John Harris

Journalist & Author

The world needs a new Marx, but it keeps creating Malcolm Gladwells | John Harris

The outlook is bleak for many British people. If Labour is to have any relevance, it needs some fresh thinking

If you’re old enough to remember the Thatcher years, you may have an answer to this question, but it’s still worth asking: in living memory, have thousands of us on the left ever felt so bleak? Every day, I seem to have at least one conversation that ends with sighing expressions of fatalism about where Britain is headed, and how disorganised any opposition seems to be. Cameron is supposedly triumphant, and it certainly feels like it: even if the Tories failed to win the last election and now see some of their most treasured plans tumbling into disrepute, it’s the right that is setting the terms of the argument.

Across Europe, the crisis of social democracy continues apace: now Portugal is added to the list of countries where the key effect of a supposed crisis of capitalism has been a thumping defeat for the centre-left. And what have we got even to keep us warm? In the 1980s, there was at least a fizzing counterculture of dissent, protest and alternative ideas. No longer: it’s surely some token of these blighted times that even the great anti-cuts march – remember that? — increasingly feels like one of those Diana-esque spasms, fated to create a weekend’s noise, and then evaporate.

Hats off to Maurice Glasman for trying to re-acquaint the Labour party with the imperative to think via the much-misunderstood creed of Blue Labour, but he cuts a very lonely figure. Credit also to a new organisation called GEER – “Gender, Environment, Equality and Race UK,” it says here – which seemingly wants to remind us of the questionable glories of the Labour left circa 1985, but is at least having a go. Elsewhere, though, all is either pained silence or that complacent view of things whereby evil Tories and treacherous Liberals will jointly implode, and along will come the great cure-all that is a Labour government.

As far as Britain is concerned, there is no great mystery about the basis of the centre-left’s predicament – not just last year’s defeat, but the sense of two weary factions who have fought each other to a standstill, and have precious little to say anyway. If Blair remains your idol, it’s all about chasing the supposed centre-ground as it’s dragged ever rightwards, and the necessity of addressing our chewier social problems via remaining vigilantly nasty on crime, immigration and benefit cheats. On the latter, Brownites of the Ed Balls variety are in agreement, but they shade gently into a more old Labour-ish position by holding a firmer line on the public/private debate, and sounding slightly more dirigiste about the banks – but only slightly: as ever, the basic idea is to leave the economy pretty much as it is, because stoking neoliberal capitalism and then spending the tax skim on schools, hospitals and a smidgeon of redistribution is always as good as it gets.

There is a third element, represented by the embattled Ed Miliband, which wants at least tentatively to edge towards the fundamentals, and begin talking not just about the ubiquitous squeezed middle, but “better capitalism” and “life beyond the bottom line”. Yesterday, it was good to hear him sum up the Southern Cross care homes saga as the result of treating people “merely as commodities”. But he’s hemmed in by two big problems: the hostility of his colleagues; and a pronounced aversion to risk, inculcated during those long years at Gordon Brown’s knee. The result is collective paralysis, and a mess of displacement activity – not least 20-odd policy review groups, whose apparent raison d’etre is to clutter up the foreground with so much minutiae that any conversation about the political basics becomes impossible.

I’d advise Labour’s brighter sparks to go away and read some books, if there were any around. But Blue Labour aside, on all sides of politics, the fashion is for flimsy texts that, in that rather irksome post-Freakonomics kind of way, tell us that a world whose iniquitous outlines look much the same as ever is actually much more complicated. As well as his fans on the right, there are people on the left who urge us to pick up David Brooks’s insanely hyped treatise The Social Animal, which advises us that class is bunk, and “society is a layering of networks” (p155). Yesterday morning, the postman brought me Adapt by the British writer Tim Harford, another voguish book whose blurb advises us to dump “grand visions” and “improvise rather than plan”. Every week, in fact, brings another lecture or book about the political uses of neuroscience, or what Twitter is doing to human consciousness – everything, it seems, apart from what’s actually most important. The world arguably needs a new Marx, but it keeps creating Malcolm Gladwells, pirouhetting around their flipcharts and ignoring the real problems.

Here is where the left needs to look, and learn. The veil is being lifted on the reality of recent history by mounting evidence of how much incomes have stagnated – to put it another way, a post-Thatcher settlement based on popular prosperity has singularly failed (see also last week’s spurt of coverage about “generation rent“). Towards the end of last month, the Relationships Foundation published a report that showed that British families were the third most pressured in Europe, ahead of only those in Romania and Bulgaria – despite the fact that our national income per head is about five times as large as theirs. One family in five has either “difficulty” or “great difficulty” in making ends meet, and our working hours remain as crushing as ever (25% of British men work more than 50 hours a week; in Norway, it’s 8%). Childcare in the UK eats up twice the proportion of family income that it does for French families, three times that of German families, and four times the figure for Sweden. Our “poor living environment” – based on numbers for teenage pregnancy, as well as adolescent drink and drug use – puts us ahead of only Estonia, and poor old Bulgaria again. And all this after that supposed long boom, with austerity about to make things immeasurably worse.

All this may sound bleak but, unless we recognise it, the darkness is only going to deepen. This is not the time to be worshipping broken Labour gods, nor immersing oneself in the kind of books best left to real-life David Brents. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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