20 July 2009
This is a trick question, right? It has to be because it is such a no-brainer. C’mon guys, stop messing about. You know the answer. It is simply not possible to change society for the better without improving the lot of those living in poverty and that can only be achieved by the redistribution of resources from the wealthy to the poor. That’s what it means to be on the Left in politics.
Wealth remains the single most significant factor in determining quality of life in this country. The wealthy are more likely to live longer, healthier, more productive lives, to be better educated, to be socially mobile and so to have more options available to them. For those trapped in poverty, life is a constant grind.
Both free-market capitalists and social democrats have claimed to have alternative answers to this problem but neither has made it the primary focus of their policy for the past thirty years. Instead, they have concentrated on creating the right economic circumstances to enable the prosperous to prosper and hoped that some of this would rub off on the poor. The resultant crisis in the market, sparked by a bursting housing bubble, has made wealth an issue once again. For the first time in this post-ideological period, people are no longer exceedingly relaxed about others getting filthy rich.
And yet there is no clamour in the streets for the over-throw of the capitalist system. The British people don’t hanker for communism but they do expect their kids to be able to get a good education without them having to pay for it. They expect to get world-class treatment from their local hospital, free of charge. They want their children to be able to afford housing and for their parents to receive proper pensions. In short, they expect society to provide the infrastructure for their aspirations. This is not an ideological attachment to socialism, but an unstated acknowledgement that the potential happiness of each individual relies upon the collective provision of certain necessities – education, health care, housing and pensions.
In the 20th century, the argument for such provision was couched in terms of class war. Such language, tainted by totalitarianism, no longer resonates. We need to find a new way of articulating the relationship between the individual and the collective in the 21st century, language that treats people as citizens with reciprocal rights and responsibilities to one another rather than as customers whose brand loyalty we seek.
Before we can do this, however, we need to commit ourselves to a defining principle that informs and inspires everything we do. If we wish to define ourselves as being on the Left, then that principle must be the creation of a better society through the redistribution of resources from the wealthy to the poor.
The temptation will be to try to dress this up in a way that is palatable to Middle England, in the hope of not offending anyone. However, in a time of great mistrust and cynicism about our political institutions, it is strong, clearly defined principles that will grab the attention of the electorate, not mere better presentation.