The left’s problem, distilled

At its most basic level, the left’s core problem when it gets into trouble (as now) is falling into expecting those who don’t take responsibility for themselves to be the responsibility of those who do take responsibility for themselves. This is rather than expecting people who don’t take responsibility for themselves to start taking responsibility for themselves.

You can broaden this out to cover countries and societies: that on the left we expect that those who don’t govern themselves decently and effectively should be the responsibility of those who do take responsibility for themselves. (Our version of colonialism there, and with the irony that we then blame those who do take responsibility for themselves for being indecent and immoral when they don’t take it on for others).  

The victim mentality is an offshoot of this more basic stance, with victim status putting you under the responsibility (again, ironically) of those who are apparently making you the victim.

These relationships are one-way relationships: with one party taking on responsibility for the other, making a choice to do so while the other party theoretically gives way and lets the first step in for them. When the left gets into trouble, as now (seemingly all over Europe and beyond), we take on this role of patron for ourselves, seeing those who will benefit from our beneficence as ‘our people’ who need us.

This assumption is doubtful but has a basic goodness about it and good effects in some of our social programmes. During the last Labour governments I would point to SureStart children’s centres as perhaps the best of these because they are people-centred rather than purely transactional. (You can become a better parent by learning off other parents and care workers; that doesn’t happen automatically from sitting at home receiving a wodge of money every month).

But we make the political error in expecting that the whole of the political community should take the same stance as us by taking responsibility for others in this one-way relationship via the state; and what’s more we claim moral superiority for expecting it. This is unrealistic and a mistake, not least because people have now grown accustomed to the way the welfare state doesn’t pay much attention to whether someone deserves their wodge of cash or not (Abu Qatada anyone?).

For a start we might question rather more whether we are actually taking something essential in what it means to be human away from others by supporting them unconditionally through the welfare system: that we are disburdening them of the necessary burdens of being human and being part of society. Of course any decent civilised society looks after those going through difficult times or who have tangible difficulties acting for themselves, like many disabled. Also, I believe strongly we should address inequality through significant redistribution of wealth – but crucially, not by giving the impression of punishing people for achievement and rewarding them for non-achievement and inaction. That is why I am sympathetic to the Green Party’s idea of a ‘citizen’s income’ (which would have to be tied closely to national citizenship).

But responsibilities don’t and shouldn’t just go one way. We all have a responsibility to each other and to the state as the state does to us – to act within the law and not abuse the system. Unconditional support in one direction without basic reciprocity integrated into the system as fundamental doesn’t seem to me a marker of civilisation but rather one of nihilism.

On the left and within Labour we habitually treat poorer people and certain favoured ‘disadvantaged groups’ as clients of ours who need us. This is a complacent attitude, as if we have the answers to the problems of their lives, which we don’t – and neither should we expect to. People who are struggling need themselves more than they do 'us', and that is no bad thing.

See also article: Food Banks: Of community and polarised politics and The Labour Party and other party politics page for more on similar themes.


  1. For me this is veering too close to Blairism: blaming people for the iniquities of the free market. The number of 'feckless' people has always been grossly overstated and if one is not careful, one gets into the 'welfare state is too generous' / 'immigrants are doing the jobs British people won't' arguments. The former has never been true (look at the data) and, in particular, the UK is one of the least generous for unemployment benefits. The latter of course meanwhile begs the question, 'then who was doing those jobs before the migrants arrived? Angels?'

    The level of competition in the private sector - particularly at the lower end - is frightening now. It has got much much worse since 2010 and many employers are absolutely ruthless about getting rid of people who dare to ask for pay rises or who quibble about how many hours they get. In an era of tribunal fees, bone idle unions and vanishing legal aid - it is very common for people find themselves in and out of work a number of times each year. Factor in the competition from immigrants for whom the pitiful UK minimum wage is up to 500% higher than in their own countries and you have very difficult times for millions of British people.

    Labour's biggest mistake, other than light touch with the banks, was not pursuing full employment during the boom. Had they not opened the flood gates to EU and non-EU immigrants, they would have produced real workers' freedom, the freedom that comes with a tight labour market and the ability to tell your boss, 'I don't like this job, I'll get another one'. Had they done this, they would have seen upward pressure on wages and there would have been less need for the Working Tax Credits which the Tories are now going to cut.

    As for ''not by giving the impression of punishing people for achievement'' - well, who are talking about? Bankers? Corporate executives? The rentier class?

