Why social democrats are more left wing than the hard left

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Tories sneer when they use the term “left wing”. They point to the terrible failures of authoritarian states like North Korea. But if left wing is about poverty reduction, why do we let them call North Korea left wing?

In contrast to its northern neighbour, South Korea has had extraordinary success in reducing poverty, whereas “leftwing” oil-rich Venezuela has been a catastrophe.

If some states that call themselves “leftwing” aren’t, the same is true of political activists.

In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn proposed a radical manifesto. But the IFS and the Resolution Foundation found that Corbyn’s manifesto failed to reverse many cuts to the poorest, in dramatic contrast to the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Poverty reduction is hard. Many well-meaning projects in international development have failed. They needed the warning of dissenting voices. The same is true in the UK, but when anyone pointed out the failings of Corbyn’s manifesto on social media, the red mists of anger descended on the hard left.

That’s the nature of the hard left; they are driven by anger. Rage against anyone who has voted Tory, against successful businesses and higher rate taxpayers. This anger leads to rigid thinking, where any challenge to bad policy is dismissed as right wing. They hate the Tories, but the hard left reserve their greatest fury for the centre-left. They call us “traitors”, “Tory-lite”, “reactionaries”.

But this anger is not universal across the left. Some very leftwing people aren’t hard-left at all. They are self-critical, they agonise over the best policies and they change their minds.

Those of us on the centre-left must do the same. We mustn’t respond to the hostility of the hard left by being hostile ourselves. Rather, while we grapple with the challenges of reducing poverty, we should be willing to learn from anyone. That’s something I dearly hope my own group, the Social Democrat Group, will always strive to do.

While most Lib Dem members are driven by passion and love, there is a small minority who give in too often to anger, usually on social media. I’m afraid I’ve heard some dismiss others as “vapid”, “anodyne” and “neoliberal”. Shockingly, on one or two occasions, I even heard a suggestion that someone go join the Tories, just because they wanted to redirect scarce resources to a policy that would be more effective at reducing poverty.

Anger gets us retweets, media attention and it can draw in new members; but it also repels voters and blinds us to our own mistakes.

To reduce poverty, we should reject the seductive lure of angry tribalism, and welcome dissenting voices, rather than slapping them down.

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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26 Comments

  • As you point out, your definition of the hard left applies to numerous people here and in the party at large. I guess that their outrage at everything they dislike is a badge of honour. This trend seems to be increasingly popular throughout the country, with our daily news full of implied demands for the rest of us to show solidarity with the latest outrage or face the consequences.

    I was amused that the most shocking insult is to join the Tories and that Lib Dems are driven by passion and love. Until that point, I thought that you were making an intelligent point.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jul '20 - 11:57pm

    Actually the description of George about left wing failure or otherwise, is very interesting but I disagree with it. It would be more a case of centre left really helps people, far left certainly doesn’t.

    The hard left think they are the good guys, they are no more that than the hard right, they merely think they are more kind and thus good.

    If the Liberal Democrats are as George states, it is because of good people in our party like him, who help to make it a party of passionate loving people.

  • David Evershed 4th Jul '20 - 2:29am

    Some define their left wingness by how much they hate Conservative policies rather than any positive criteria.

  • The words right and left wing were invented by people. Like any words they have the meanings that people give to them. If we want to analyse the wayS in which we live as a society we first need to at least try to arrive at a commonly agreed Understanding of how words are used.
    The way I look at it the individual units are people. There has been substantial research into the ways people behave when they have power. Whether a system is labelled right or left wing does not matter, people in power behave in the same ways. The ways are complex of course.
    We need to keep in mind the fact that passing wealth, and with it power, in families aleays seems to have existed.
    The introduction Ideas like independent courts, the division of power and so on have made a huge contribution to our development as a society.
    Unfortunately we have not got away from the idea of the accumulation of wealth. It is of course part of our being human. We know know the dangers of this. Co-operation is also built in to humans. We need to strive to build a society in which we actively manage the planet, to provide a future for humans, and our fellow creatures.
    The evidence is that this is not possible.

  • Richard Easter 4th Jul '20 - 9:57am

    The left, like the centre and the right are all a mixture of spectrums and different beliefs and all have their own extremism in different ways.

    If we take for example someone like John Woodcock. He got media praise for leaving a so called “hard left” Labour party, but he is clearly no liberal. The man defends Erdogan and Saudi Arabia. He may be “centrist” but certainly of the extremist end of centrism. Ditto the hardcore globalisation supporters, who actively think offshoring jobs and fully open borders are great things. There is nothing here the Lib Dems can learn from.

