What is 'the left' in British politics?
In political debate left and right represent opposing philosophies. Historically they have included a whole spectrum of political ideas from Communism to Fascism but, in the British context, there have been a set of left ideas associated with the Labour Party and a set of right ideas associated with the Conservative Party. This does not stop, at any particular time, a party leader taking over ideas from the other side. Blair extended competition in the public services which had been developed by the previous Conservative Government and Cameron has strongly supported gay rights, whereas support for minority rights had normally been associated with the left.
The main left ideas in the British tradition are:-
- That capitalism has fundamental flaws as a way or organising the economy. In the first half of the 20th century Labour Party politicians believed that capitalism was an unstable system producing great inequality and would be replaced by a socialist system involving collective ownership of all aspects of the economy. The 1945 Labour Government nationalised key industries such as steel, transport and coal as a step towards this. In the second half of the 20th century many Labour thinkers came to accept a mixed economy with a large private sector but there was a debate as to whether the State should plan the economy as a whole through investment, subsidies and taxation policies. When Blair rebranded the Labour Party as New Labour he adopted ideas which argued that in a globalised economy there was a limit to what any national government could control and so government should instead be ensuring that the country could compete internationally with a trained workforce and better technology.
There is still a belief in collective ownership on the left though this could be through community ownership, local authority ownership and worker run businesses as much as State ownership. In the 2015 election Labour was proposing that rail franchises could be taken over by these sorts of organisations. Even those on the left who are uncertain about how far collective ownership can extend see capitalism as often unstable and not always working in the interests of the consumer and this view led Labour to propose State intervention to break the control of the large six energy companies over energy production and supply.
- The left sees society as containing large inequalities of wealth and it is the role of the State to correct this. Writers in the 1960s such as Crosland argued that capitalism created wealth and it was the job of Labour Governments to redistribute that wealth. Thus Labour Government’s in the 1960s and 1970s had a higher rate of tax on the most wealthy and used this to provide universal welfare and education. Gordon Brown as Labour’s Chancellor after 1997 introduced tax credits to increase the income of families with low wage earners and pensioners on low incomes. Trade unions are seen as important as another way of reducing inequalities by protecting wages and conditions of work for their members. Support for the EU increased on the left when it developed a range of employment rights.
- Inequality is also seen by the left as existing in the life chances of people so that some people have poorer education, health, opportunity for participation in cultural and sporting activities and so on. The left therefore favoured comprehensive education and opposed private education and health. The Blair Government, which was more cautious in market intervention, nevertheless saw a role for the State in ensuring access for all to university or in encouraging participation by all groups in sport, in encouraging healthy living or in providing the Sure Start programme which helped poorer families with small children in parenting and pre-school education.
- Support for the equality of women developed on the left and the 1960s Labour Government passed equality legislation in relation to work. However, feminist ideas grew in the 1970s mainly outside the traditional Labour Party and trade union organisation and then gradually began to influence it. A movement developed in the 1970s that has been called the New Left that believed in grassroots community activism, and which promoted the claims to equality of minorities, including ethnic minority groups, gay and lesbian people and disabled people and the Labour Government after 1997 took steps to further these aims.
- Left ideas have stressed internationalism rather than nationalism and have tended to be anti-militarist. International disputes should be settled through collective agreements via the United Nations rather than through military intervention by individual countries or small groups of countries. This led the majority of Labour MPs to vote against the war against Iraq. This extends to collective international action to deal with issues such as global poverty.