    Well, since the £90bn of austerity so far matches the £90bn paid out in bank bonuses SINCE the crisis, I think it's safe to say that the architects of capitalism's biggest crisis for 80 years have almost literally robbed us. And whether they cause a crisis or not, the fact that they are the beneficiaries of Fractional Reserve Banking - the ability to create money out of thin air and then charge interest on it - suggests to me that they are most definitely not among the 'deserving rich'.

    Then we have the corporate class - that body of business 'leaders' who have empirically grossly overpaid themselves for twenty years regardless of the performance of their companies or the prosperity and welfare of their staff. I would tax these people until they DO leave the country - they are blight on real entrepreneurship.

    The fact of the matter is this: the UK is a grossly unequal society - both in terms of wealth and in terms of standing before the law. In this country one person can receive a pair of shorts stolen in a riot and get six months, while the Chief Executive of a major bank who had direct responsibility for the arm which was money laundering for Mexican drug cartels can keep his millions and end up a government trade minister.

    The UK is a country which bails out its corruption riddled banks - which really meant bailing out the imploded financial assets of the wealthiest - and then passes the cost to those least responsible.

    I very much fear that because you are understandably sick of London Labour, you are in danger of warming to the Tories. I think that that in the end would only bring you sadness because the days of real One Nation Toryism are long gone. The private sector which could have supported such paternalism is history and it will only get worse. And many Tories not only don't understand that, they don't even care.

    1. Hi Philip, thanks for your post and apologies for not having read it all yet (I will). I just wanted to make the point that I am not looking to blame people and also not talking about unemployment benefits per se - it's really the whole package I'm looking at, and the idea that we work to tie state handouts more tightly to the people receiving them. Maybe it is veering too close to Blairism or the Tories for some people's liking, but I think we should recognise that the welfare system is a very new creature in historical terms, that we shouldn't expect it to be perfect, and that we should look to do it a lot better than we are. Whether other people are over-estimating welfare abuse is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned, and we should punish people for abuse, whether of welfare or put them in jail for banking fraud - but the latter is another issue, not dealt with here.

  2. Thank you for your reply, Ben. I realise my comment was a long one!

    The welfare state may be a relatively new institution but then in historical terms so is the capitalist free market. Prior to wage labour, human beings could rely for the most part on the Commons. There were landless peasants of course but again, as with the majority of the unemployed in today's free market, they were created by other more powerful actors who didn't care for the Common Weal. The welfare state was set up for this purpose - to protect people from the sink or swim free market. At its outset of course it was tied to contribution and after 1945 was premised on the pursuit of Full Employment. In a system covering 60 million people, there will always be fraud. It is a statistical inevitability. The point is that until relatively recently, the only malfeasance that we heard about in society was that concerning those on benefits. The financial crisis however has revealed that the inequities of those at the bottom are far outweighed by those at the top - and yet the relative punishments remain completely disproportionate.

    If the UK welfare system is such a soft touch, how have at least two people starved to death in the last few years? Both were vulnerable people - one a diabetic former solder, the other a mentally incapacitated young man - both had their benefits taken off them for minor transgressions. They *starved* to death in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

    If our welfare system promises the life of Reilly, why has homelessness at least doubled since 2010? Why are people going to food banks? I volunteered at a food bank for one day. And one day was enough. Seeing people suffering such obvious shame and embarrassment was too much for me to go back.

    I find the Tory rhetoric about their desire for Full Employment fascinating given that they have always been vigorously opposed to it. It seems to me that in order to justify the dismantling of social security they need to maintain the fiction that there is a job for everyone who wants one. If there was one thing that the elite learned in the 1970s, it was that the power of labour must be suppressed at every turn, and you do this by keeping people afraid and never letting them get too comfortable.

    And right on cue, here is the Bank of England's Jon Cunlife in today's Telegraph

    He starts off by giving what should be the good news that wages are rising but then goes onto muse that as such companies would be best of investing in new technology in order to avoid further wage rises. In other words, start looking for ways to get rid of people.

    This is a truly sociopathic view of how an economy and a society should function and although I have to give him credit for his honesty, I remain shocked that this is how our 'leaders' really think.

    When the table is tilted against working people like this, I am afraid I can have no truck with morality plays about the failings of the welfare state. Our elites could ensure that everyone has a decent dignified productive life. That they choose not to is their failing not ours.


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