    Equally I would consider John Mc Donnell and Andy Burnham and Rory Stewart and Peter Oborne examples of left and right figures who I would see as hugely credible and an asset to the country. There are things the Lib Dems can take note from all of them.

    As for poverty – I believe that employment is the best route out of policy. That would be a conservative view. But equally I believe employment should pay fairly, which would be a liberal view, and that strong trade unions would protect workers, which would be a left wing view.

    Equally I would consider the nationalisation of say Triumph motorcycles, Sainsburys or Unilever to be utterly ridiculous. In the same way I think privatising the railways, National Grid and water provision to be utterly ridiculous.

    All mature politics should be about the most suitable solution for a problem. And on all sides we seem to be missing that point drastically.

  • Richard Easter 4th Jul '20 - 9:59am

    Sorry should read “I believe that employment is the best route out of poverty”

  • Peter Martin 4th Jul '20 - 10:59am

    “Rather, while we grapple with the challenges of reducing poverty, we should be willing to learn from anyone.”

    Sounds promising! However, George hasn’t been too willing to learn from people like Prof Stephanie Kelton in the past! George may not like the term “neoliberal” but anyone arguing along the same lines as Prof Kelton doesn’t like the term “deficit denier”.

    No-one is denying that the Government doesn’t spend more than it receives in taxes but just what does that mean? And why are Lib Dems so keen to run a fiscal surplus?
    Why do the rules of the EU’s SGP act always in the direction of economic austerity?

    https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2020/06/22/book-review-the-deficit-myth-modern-monetary-theory-and-the-birth-of-the-peoples-economy-by-stephanie-kelton/

  • Peter Martin 4th Jul '20 - 11:34am

    @ Geoffrey Payne,

    “I always say that Keynes did more for the working class than Marx ever did.”

    There are lots of big names in the history of Economic thought. Marx and Keynes are just two of them. No matter how much any of them may deny it they’ve all read what other before them have written.

    Marx was probably the first major economist to move away from the Classical notion that economies were largely self correcting. His analysis led to the conclusion that they weren’t and there would also be a falling rate of profit, Capitalism would therefore fail in the longer term. In the 30s this all seemed to be coming true. Keynes certainly agreed with Marx that profits were indeed falling. So what to do about it? Keynes was a Liberal and neither wanted Capitalism to fail nor Marx to be proved right. There are other economists of note who also had a contribution to make in the process such as Kalecki. who was more open about a Marxist personal influence.

    So Keynes can very much be seen as a post Marxian insofar he agreed, at least to a certain extent, with Marx but was keen to establish a theoretical pathway for Capitalism to continue.

  • Peter Martin 4th Jul '20 - 5:03pm

    @ George Kendal,

    To be fair to you, I don’t remember you actually directing term “deficit denier” at me personally. What I found annoying was that you never actually got into any reasons but it was always “sorry but I disagree”. Anyone can, of course, say they disagree with anything!

  • George Kendall 4th Jul '20 - 9:01pm

    @Peter Martin

    I’m afraid I’m not surprised you don’t remember any of my counter-arguments.
    I’ve found our discussions generally get very circular. When I make an argument and someone doesn’t engage with it or even remember it, I find it’s best to stop discussing the subject with them. That’s the reason why I’ve stopped engaging with you so much.

    In the article above, I talk about how important it is to listen to contrary arguments. Perhaps we could try an experiment that’s somewhat on that topic.

    Over the last few years, you’ve constantly made the core argument that: the only problem with running a budget deficit is inflation, and that’s easy to fix.

    I feel you just consistently ignore people who put up counter-arguments to that. Probably, you think that’s unfair. So humour me. Why don’t you list arguments that people make as to why inflation isn’t the only reason why a large budget deficit is a problem. And reasons why people think that inflation isn’t easy to fix?

    Chances are, over the years we’ve known each other, I’ll have made those arguments.

    One other issue. You often take people to task for their use of terminology. But terminology is used in different ways by different experts. So, it might be helpful to have a think about whether you are misunderstanding their points, because you haven’t understood their different (and equally valid use of terminology).

  • Peter Kenny 4th Jul '20 - 11:16pm

    The Lib Dem’s in power supported policies attacking the most vulnerable, giving support to benefit cuts in exchange for the 5p charge on plastic bags, for example.

