If we define a left of centre position as being about improving the quality of life of everyone by reducing unjust inequalities (not just financial), then pragmatism is the Left's best friend. The Left had some demons in the past that kept it out of power (exacerbated by a hostile media and distorted electoral system) but the answer to these demons was solved partly by intellectual honesty and partly by sweeping the problems under the carpet. Equivocation was preferred to tackling the root problems on a number of issues and this cannot continue. Like any large coalition the Left have vested interests and hard choices to be made about these interests - for instance - what does a left wing government do about unjustified pay claims of unionised workers when lower paid non-unionised workers pay for these pay claims?
We on the Left can and should be totally intellectually honest. That is my belief, in fact I believe it is our best strategy for winning support and for pushing forward our arguments. I believe that any person that follows an intellectually honest direction and garners as much evidence as possible will end up supporting an increasing number of left of centre policies.
Those politicians on the Left who resort to vague replies to questioning and to avoiding the question altogether do it because it is easier and safer than doing proper research of the facts NOT because it is the best strategy to win votes. There are indeed only so many 'don't knows' you can get away with when being honest but the public appreciate that nobody can know everything and will give credit for honesty. However those politicians on the Right that use such vagueness and misinformation, do so because it IS their best strategy to win votes because the facts generally do not support their position.
As Stephen Colbert famously said 'reality has a liberal bias'. Well, I think reality has a left wing bias. This is our big advantage over the opposition, who are putting up a rearguard reactionary push to slow progress. This requires huge resources (75% of the press and the oligarchical influence of big business on government policy) on their part to confuse and misinform the public, they are trying to hold back the tide of progress. The internet is another opportunity for the Left to get the truth out there. When Murdoch and others on the Right are investing billions in the net it is because they are scared of losing their stranglehold on the media.
If we look through history at how past left-wing ideas on democracy, equality, race, gender and sexuality have entered the mainstream. It is clear which side is winning the battle. Being left wing is about constantly pushing the boundaries, taking the argument to the next level, shaping the next challenge to authority, tradition, embedded unthinking positions and the inertia of the status quo.
So how do we go about this change in attitude amongst the Left? An attitude that has been infected with the defensive vacuous approach of the Right. This 'spin' approach that was so successful electorally for the Right will prove disastrous for the Left in the long run.
The most important problem to tackle is the decline in political activism amongst the public (it has always been poor but now it is terrible). This is dangerous for us for at least a couple of reasons;
i) As Ken Livingstone put it in the 1980's, he said you couldn't fail to be inspired to have a go at office yourself by the sheer level of mediocrity of the present incumbents. If we can increase the numbers of people engaging in political party activity, this mediocrity hopefully will be watered down.
ii) Another problem associated with this is cynical careerists whose path to power is made easier by the small numbers of activists. These people are like a Tory fifth column infecting all parties. The majority of people in this country are left of centre, so more activists will marginalise these Tories.
The main parties - Tory and Labour, have around 180,000 to 200,000 members each, the Lib Dems around 70,000. This averages out at about 250-300 members per constituency for the main parties and about 100 for the Lib Dems. The Tories are known to have less active members than Labour, but if we take an optimistic 10% of members are active across the board, then that is just 25-30 activists each per constituency for the main parties and 10 for the Lib Dems (that's 1-3 activists per party per ward). I know there are variations in different constituencies (The Tories have no activists in a lot of urban wards but plenty in wards they win. Perversely because it is largely middle class people who are active, the Labour party can have more activists in seats it loses than seats it wins). This is an unbelievably low level of party political activity and unbelievably dangerous for our democracy. However it also opens up opportunities because it would only need a small influx of new blood to completely change the power base in grass roots democracy. Change could be very quick.
Now I would encourage people to join any political party (with the exception of the BNP) but obviously internal party democracy varies from party to party. Tory members get very little say in policies, it is basically a Napoleonic structure - they elect the leader from a choice of two put before them and then have to abide by whatever policies their leadership come up with. The Lib Dems and Greens are the most democratic but their policies are largely irrelevant. Labour is somewhere in the middle on internal democracy but their policies do have a real chance of being implemented. Not surprisingly I advocate joining the Labour party. It would only take 25-30 people in most constituencies to give that group control over deciding policies in the Labour party. I repeat only 25-30 people out there in each constituency (2-3 in each ward).
