“It is clear that centre-left thinking is in need of radical reappraisal”, to quote from an Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) paper entitled “Where Next?“, and which I recommend you read. The paper, subtitled “The challenge for centre-left politics”, is the outcome of a series of events on the subject and includes a summary by Tony Wright, Professor of Government and Public Policy at University College London.
The reality is that centre-left politics has been in dire need of new thinking since the 1970s when the oil shock put paid to the illusion of the imperial-welfare-social-democracy that was born out of post War social ambitions in those nations that were still riding on the subsidies of colonial pasts. When the resource origin nations suddenly demanded their price for their resource the industrial-welfare states had to reconfigure their economies to survive; and thence was born the modern capitalist-democracy in which the welfare of all was dependent on the abilities of their capital-finance agents to revive the same imperial exploitation, but this time in the name of capital instead of their Capitals.
What about the nascent rise of neo-socialist governments in South America, is that the next left? Unfortunately, while heartening in their self-determination, these examples are based on the same flawed socio-economic thinking that has just crashed neo-socialist governments in the old industrial world: a faustian bargain with the “masters of the universe” to bring the riches of resource exploitation and financial alchemy home to support their political ambitions. Not only do the New World resource-socialists risk being taken for a ride by the master manipulators, they also face the certain arrival of curbs on the very resources they hope to exploit, as the realities of atmospheric balance (to which they are most susceptible) start to bite.
It is clear that center-left thinking is in urgent need of radical reshaping, not only in the old industrialized nations but also in the New World and in the two great land powers without whose cooperation any such reshaping will be meaningless: China and Russia. A task indeed! But let’s follow the points raised by the ippr paper to see if we can’t see a way through to what’s next. At the core of the questions raised in the ippr paper is a reboot of the relationship between citizen and state in which the power that people have over their own lives is enhanced so that they can access the means of civilization for themselves, while the statecraft of government is reformed to provide core public functions and underwrite the results with its guarantee. This recognition of the legitimacy of the individual, along with the role of active government to deliver what individuals cannot, is the ground on which the centre-left must stake it’s camp. It is a citizen/service orientation, distinct from the worker/capital or market/government orientations of yesteryear.
A fundamental point raised in the paper is that now is precisely the right time to promote politics, in the face of widespread civic disengagement, as the means by which citizens confront common problems without recourse to violence. To do this effectively and credibly we will have to be open to institutional reform and even some constitutional reform. Enhancing our democracies to enhance the citizen-government relationship requires us to develop and implement better systems of representation, greater localism and a more transparent connection between voter and voted. The difficulties of delivering effective democratic control over the necessarily different levels required for differing purposes is a challenge that has not yet been met. The Next Left must come to bat with proposals, and open minds, to resolve the local through supra-national influence expectations of citizens. A system of multi-layer democracy that incorporates the principle of subsidiarity is the goal, and it can be developed by extending and enhancing what we have today, but not without some reform of our constitutional structures. We have to be prepared to bring this reality with us, develop solutions based on values and be willing to explain ourselves. When we know that local decisions are not well made in national assemblies and that national decisions cannot be made locally, we must embrace those facts in the adoption of a multi-layer structure that seats political power at the level appropriate for decision making. Citizens are not afraid of voting and they would rather vote for multiple assemblies than be disconnected from their right to influence. And when we know that a single transferrable vote in a multi-member constituency is the fairest way to vote, we must have the courage to lead with that as our banner for representation.
A new economic model is also vital. Governments need markets and markets need governments, that debate is done – what still remains is to establish is the basis for our future economy. We now understand that capital exists in relation to environment, regulation, people, society and unprofitable but vital needs: the new capitalism is a component of the total picture, not its foundation. In the Next Left the foundation of society, embodied in the vital service requirements of the people, is the responsibility of the people themselves and forms a foundation on which capitalism operates as a client system. Tackling the “poverty trap” and “incentive” problems inherent in the old welfare models remains critical because there must still be an infrastructure of support services in place that protect against insecurity and expand opportunity. The model that works here is that of Universal Services, whereby the cash-based welfare state is replaced by the delivery of the services themselves at the most local level, financed by taxes collected at the highest level.
Everyone has a stake in Universal Services and they fulfill the promise that links every citizen with the reason for having a state. But equally important is the effect that Universal Services have on the economy, on the ability of every person to participate and contribute to the society as a valid and valuable economic entity. It is at the local level that this effect is most pronounced as microeconomic activity is unleashed, complementing our capital-intensive industries. The economy becomes a client of the society and in so doing it develops a broader, more sustainable and less growth dependent nature. The guaranteed service levels implicit in Universal Services provide real accountability for local government, while directly linking citizens with the obligation to define priorities and accept that doing more of one thing will often mean doing less of something else.
So a framework emerges which combines the enhancement of democracy with a multi-level structure, the replacement of welfare with universal services and the placement of economic activity within the context of the society, not the other way around. This Next Left is grounded in principles and based on standards that provide a coherent narrative, placing the standard of life above the standard of living.
The Next Left must lose its predecessor’s reticence to tell its story, and paint a clear picture of a society that has intentionally moved beyond the democratic-capitalist model, that unashamedly takes responsibility for delivering the core public functions it is best placed to do, and which embraces the natural enterprise of the human spirit.
It’s time to stop asking what’s next, and to start answering that question. The Next Left is what’s next, and we’re all the ones who’ll do it.