    You supported, by action or inaction, the 2014 Immigration act that led directly to the Windrush scandal, an act opposed by only 7 MPs. Look it up and see their names. You probably know some of them already!

    I am not a Christian but I do believe there’s a saying In the bible about motes and beams!

  • Peter Martin 5th Jul '20 - 12:07am

    @ George,

    “…..you don’t remember any of my counter-arguments.”

    You could be right. At least I thought so because I genuinely can’t! But, you’ve written quite a number of articles for LDV and quite a few have been on govt debts and deficits. So I thought I’d take another look to see if I’m getting forgetful in my old age.

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/author/george-kendall

    So how have you explained your POV previously? Your articles have had such titles as “Social justice in a time of deficits”, “The left should follow John McDonnell and stop being anti-austerity”, and “When is the right time to reduce the deficit?”

    You always run with a general assumption that govt deficits are a bad thing but even though you are aware that we’ve always had them, I can’t see any rational explanation from you as to why they might be such a problem. As far as I can see, you don’t even mention once the genuine potential problem that I gave you: ie the danger of inflation!

    The best you can do is:

    “If you’re putting the rent on the credit card month after month, things need to change”. (3rd June 2016)

    “I fear that a continued government deficit will suck in yet more imports, and increase our trade deficit.” ( 19th January 2016)

    On the first point the govt doesn’t need a credit card because it owns a bank, the BoE, which issues currency. On the second point, a trade deficit is nearly always what happens when a developed country lets its currency genuinely float. There is an influx of money into the country via the capital account which has to be counterbalanced by an outflow via the current account.

  • George Kendall 5th Jul '20 - 9:43am

    @Peter Martin

    The reason I asked you to come up with arguments as to why people disagree with you is because I’m trying to work out if it’s worthwhile reopening the enormously lengthy discussions we’ve previously had, particularly on Facebook.

    If you just recite a few one sentence arguments, then explain why you disagree with them, I fear we’d just continue the circular arguments we’ve had so many times.

    But if you show you are making a real effort to get into the mind of people who disagree with you, that you have respect for their integrity, and that you are aware that real experts have genuine disagreements on these enormously complex and difficult issues, then maybe it would be worth it.

  • Peter Kenny 5th Jul '20 - 11:00am

    George Kendall – look at the names of the seven MPs who opposed the 2014 immigration act, for example. Which political current consistently opposed benefit cuts and sanctions? Which political current supports people’s rights to self organise to promote their own economic betterment?

    The ‘hard’ left.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jul '20 - 11:05am

    If the arguments were circular it was because it always came back to you saying something like, as you’ve just done ” I’m just not convinced. Sorry, but ….”

    Yes, of course I understand the conventional view. It’s what nearly everyone starts off with. We’ve all had a similar experience to Prof. Stephanie Kelton who writes in her recent book:

    ” I was sceptical at first when I first encountered these ideas. In fact I resisted them…………I realised that my prior understanding had been wrong. The core idea behind MMT may have appeared initially outlandish but it proved to be descriptively accurate….Its explanatory power doesn’t depend on ideology”.

    The challenge is to encourage everyone to question, and resist even, but not to put ideology before reasoned argument. If Lib Dems are serious about eliminating poverty it is absolutely necessary to not fall for the “Deficit Myth” which takes us all down the dead end of Economic Austerity.

    Google {Stephanie Kelton Deficit Myth}

  • It was certainly noticeable that Corbyn style socialism was not particularly redistributive in terms of its flagship policies. Scrapping tuition fees was actually regressive and mass renationalisation probably neutral. They also voted with the Tories to increase the threshold of the upper rate of income tax to £50k.

    They also attracted a new cohort of voters who were largely professional and well off and who had previously voted Conservative and shunned the centre-left. As a result Labour won seats such as Putney and Canterbury. The anti-Brexit (oddly given Corbyns Eurosceptic track record) and student vote played a part in this. This was something that received little attention because they were outnumbered by voters moving in the opposite direction.

    The Lib Dem manifestos have always been more redistributive than Labour in their aims and this remained the case under Corbyn. New Labour also significantly increased the incomes of the least well off although the rich got richer too.

    So yes I would say that the centre-left is more radical than the hard left by some measures. Politics is more of a horse shoe spectrum where the hard left and right meet in the middle ( the forces of conservatism) and real change is made from the radical centre.

  • Peter Martin 6th Jul '20 - 9:36am

    @ Marco,

    Presumably Lib Dems considered scrapping Tuition fees was a progressive policy when you were in originally favour of the idea? But you then realised your mistake, decided it was regressive after all, and so later supported an increase in the fees?

