Billy Bragg

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.

10 Responses to “Billy Bragg”

  1. casey_morrison
    July 20th, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    “We need to find a new way of articulating the relationship between the individual and the collective in the 21st century.” Nice one Billy.

    Myself i think that in the same way as globalisation aimed to grow the pie by adding more ingredients (to stop the 20C fight over how to split it), that we can do the same thing with the outcome. I am hopeful that we can make a bigger pie with the same ingredients. We can do this by trusting people, by allowing space for people to feel less defensive, by feeling (in the words of Tom Waits) that we're “chained to the world, and we all gotta pull”..

  2. athorpe
    July 20th, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

    Billy seems to be one of the only three people here to have properly answered this question. Being on the 'left' is a belief that it's everybody's job to help everyone else. As Jessica Asato put it a belief “that human beings are more co-operative than competitive.” That's it. And that's all there is, from then on making claims about the left and right is useless and because of changes to the political landscape – Billy hits square on “the argument for such provision was couched in terms of class war. Such language, tainted by totalitarianism, no longer resonates”. And this allows both 'right' and 'left' movements to co-opt ecological policies etc. In fact we're close to the stage where 'left' and 'right' are problematic words. We believe in society; that peoples first duty is to help other people.
    From there comes everything else.

    Then there's the elephant in the room. We gave the banks huge amounts of money in order to prop up the financial system. There is a real chance this will not come back. The idea that we can then sell of nationalized assets is a hope not a security. There is a real chance we will all suffer for this. Whether anything better could have been done is a moot point. The fact remains, it's not just a few cuts in spending of the next government. It's a long term economic restraint. If we go down the road of each for themselves there will be a dispossessed generation, and who knows in five years there may well be a “clamour in the streets for the over-throw of the capitalist system”.

    So back to what we have decide the 'left' means; it's our duty to help each other. It has to be the governments duty to close the gap between rich and poor. It has to be the governments job in the next decade to make sure the poorest elements of society, and those who do not qualify yet but will in the next five years, to have a greater share of the wealth. To do that they must take it from those who have greater wealth. With out that any other sort of 'equality of opportunity' is meaningless.

  3. bobdodd
    July 21st, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    I don't think it's purely wealth that is the most significant factor in determining quality of life, it's the capacity to access wealth that's really important.

    If I take my own situation, I'm the son of a miner who went to Catholic comprehensive, and from there to a Polytechnic in the 1980s for which I got a (partial) grant. The degree in computer technology I acheived then gave me access to a white collar professional world that was never available to my dad. Having returned to University as a mature student to study for a PhD, I now have limited savings, but great opportunity to make more money as a professional consultant. Even now, with very little actual cash in the bank, I can still make money through my past educational acheivements, and through the contacts that has allowed me to make over the years.

    So yes, I agree with Billy that the distribution of wealth is a yardstick to measure social justice, but it's equally important to measure how people can, and do, come into money. To summarise the summary, wealth distrubution is a measurable side effect of privilege, not the cause.

  4. saintemillion
    July 21st, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    Billy, I think you may have just ended the Open Left project. You have answered the question.

    Being 'Left' means that you believe a fairer society can only be constructed through the re-distribution of wealth. The problem has been that that phrase has not been heard from anyone in the New Labour project since around 1995 (for the reason you have set out).

    Without an unwavering principle running through an organisation there is nothing to fall back on when a decision must be made. This lack of adherence to the one tenet that defines the Left is what has now given rise to the lie that has been and is, New Labour.

  5. radicalpete
    July 21st, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Long before most of you were a twinkle in your old mans ball bag(including you Billy) I lived the real dream of socialism in Britain. Back in the 1940s we had the only real Labour party this country has ever seen, a time of real people power. But over the years the curse of greed has decimated the labour party to such a extent that we have MPs who can't even spell the word SOCIALISM.
    So here is a short reminder from this 72 year old London kid of what it was all about………..

    The Hardest of times

    A short history lesson
    of times past and present.

    After the Second World War
    the men of Britain were adamant
    that they would not go back
    to the status of slave and master
    attitude of the pre war days,
    they had just fought a war
    with blood and sweat not
    to have the chains of servitude
    manacled to their bodies
    when they returned home…

    The war left Britain destitute
    without any help from the Marshal Plan
    that created the new Europe
    for we in Britain were absolutely broke
    and the Yanks offered no help what so ever…

    So after the war, this country
    kicked Churchill out of power
    and it elected the Labour Party
    with the biggest land side victory of all times
    and we had the one and only real socialist
    government this country had ever seen…

    What happened then MUST happen again
    the Labour Party set about rebuilding
    our country by a wonderful means

    Every industry that was in private hands
    was taken by the state, for the good of
    the many and not the few
    this included coal, electric, gas,
    water, shipping, trains, oil,
    Post office telephones, buses, trams
    , airports, airlines, and great swages
    of private lands, if it could benefit the people
    it was nationalised….