So why don't people do this? All those thousands of people in every constituency who care about politics, campaign on single issues, read the Tory press, criticise every policy of the government vehemently and are convinced they could do better. What is putting them off? Once again a number of factors are most important;
i) People may be interested in the big politics but they are not that interested in sitting in meetings discussing procedural issues, parking problems and wheelie bins on a weeknight after a hard day at work.
ii) People do not know the first thing about local parties, where they meet, what they discuss, finding this information and overcoming any nervousness can be quite daunting for people.
iii) Some of the current members of a party may be superficially welcoming to a new member but do not go out of their way to make them welcome. This is because they are quite happy with their cliquey power base and resent it being threatened. This also explains why recruitment drives can be so lacklustre and meetings can get bogged down in procedural rules that are never explained to newcomers - making them feel even more uncomfortable.
iv) People don't think it will make any difference. This is the biggie! They read the media and it tells them nothing will make any difference, so they become alienated from the whole process. Women in particular and lower socio-economic classes are put off by the lack of prominence of their peers in politics.
v) Inevitably our electoral system means that most people live in seats where the electoral outcome is not in doubt. This obviously deters political activity, thus helping reinforce point number iv in people's minds. The Right talk endlessly of how competition can improve efficiency and in a lot of cases they are correct. Proportional representation is a good example of this, it increases the 'competition of ideas' by giving people more choice. While not completely solving alienation, PR would take away a number of negatives - geographical variation in value of vote, slow progress of acceptance of innovative radical policies and overly negative campaigning.
vi) Politics is about compromise and our consumer society has conditioned us to be impatient. We want that solution/product and we want it quickly. This is another reason why single issue campaigns are popular and party politics isn't. But people who think like this are not accepting that politics is difficult and that there will always be someone disappointed. That is inevitable whatever decision is taken.
This issue of compromise is so important. I was talking to someone who is standing locally as an Independent. He used to be in the Green party and he railed against having to 'toe the party line' and felt frustrated he couldn't say what he felt, which is why he had completely rejected party politics. I explained that I sympathised with his position but that he simply had to be honest on the issues and take any rebuke from the party but fight within it for what he believes.
There will always be pressure to conform or not speak out on issues but I sited Ken Livingstone as an example of how much leeway you can have in a party. I believe Ken manages to be intellectually honest and no matter how much some people dislike him, at least he states a clear position on issues. He also explains his inevitable compromises and errors in the most honest way rather than trying to pretend he is perfect. Of course for someone to do this takes a remarkable person, with encyclopaedic knowledge and boundless energy (also an incredible thick skin in the face of the inevitable hostility of the Tory press).
I used the example of electoral reform to explain to this independent guy why compromise is better than just rejecting everything you are not totally happy with. I favour regional open list PR but I see nothing wrong in supporting the Alternative Vote because I consider that to be an improvement on the present situation, however I would qualify my support for AV by stating that proportional systems are better still. What is wrong with taking any progress available and then continuing to campaign for something better? At least you have moved someway towards your goal. As long as you speak out about why you think something is not good enough or why you oppose certain policies then your intellectual honesty can be maintained. This is what I do with the Labour party. There are of course many Labour policies I think of as too slow progress or I even categorically oppose - I speak out about these policies but the Labour party still has more policies I support than any other party which is why I remain a member.
Even if politics got to the dreadful stage where I supported only 5% of a party's policies and the other parties were worse still, I would still join that party (taking into account electoral success and internal democracy) but campaign hard to change it from within. If everybody thought like this, then our governance could be greatly improved. Those who stay outside of party politics make progress much more difficult because being inside party politics gives an additional influence and does not prevent people from carrying on any other outside campaigning. So if you are critical of your governance and argue for change and have not joined a political party, make a choice and join one, only then will you find out if you really can do better.