Freedom and Social Democracy

A few months ago Chris Dillow, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote an interesting piece about the death of the idea of freedom on the right. This can be read here. The main points, are, I think, pretty good ones. Ending freedom of movement, the hostile environment for immigrants and regressive policies on criminal justice are all central projects of the British right, and all involve significant restrictions on individual freedom.  Anti-immigration policy is notable in particular, as its ostensive justifications (purported impacts on wages) tend to rely on the tacit assumption that labour markets don't function efficiently and immigrants simply impact the supply of labour, rather than create additional demand for it too (the lump of labour fallacy). Back in the 1980's, the dominant thinkers and politicians of the New Right used to think belief in freedom and belief in the power of the market went hand in had. Now, it seems, in large areas of social and economic policy the right believe in neither. Dillow suggests that the mantle of freedom might be taken up by the left, and concludes by arguing that this is well complimented by an understanding that unequal wealth and power can lead to forms of coercion. It was this understanding that was so central to the emancipatory themes of 19th century left wing thought.

I'd like to add a few thoughts as to why freedom might be an effective focal point for the left and centre left of British politics right now. The first point is it can be a good way of marrying the need to appeal to 'aspiration' with concern for social welfare. A functioning welfare state is not just about alleviating immediate poverty: by providing security and certainty people are more able to make choices about how they lead their lives. If, for example, you lose your job, meagre allowances and pressure from the DWP will likely force you to take the first thing on offer. You might well have better choices if a better level of support allows you to take the time to find something you are actually want to, or take the time to re-skill. The same is equally true for decent maternity and paternity allowances. A decent system of social support can, in a very real sense, be freedom enhancing, as can certain regulations aimed at providing greater job security. Free from insecurity, we can more confidently make better choices about our lives and have greater aspirations.

The second point here is that a focus on the value of the welfare state as freedom enhancing could help address one of the central problems Labour has had electorally under Corbyn. Many supporters of Corbyn have protested against what they see as the unfair depiction of their 2017 and 2019 manifestos as extreme. But this has not been helped by the fact that talking up the 'radicalism' of their platform has been a large part of the appeal of Corbyn amongst supporters. The rehabilitation of the word 'socialist' in particular as a self description is a notable part of this. The problem with the term as used today is for older generations it carries with it the baggage of the Cold War and a collectivist mindset, without even being a particularly useful description of a policy agenda (is anybody seriously advocating collective ownership of the means of production and distribution?) Moving away from this vocabulary and stressing social democratic policies as freedom enhancing might spare the left of these associations.

This focus finally offers a better opportunity for the kind of electoral alliance Labour, or any party of the centre left would need to win power. It could allow them to speak a language more recognisable to liberals, and have a common way of talking about the encroachments on traditional civil liberties and the erosion of constitutional norms resulting from Brexit and pushed by Johnson and the nativist right. It could, unlike Corbynism, effectively make this case, while simultaneously pushing the well evidenced proposition that more equal societies with greater levels of economic security are also freer and more politically stable ones, with a better functioning public sphere.

Abnormal Elections

The post mortem of the election results have, for the most part, focussed on different interpretations as to "why Labour lost", which tends to mean a list of things it did badly.  This is understandable, and not without merit. But there is another way of asking the same question, that while logically no different, tends to produce a different kind of answer. It is "why did Johnson win?". Or, more concretely, what aspects of his campaign may have contributed to his success? The answers to this, I think, are rather unedifying, but important if we value understanding our current predicament. 

The sad truth is that this is an election that shows that disinformation and strongman rhetoric work. Let's think back for the last few months. Johnson tried to temporarily shut down parliament to circumvent his lacking a parliamentary majority. His election campaign included ramping up anti-immigrant rhetoric and pitting people against the institutions of liberal democracy (the 'people' vs parliament). His campaign used crude disinformation techniques, from fake 'fact checking' services to dubious Facebook groups like "Parents' Choice" set up in October to churn out party propaganda. 
This is all, of course, little more than a rehashing of the successful efforts of Vote Leave, whose 'genius' was the trio of promising greater levels of public expenditure on the NHS, clever disinformation campaigns and whipping up anger against outsider groups and those who support them. 

The problem is, on one level, simple to diagnose if difficult to treat. Strongman politics can be popular. The appeal of a strong leader who promises to 'end debate' and overcome the laws and institutions which appear to frustrate 'common sense' is a recurring sickness of modern democracy. Looking beyond the UK, we see it in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Poland and the USA. Whatever inherent appeal this kind of politics has, it certainly seems to be made worse by periods of economic malaise. Financial crises in particular lend towards a conspiratorial mindset that seems crucial to these movements. Tentative treatments, unfortunately, require being in government. The best remedy may well have been larger fiscal stimuli in the UK and the USA and a more relaxed attitude towards inflation from the ECB. Out of government the conditions of this virulent strain of authoritarian politics cannot be addressed, and once it achieves power it tends to make life for the opposition much more difficult. In the UK this will likely mean compulsory voter ID and greater levels of intimidation from the tabloid press. 

In the UK, there has been a particular reluctance to recognise this for what it is. This is often ascribed to a peculiarly British complacency due to the longevity of its political system and the fact that it did not experience fascism during the second world war or interwar period. But I think part of this is about politics too. Parts of the Labour left were a little too keen to normalise the 2016 referendum as a valid exercise in democracy. You can see why. In part it was a defence of the leadership's absence from the campaign (if you frame explanations of the result in terms of popular opinion, you can downplay the role of the leadership). Part of this is due to the ambivalence of some close to the leadership on the EU. And part of this is just party politics: many in Labour, rightly or wrongly decided that being seen not to 'respect' the referendum result was politically toxic. As a result, those who criticised the leave campaign's conduct, and saw this as crucial to an explanation of the result,  were often dismissed as delusional, self indulgent or downright conspiratorial. This is encapsulated neatly by Owen Jones' remark that in 2018 that "the Remain cause is sabotaged by a small, vocal arrogant clique who treat the referendum result as just mass stupidity and delusion, won through cheating, without understanding the anger that brought it about."

I fear that something similar is going on now from those opposed to Corbyn's leadership, amongst whom I would be included. To be clear, the leadership was not just foolish, but at times ghastly. Its blindness and tolerance for antisemitism was an encapsulation of a greater tendency towards conspiratorial thinking and reducing the world into simplistic, antagonistic relationships that do no justice to the left's rich intellectual tradition. But it would be a great mistake to let that excuse and normalise the outrageous practices of Johnson and the Conservative Party. The effectiveness of their transgressive strategies, or at least, the fact that they do not seem to come with a price, may be part of the explanation too.