‘Who’ exactly is the left anymore?

Martin Kettle has been reading Nick Cohen‘s book What’s Left?, and finds that, “Socialism is dead. There now remain only socialists.”Some of the crisis in the left, Kettle argues is that it has been too successful:

If leftwing Britons of 2007 saw themselves more clearly than they do, they would notice two big things. First, they would see what the leftwing Britons of 1907 would have grasped – that much of what the left of a century ago yearned for has actually been achieved, imperfectly and incompletely to be sure, but unmistakably achieved all the same. As Cohen points out, the 20th century may have been largely governed by the party of the right, but it is the worldview of the party of the left that triumphed.

Second, they would have to acknowledge the paradox that, while its agenda has triumphed, the left itself has in most respects wholly collapsed.

But he also believes Cohen’s analysis is possessed of its own flaws:

…he never quite pins down what “the left” is. Discussions of the book risk reproducing the fault. But it is facile to deny that the problem exists. Neither socialism as a programme nor the parties that espoused it – and these are surely somewhere near the heart of any definition of the left – have survived into the modern age with credibility. Foul though they and their ideas are, the parties of the extreme right actually have more purchase on the politics of the early 21st century than the parties of the left.

That doesn’t mean there is no one left on the left. Self-evidently there are lots of people, even if they are neither as numerous nor as influential as the rightwing press imagines. But they lack anything remotely resembling a programme, let alone a programme that all of them agree on. With nothing to say to the rest of the world, the left tradition has taken cover in single issue campaigns, in inertia, or in the gesture politics of so-called defiance.

He picks up on Cohen’s anger with detachment of the left from committment to action:

Yes, the left has increasingly retreated from the street to the sofa. Watching The Trial of Tony Blair qualifies in some quarters as proof of political commitment. The left has always been far too comfortable in the purity of its own ethos, a comfort which absolves it from the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for anything, and gives it the self-sustaining gratification of permanent betrayal.


…he is also very unfair. Most people who think of themselves as leftwing are not hypocrites. They want to live an ethical life. The trouble is they are waiting for a call that shows little sign of ever coming.

But Cohen is far angrier than this. His charge can be summarised by saying that, driven by a post-cold war resurgence of anti-Americanism, the liberal-left has abandoned its anti-fascist roots, denied the terrorist threat embodied in 9/11 and thus become an apologist for radical Islamic totalitarianism.

Indignation about western military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, followed by the much wider outrage over Iraq, has swept liberals towards swallowing a guilt-ridden untruth about Muslim victimhood that increasingly betrays the enlightenment inheritance of secularism, equality and human rights at home and abroad. Bits of this are uncomfortably true, but not the whole package. To paraphrase Lincoln, all the left believes some of it all of the time, some of the left (though not many) believes all of it some of the time, but all the liberal left does not believe all of it all of the time. There are plenty of us who strongly supported intervention in Kosovo and then strongly opposed it in Iraq. There were even more who opposed Iraq without embracing the wider claims of Muslim victimhood.

He finishes on a note that will be resonant on both sides of the Irish Sea:

Again, one asks: who is this “left”? As the British Social Attitudes survey pointed out this week, political alignment is weakening and is a poor guide to the way people respond. Many of us, moreover, believe more than one thing at the same time. Very few people reading Cohen’s book are likely to see themselves precisely reflected in it.

It’s a question that the Irish Labour Party (and any other future pretenders to poll position on the centre left) must be asking themselves over and over again.

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