Language and the Left

One of the things I’ll be pondering on this site will be resurgence of the political Left across Europe. With the demise of the traditional political ideology of the Labour party, I’ve found myself wondering whether Left Unity can tap into the strong anti-austerity sentiments in the UK and finally offer voters the chance of socially driven change. With this in mind I will start this blog off with an article that I originally wrote for the Left Unity website …

Language and the Left

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist.”
Helder Câmara, former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil

In today’s world of 24 hour media and internet access we are bombarded with information. Little of this is neutral in terms of value judgements. A war is therefore constantly waged in order to win our support or our patronage for products and ideas. Politics has become increasingly depoliticised and commoditised. With the arrival of Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ into British politics, the centre ground underwent a dramatic shift to the right with the result that the electorate finds it hard to distinguish between candidates from the leading parties. When Francis Fukuyama pronounced the ‘end of history’ at the close of the cold war, he was implying the death of political choice as much as the end of an ideological war.

Over the last 18 months this barren ideological landscape has seen the re-emergence of a strong left wing throughout parts of Europe. As people and families begin to survey the damage done by neoliberal policies, the left wing, particularly in the south of Europe, has rallied around anti-austerity and anti-corruption slogans. In several countries, those on the left have stood together to confront the market-driven agenda of the infamous troika and ask struggling communities a fundamental question: Do we want our lives to be dictated by the market and our well-being to be measured by economic indicators?

On the continent it is Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece who have been most successful in getting their message across.  In Britain it is Left Unity who appear best placed to offer the voters something new from a coordinated left-wing. With both Syriza and Podemos on the brink of perhaps historic election victories, we must ask ourselves how the British left can seize the agenda and institute real change. It would be disingenuous to claim that British socialism has traditionally enjoyed the same popular support as that in parts of southern Europe. Indeed, at a time when Pablo Iglesias, as leader of Podemos, can fill a 4,000 seat venue in Seville, the membership of Left Unity is still a fraction of other new left-wing movements across Europe. With the battle for ideas being waged constantly in our 24 hour media society, the winners of any debate on the future of our societies will be the individuals and parties who are best able to convey their message in a way that resonates with the lives and struggles of the electorate. Language as always will shape the debate.

A new political party representing the left was badly needed in British politics and Left Unity offers a remarkable opportunity for socially driven change. However, the language of the Founding Statements is not wholly representative of a modern political movement looking to bring improvement to the lives of the electorate. In parts it evokes the same intellectual battleground that has been fought for generations between left and right. An intellectual movement cannot win votes without popular support and perhaps we must accept that the traditional language of socialism is not of interest to the millions of people who want lasting change instead of what they see as political rhetoric.

“We are socialist because our aim is to end capitalism” declares Left Unity in its Founding Statement 1.3. This is a strong appeal to seasoned left-wingers as both an intellectual statement and a call to arms. But it is unlikely to find popular support. In Spain, Podemos has been so successful in this regard by striving to ‘become the people.’ People across Spain who have felt alienated from politicians and the political process feel empowered by this new group which offers not only to represent them but to allow them to drive the agenda and participate in decision making.  Instead of falling back on old arguments, Podemos claims to be “a initiative of citizens who propose simple but deep change: to recover democracy and put politics at the service of people and human rights.” This is surely underpinned by many of the socialist principles shared by the Left Unity leadership but it is presented in the language of inclusion and change. It is a revolution presented as an adjustment. It is socialism presented by people and not by politicians. And it wins votes.

The language of inclusion is somewhat missing from Left Unity’s own agenda. By stating that its political practice is organised “amongst working class communities with no interests apart from theirs” Left Unity draws the lines of battle for another class war. This language alienates those who define themselves as middle class and who in many cases are just as disillusioned and desperate for socially driven change as the working class. Do we want to wage another class war from the sidelines or do we want to broaden the appeal to encompass all those who feel unrepresented and disadvantaged by neoliberal politics? If we believe that socialism offers a better future for us all then why not market it as such?

Perhaps then Left Unity must seek to market its political agenda less around what may be seen as the negative class battles of the past. The class debate must be redefined, not perpetuated. On both the left and the right we are currently witnessing political movements which have gained widespread support by identifying one or two key issues as their central and defining policies. On the right, Nigel Farange has capitalised on a contrived ‘man in the pub’ persona to spread outrage at immigration policy and garner popular support. On the European left, the Podemos movement has centralised around the issues of corruption and austerity, while in Greece, the electorate has been pushed so close to the brink by the troika that the door was left wide open for a coordinated left wing movement. While it could be claimed that conditions in the south of the Eurozone are more ripe for a surge in left wing political ideals, the neoliberal policies being pursued in the UK are no less serious in terms of the devastation they bring to the fabric of our society. In economic terms, the explosion of the financial sector has surely made London the rent-seeking capital of the world.

It is crucial therefore that the main weapon in the political battle should be policies based on clear and articulated public concern rather than the age-old ideological argument. Equality, tolerance and public accountability and ownership are far easier messages to convey than the overthrow of capitalism. The latter raises more questions than answers in the public mind. The time is ripe for political and societal change. In our world of 24 hour media, the use of language and publicity will be key to defining the future of our society. We must not let this opportunity be lost by an association with the past. Will Left Unity be more successful calling for the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ or by demanding a society ‘run for the people, by the people’? Should Left Unity be ‘organised by the working class, activists and the trade unions’ or by ‘all those who want a fairer world where their voice is heard’?

If Left Unity is going to garner widespread support for a left wing agenda designed to bring socially driven change then it must distinguish itself not just from the right but from other left wing parties as well. With the publication of its policy statements in 2014, Left Unity certainly took a step in the right direction in addressing tangible, popular concerns. However, any British left-wing movement is never far ideologically from its traditional socialist (or Marxist) roots. My fear is that a historic opportunity may be lost in the rhetoric of the past.


2 thoughts on “Language and the Left

  1. lipstick socialist January 28, 2015 / 8:42 am

    Left Unity like the Peoples Assembly and many other organisations that have arisen since 2010 have one thing in common;they lack any base in working class communities. And until the majority, the working class, decide to set up/get involved in some form of grouping, it is unlkely that there will be an backlash that has been seen in Spain or Greece. I think it is a simple as that.


  2. The Samurai Socialist January 28, 2015 / 9:52 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Left Unity and many other left leaning groups are still pushing ‘top down’ politics, trying to push the same old ideologies and slogans on to the working class. What we have seen over the last year particularly is that politics is moving beyond this, with people wanting to play an active and inclusive role in determining how societies are organised. Instead of pandering to its traditional hard left supporters Left Unity needs to modify its language, get into the communities and engage directly with the electorate. If not it will quickly be left behind and marginalised as just another socialist discussion group. Personally, I do still have some hope for this party and I feel if they focus on real, tangible issues they may be able to make an impact. I am just concerned that things are already heading in the wrong direction.
    Anyway, thanks a lot for the comment and for the add.


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