing on the many things we hold in common. It’s also right that we update our policy thinking for today’s world.
This is why we’re starting Open Left by going back to first principles and asking what it means to be on the Left today. You can read the views of a number of high profile left wing figures, including Jon Cruddas, Billy Bragg, Polly Toynbee and Peter Hyman, at www.openleft.co.uk. We’ll be collecting all the answers together to inform the direction of the project, so we’d love you to come to the site and give your own perspective.
My own view is that there are three central distinctions between Left and Right. First, the Right tolerates inequalities that the Left hates. I’m on the Left because I worry about inequalities of capability – some people have it very easy in our society, others far too hard. The goal of policy should be to correct these inequalities in power. This is partly but not only about redistribution of income.
Second, I believe that governments succeed more often than they fail. People on the Right are more sceptical of government’s effectiveness. The Right also worry that more government crowds out society, whereas we think that government helps communities be more active and individuals more powerful.
Third, I’m utopian. People on the Left tend to have a vision of what society could be like, and believe it’s the role of democracy to try to make that a reality. People on the Right are more likely to value the status quo, believing it represents the tested wisdom of previous generations.
I want Britain to be an open society, where people are free to choose their way of life, and given an equal capacity to achieve it. But simply leaving individuals alone or allowing them to act without impediment will not be enough. That leaves only the powerful with freedom and the risk that their power becomes multiplied at the expense of the powerless. Real freedom and power for everyone requires collective action and institutions – to challenge unfair distributions of power, wealth, chances, knowledge and choices. And this action needs to be expressed and legitimised through an effective democracy.
I essentially believe that the Left has the right goals, but too often had the wrong method. We let ourselves think that government worked best when it was publicly-owned and centrally-run. My experience is that government normally works better when the individual has the power, whether to choose between parties in elections, or between providers in public services. The world is too complicated for most of its problems to be solved from the centre.
So, I would be in favour of having profit-making companies running state schools – as long as it increased equality of capability. But I worry about parents having to pretend to be religious to get their child in to a good faith school – because it means treating children unequally according to their parents’ religion.
What makes me most angry about Britain today is that some children’s chances in life are restricted by their circumstances of birth. That’s why I would say the change that would do most to transform our society for the better would be ending child poverty and every child being well taught.
When I consider the future of the British Left I think we should take inspiration from the Swedish social democrats. They combined pragmatism and idealism over a long period to shift the political reality in their country, entrenching social democracy as both morally right and electorally irreversible.
This is what I think, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’ll be online between 11am and noon this morning to respond to your comments in a live webchat – and I really hope you will go to www.openleft.co.uk and tell us what being on the Left means to you.
James Purnell MP is Director of Open Left.