    The less affluent in society don’t usually benefit because of supposedly redistributive policies in a party manifesto. Maybe just at the fringes. What really matters is that the economy does well and jobs are well paid. The political right like to make much of the relatively low levels of unemployment that were seen just before the Covid19 lockdown. They don’t like to explain how the unemployed have been coerced, with threats of sanctions etc, to accept any ‘mini-job’ going. Incidentally that is a German term which we should adopt ourselves. They aren’t proper jobs.

    This has all been brought about by Economic Austerity. No-one can write articles, as George Kendall has done, calling for the left to ” stop being anti-austerity” and be considered to be on the left themselves. Not even on the centre left. Austerity economics, which can only have the purpose of driving down wages and worsening working conditions, is one of the worst forms of right wing oppression possible.

  • @ Peter Martin

    I support a graduate tax rather than abolishing fees and always thought that students should contribute something to their education. The coalitions reforms to student finance were a step in the direction of a graduate tax but an incomplete one hence the controversy.

    Another thing about Labours manifesto under Corbyn was that they did not fully commit to reversing all of the Tories welfare cuts including all of the ones made post coalition. The benefit freeze would have remained in place.

  • Peter Martin 6th Jul '20 - 12:28pm

    @ Marco,

    I don’t want to be partisan about this. I’ve always said that Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn were far from ideal and also far from being the ultra leftists their political opponents portrayed them to be.

    The author of this article describes what went on fairly well. It’s interesting that she has said:

    “It could be that Labour simply couldn’t find the money for it”

    and

    Emily Thornberry said “…that ending the freeze would cost too much.”

    Neither of these are good reasons. If there is anything that is “simple” it’s the ability of the Government to spend as and when it thinks fit. It doesn’t have to “find the money” as Rishi Sunak is quite capable of explaining. It will all come back in tax in any case – unless it is saved.

    As always, the limitation on spending had to be a concern about inflation. If Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry considered that restoring the cuts was potentially too inflationary then that’s what they should have said. That would have been a valid reason.

    https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/06/07/why-labour-s-welfare-mess-matters

  • John Littler 10th Jul '20 - 6:20pm

    I was not expecting to see Lancashire folk band from the 70’s, the Houghton Weavers link on LibDem voice (Lloyd George)

    When marxist regimes get into power, they often have total power over security, governance AND economics and if power corrupts, total power corrupts totally.
    Of course most or all of them drift into a kind of pseudo monarchy with a personality cult and steal the wealth in the name of workers to spend on controlling the people against further revolution and to prevent invasion, while feathering their nests with the remainder. Gold taps and various tasteless monuments and overblown architecture follow to glorify themselves.

    There was nothing liberal about Soviet Russia, so talk of cultural marxism in universities is very suspect. If the police caught men with long hair under the Soviets, they would be taken back to the cells and given a beating. If they were found a 2nd or 3rd time, the time in the cells got longer and longer with more serious beatings.

    The LibDems should be looking to various Northern European and Scandinavian countries as practical examples of how UK governance could be much better, where adults and kids would be happier, less unequal, healthier, better educated, less in debt, less worried and having pandemics handled better to mention a few. If we don’t the SNP will anyway.

  • George Kendall 12th Jul '20 - 1:24pm

    @John Littler

    Thanks for the comment. I very much agree with what you say about Marxist regime.

    The standard response from most Marxists is that none of these implemented true Marxism.

    I suspect social justice was in the minds of some Marxist revolutionaries when they started out. But unfortunately what they ended up with was anger and a refusal to engage with different opinions.

    And anger and a refuse to engage with other opinions is a terrifying thing when it’s the government.

    @Marco

    It does puzzle me that in 2017 Corbyn’s team could put together a manifesto that involved continuing with so many of the 2015 Tory benefits cuts. I suspect part of the reason is how I describe the article above – a refusal to listen to contrary opinions.

    PS Don’t listen to Peter Martin’s description of me. I’m against austerity for the poor, but, as I also support modest tax rises for the better off, that means I’m in favour of austerity for the affluent (as is anyone who supported the 2017 and 2019 Lib Dem manifestos).

  • George Kendall 12th Jul '20 - 1:38pm

    … Further on austerity, as I’m a Keynesian, I only want austerity for the affluent when the economy is growing reasonably. So it will only be relative austerity – as growth in the economy will probably more than counteract the losses to the affluent caused by increased taxes.

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