We on the centre-left need a new blueprint for the world we want, writes Joseph Hamm
The language of the centre-left in modern times is defensive: stop Brexit, stop Donald Trump, protect our NHS. Everything is in decline and everything is a disaster. While progressive fatalism is often understandable, defensive posturing and apocalyptic prophecies do not amount to a convincing narrative. Stopping Brexit, opposing Trump, and fighting austerity are laudable goals but they are rooted in defending the status quo rather than transformative change. They are also framed in the negative. This inability to describe a positive and progressive future has left ‘establishment’ social democrats vulnerable to the rise of populism, which promises the change that people want.
In Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman describes this phenomenon of defensiveness as ‘underdog socialism’. Bregman describes the mindset of underdog socialists as negative, defensive, and frequently allowing the opposition to frame the argument. The problem with the underdog socialist is not just that they are passive, Bregman argues, it is also that they are dull. Nobody is inspired by a narrative of ‘business as usual’. To be successful, the left must sell a story of hope, optimism, and progress. It must offer forward a vision for a better life. That is when we win.
It is time that the centre-left once again articulated an optimistic vision of what the future could look like. This is not just about alleviating the negative effects of Conservative policy – although this is important. Progressives must concern themselves with putting forward a vision of a society that people want to live in. This is not to diminish the scale of other problems facing the world. Climate change is existential, Brexit could have disastrous effects on the United Kingdom and Trump is a huge threat to an already chaotic global order. But doom mongering is not enough. The centre-left needs to have a vision for a better world, not unlike the one Anthony Crosland spoke to in The Future of Socialism:
‘We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so ad infinitum.’
Crosland is not at all interested in a dull, grey, and bureaucratic socialist project but rather a vibrant vision of a thriving, open society. There are parallels to draw between Crosland’s vision of ‘the good society’ and the utopias described by William Morris. In Morris’ novel, News From Nowhere, he describes a utopian socialist London in the year 2102 filled with lush common gardens and orchards. London is free from cars and people are swimming and fishing in a clear and clean Thames. These are optimistic visions of futures in which life is understood as something beyond just work. Modern social democracy could make rekindling these ideas a key part of its purpose by offering a combination of increased leisure time and an investment in places to spend that time.
This means a commitment to creating beautiful public spaces. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes a public space as ‘a shared resource in which experiences and value are created’. This is a wide-ranging description but, more importantly, those shared experiences are what life is ultimately about. It is thus the role of policymakers to facilitate them. In a world where people’s lives are dominated by the stress and anxiety of work, the potential therapeutic and community aspects of public spaces are increasingly relevant. A commitment to the good life is important for social democrats not just because green parks are pleasant. An investment in public spaces is an investment in people’s health and an investment in communities.
This must go hand in hand with a commitment to leisure time. We are tired, we are stressed and we are anxious. This is all happening against the backdrop of a serious productivity puzzle. When the government adopted a three day week in the 1970s, they were astonished to see that a working week that had been cut by 40 per cent had resulted in production losses of only six per cent. A shorter working week could enrich people’s lives without hampering productivity. Many might use that extra time to volunteer, exercise or engage in creative and cultural pursuits. If nothing else, they would be afforded more time to spend with their families and friends. This could be the framework with which the centre-left grapples with the increasingly salient issue of mental health. We need to think about what makes life worthwhile and how can we create those conditions?
The centre-left has a reputation for pragmatism but, from Crosland to Blair, it has had at its core a clear idea of the Britain it wanted to exist. Now it seems the contemporary centre-left is attached to a narrative of inevitable decline and disaster without articulating an alternative to it.
It is time to fight for the visions of both Crosland and Morris, and reclaim our idealistic vision for the future.
Joseph Hamm is a writer and blogger. He tweets @steamedhamms
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