    Labour took from the rich and gave to the poor
    a Robin Hood of the 1940s
    we had our first National Health Service
    and a free dental service
    plus free prescriptions for all…

    But then the “Maggot” came along
    from the Tory Party who’s first vile job
    was to stop the free school milk kids
    were getting and this earned her
    the rightful name of “Thatcher the Snatcher” ….

    But Labour was getting soft
    and to lost its balls, it elected a
    Welsh windbag called Kinnock as its leader
    who set about to destroy
    labours socialist ideology
    in later years he received a seat
    in the House of Lords
    for this bit of treachery…

    So the Tory party gained power
    with a land slide election
    with the “Maggot” as its leader
    she was more right wing
    than Hannibal the Hun
    but far deadlier…

    She wanted to decimate
    all that our brave men had
    fought and died for
    in the second world war
    ”A country fit for heroes”
    and by all the unholy deeds
    in this world, she did….

    She set about to thief and sell
    the “Family Silver” as Ted Heath
    once called it, bit by bit she sold
    it to her filthy rich friends in the City
    and her own party until all that was left
    was our NHS, but that was a sell-off to far…

    Her own party chucked her out of office
    when she caused mass riots
    over her hated Poll Tax bill
    but all was not lost for the Tory Party
    a new face appeared on the cat walk
    of politics as Tory Blair…

    This chap pretended to be a socialist
    and a friend of the workers
    and with the help of Ginger Kinnock
    became the new leader of the Labour Party….

    Tory Blair was the biggest disaster
    to come the workers way
    he spun his lies so much that he nearly
    went into orbit with his blatant untruths
    about weapons of mass destruction crap
    but it caused the death of countless people
    in the conflict on desert sands…

    Tory Blair continued to flog off Britain
    but dressed in the sick little name of PFI
    this gave giant building firms like French Kier
    the go ahead to build hospitals for the NHS
    then charge the British public BILLIONS
    in rent for the next thirty years
    sick is not the word I use….

    So Labour is a sham, it ditched its roots
    long ago to the gods of greed and corruption
    and it will be obliterated at the next
    election and allow the hordes of
    National Front, or BNP candidates
    to gain seats in the Halls of Westminster….

    Well done you greedy selfish gits, well done
    for now the true sprite of the old left wing
    of the labour movement will rise from the ashes
    of the shell of the party that once represented
    all the under dogs of this divided land…

    Radical Pete

  6. Graeme_Cooke
    July 21st, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    I agree that redistribution is central to any Left political project (as is creating wealth for us to share more equally). But two questions follow from that.

    First, what are you redistributing…wealth, income, power etc? I think we haven't thought enough about a radical redistribution of power across our society (and I'm not as convinced as radicalpete that nationalisation doesn't just transfer centralised power from the market to the state).

    Second, on what basis are you redistributing from one person/group to another? And to what end? It has to be based on a coherent principle and a credible justification otherwise it's just an abstract concept rather than a guide to action (and it risks being seen as arbitrary).

    I'm not saying there isn't one, just that there's probably a fair bit of disagreement about the answer.

  7. saintemillion
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 12:07 pm


    Please take my comments as meant without personal insult – it is difficult to debate by email as I am never sure how my written words are interpreted – but your second point is vastly more interesting and worthwhile than your first.

    To redistribute wealth is to redistribute income, power etc as all of these follow and it is simple to achieve. The real issue is not should the left believe in redistribution but, to be truely electable (in political terms this is 'relevant'), it should answer the question; 'what happens after we redistribute wealth?'.

    All the focus of the 'classic' left has been on how to redistribute wealth not what happens when this is done – a little like going to war with no idea what to do when the bullets stop flying. Give someone money who has needs it and they will spend it – can you tell them how to spend it, should they know what to spend it on? Power comes from knowing what to do with money – more often than not this means making more money!

    My overly simply conclusion is that dont ask if you believe in the redistribution of wealth (BIlly is right, 'c'mon guys stop messing about') but that you do and the real work is defining what this will achieve and how should that objective be best presented to everyone.

  8. Ian Bennett
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    “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.”

    Are you really, seriously claiming that “the poor” are incapable of generating their own wealth? Do you honestly believe that there exists only a fixed amount of wealth, (some of) which must be taken from the rich in order that the poor can have some? This view was known to be erroneous a century ago.

  9. David A
    July 28th, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

    Thank you Radical Pete. It needed saying.

  10. December 28th, 2015 @ 8:34 am

    Love how the socks match the tie! It’s sad how economists have faleln to the level of prostitutes.Actually, that’s and insult to prostitutes. They’re much better company than an economist.Even Jesus hung around prostitutes, but I bet he wouldn’t be caught dead with an economist.

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