As established previously, I am a political junkie. I follow the politics of many countries, and I make my mind up quickly about who I would vote for. Ireland? Sinn Fein. The U.K.? Respect if I could. Australia? The DLP. Norway? The Red Party. Uruguay? The CDP. And so, this last week has been a particularly sad one for the left in the UK. It has lost two giant figures on the genuine left (I’m talking real Socialists, not Blairites here) Bob Crow, the radical union leader, and Tony Benn, long the voice of the socialist left in Labour. Obituaries have been written. On the right these obituaries haven’t just been for two prominent men, but also for the British left. On the left, there has of course been mourning for the deaths of these two giants, but also assessment of where these deaths have left their movement.
I’ve always been a supporter of proportional representation, and have thought MMP provides the right balance (I voted for it in 2011), and with a bit of tweaking (removing the threshold, and expanding the size of Parliament to about 170 to increase proportionality), I’ve thought it could be more or less the perfect electoral system. But the deaths of these two men made me think just a little. As Owen Jones mentions in his article (hyperlinked above), Crow was a supporter of building a new workers’ party, as he saw that Labour had failed the working-class rather spectacularly, especially during Blair’s government, but Benn remained a lifelong supporter of the socialist left in the Labour Party. Yes, read that again, the socialist left in the Labour Party. 20-odd years after the removal of Clause 4 there is still a substantial caucus in the UK Labour Party, the party that for 13 years ruled more or less like Clark’s government or any other prominent ‘centre-left’ party in the West of the same period, still has real, genuine, honest-to-God Socialists. People that still talk in no unsure terms about class, the proletariat, socialism, and capitalism. Hell, it was only in the ’70s that the Trotskyites were expelled. This is the party that will likely form Government next year in one of the world’s largest economies, and there’s a good chance people who self-describe as socialists (and mean it) will be in Cabinet.
Now, of-course it can be countered that these socialists were in Government for 13 years, and were powerless to stop a Government that sold out the working-class and served as Thatcher’s greatest legacy. Or it could be countered that remnants of the genuine left in the British political mainstream is because their politics is more radical than ours, or they’re facing more drastically bad economic conditions than us. But I can’t help wondering if it has something to do with the FPP electoral system. After all, it seems the last time anyone in the political consciousness even talked about socialism was during the last FPP Labour government (Rogernomics, I know, but I’m not talking about outcomes of governance, just genuine socialism being discussed). Now I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the MANA Movement, if not socialist as a whole, at least has a prominent socialist wing, but this is something that is not publicly discussed, the same was true with the Alliance.
It’s no secret that the left is prone to People’s Front of Judea-style splintering, and before we proceed too far down this track I would like to state that I am a Platonist. A strangley conservative philosophical position for a left-winger to take, I know, but it informs my political ideology completely. It seems to me the only coherent way that one can make moral judgements. And given that the left is so fundamentally concerned with moral concepts (social justice, fairness, human rights), in a way, I would contend, that the right, being philosophically liberal (don’t get your undies in a twist, think Locke) – and so nihilist – is not, Platonism has always seemed a natural fit for me. Platonists, indeed Plato himself, in The Republic, have always been very wary of fragmentation and disunity. Unity has a certain coherence and elegance to it. The left has valued unity as well (although it hasn’t stopped them from fragmentation), Marxists especially. The ‘scientific’ approach to political ideology has never carried much room for disagreement (that’s why anytime there’s the smallest disagreement they set up their own party). The very aim of the real left and socialist democracy is the revolutionary removal of social division. In-fact the only political philosophy that has ever been particularly keen on disunity, or ‘pluralism’ has been liberalism. Just look at the American Constitution, set up to guarantee a fractured state. Given this, maybe an electoral system that is oriented towards less political fracture is more advantageous to the left, better at keeping a strong and united genuine left voice in the mainstream, in the way that socialism remains in the political consciousness in the FPP UK in a way that it doesn’t in MMP New Zealand.
In-fact, maybe a two-party system is more representative of the binary division in society (worker-owner to the Marxist, truth-falsity – and all that entails – to the Platonist) than a fractured multi-party system. A system with parties based on false divides, and that propagate and arguably deepen these divides with the rise of identity politics that has seemed to accompany the introduction of proportional representation, due to the necessity of a more presidential style of politics as parties must compete for the party vote. And can we really say that MMP has brought more consensus or unity to our society? When once we may have been content to attack ‘fat-cats’ or ‘financiers’, there now seems to be a whole host of identity markers attached to the powerful. No longer are they just ‘rich fat-cats’, but ‘old, Pākehā, male, heterosexual, rich fat-cats’ [Raymond Miller, The Party System: The Party System Under Proportional Representation, in ‘Party Politics In New Zealand’, Oxford, 2005, pp. 51-61]. I’m in absolutely no way denying the accuracy of those labels, but what’s the relevant underlying division here? It’s the material one. These groups form the cultural hegemony because they are materially more powerful. Further dividing ourselves into feminist/misogynist, gay/homophobic, permissive/reactionary, battler/bludger, isn’t going to address the only divide that matters; worker/owner, and all the moral issues that that entails.
A last word. The left in Labour parties all around the world was destroyed by identity politics, the rise of liberalism as the defining ideology. As soon as the focus turned from the working-class, to social issues in the ’70s, and specifically the left’s adoption of a liberal philosophy in response to these social issues, the consequences of that liberal philosophy inevitably flowed to economic policy as well – hence Rogernomics. Many analysts like to try and separate economic and social issues, but the adoption of any political philosophy, or its more fundamental moral philosophy will logically affect both its social and economic views. This article elaborates. The only way the left can advance is by radically readjusting its focus to material issues, and the moral standing of these issues, and perhaps that means supporting an electoral system that is less pluralistic than our current one, although at this time I remain a supporter of MMP.