From poverty and inequality to climate change, there are questions being asked of us as a species that need urgent answers if our children are to have any sort of a future.
Some of the problems we face are so great that everyone feels the need to pay lip service. But those who seem to be genuinely looking for solutions overwhelmingly associate with the Left. Once you scratch the surface, the actions and priorities of parties, politicians and think tanks associated with the Right are primarily serving their own agenda. The hope, and sometimes belief, often exists that the big issues of our time will be resolved as side effects. But it’s rarely more than PR.
So why is that, and what exactly does left-wing mean?
The definition can be fairly broad. It’s important to point out that I’m not claiming to be some expert in political theory, so I’m not here to advocate a particular branch of Marxism as the only way forward, or tell you it’s the anarcho-syndicalism way or the highway. I have, however, taken more than a passive interest in politics in recent years, and all of the ideas and ideals I find myself drawn to are considered to be on the Left.
The term ‘left-wing’ originated during the French Revolution and comes from the seating choices of those who were opposed to the monarchy. Inequality inflates almost all the major societal problems in developed countries, and if you were to design a symbol to represent entrenched inequality I’m betting it would look a lot like a crown — so for me, we’re starting off on pretty solid ground.
Over time it was applied to a variety of radical movements, from socialism to anarchism, but their common thread tended to be a desire for a redistribution of wealth and power. As far as I’m concerned, the recent debate around whether or not billionaires should be allowed to exist is no debate at all. There’s simply no justifying a level of inequality where a handful of people — you can literally count them on your hands — own more wealth than the billions of people who make up the poorest half of our species. An argument could be made that the super-rich don’t work half as hard as most of those who struggle to make ends meet; no coherent argument can be made to claim they work billions of times harder. (And if you need convincing of the links between inequality and life expectancy, or mental illness, or illiteracy, or violence in a society, or obesity, or drug use, or just about anything considered to be a social ill — then I can’t recommend reading The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett enough.)
By definition, then, the Left are working towards the goal of improving standards for humanity as a whole, as opposed to a selection of ‘worthy’ groups. But no party or ideology that doesn’t explicitly identify with the Left is likely to agree with that. No one sets out with stated aims like ‘here’s how we’ll destroy the environment’ or ‘our 5-step plan to make the disabled suffer’. Instead, there are plans to improve the economy, to cut waste etc. Ideas that imply there’ll be more money for everyone, specifically for the voter and those they care about. If something valuable to the masses will get damaged, you can be assured it won’t be advertised. So it isn’t always clear who exactly has the well-being of the majority on their minds.
And then, of course, there’s how to achieve these aims. The ‘Political Spectrum’ can be a useful way of looking at things: the degree to which a policy, party or opinion sits to the Left or Right can be represented on an X axis, while the Y axis estimates where it stands on an authoritarian to liberal scale. The right to free healthcare for all fits the definition of left-wing and liberal, so would be plotted in the bottom left quadrant. The right for companies to charge for healthcare could also be described as liberal, but not remotely left-wing, so would find itself on the bottom right. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t consider universal healthcare to be a human right cannot be considered on the Left at all.
But this isn’t nearly as straightforward, and opportunism is rife from right-wing populists seeking to exploit any confusion. If the Left oppose the use of heavy-handed police tactics during peaceful demonstrations against a hospital closure, then they’re ‘liberal snowflakes’; if they suggest greater regulations on the financial sector they’re forced to apologise for the crimes of Stalinism. Left-wing policies are criticised by what they can be associated with rather than for actually being left-wing — it’s often too difficult to portray ‘helping huge numbers of people’ as a bad thing.
So if you want to convince someone like me that your claims to be on the side of the people are more than manipulation tactics, openly aligning with the Left is a good start. Populists often claim to be on the side of the people while distancing themselves from the Left, even to the extent of demonising them. This is why, for me, a policy or party needs to be explicitly Left. If those advocating it aren’t comfortable with the labelling, the reason is unlikely to reassure.
It’s why I’m not fond of slogans like the one used in Andrew Yang’s Presidential campaign, Not Left, Not Right, Forward. He’s a proponent of UBI — a Universal Basic Income, which is something I intend to explore further. It’s a fascinating and radical concept compared to the usual tinkering with the status quo we’re used to. It clearly has the potential to be a force for good, to lift people out of poverty and end absolute reliance on employers. But it also has the potential to act as a life support machine for a struggling capitalist system, sprinkling enough pennies down to those desperate to hand them straight back in order to simply keep their heads above water.
If a policy isn’t consciously Left, then, perhaps levelling the playing field isn’t one of its core aims, and as such it becomes increasingly likely that it will fail to do anything of the sort. UK politics has a rich history of Tory policies claiming to be devised for the good of the masses, from welfare reform to the restructuring of the NHS. But seldom do you need to dig deep to find evidence that the real beneficiaries lie closer to home (or the home counties), and any advertised reduction in inequality is merely supposed, hoped for, or outright propaganda and spin.
There is no better way to demonstrate altruism than by putting the needs of future generations — our kids, their kids, people who don’t yet exist — above our own. And there’s no better issue to exemplify the importance of this than climate change. And yet members of the Right continue to advocate the ‘need’ to extract as much value from fossil fuels as possible, with little concern for the masses who will suffer as a result. It’s the Left who are weak for caring, or who are covering up a mass conspiracy to overthrow capitalism through the undermining of ‘Western Values’.
Young Greta Thunberg has become the poster girl for positive change, and it’s the parties, politicians, and companies with openly right-wing agendas that have been dismissing her, mocking her, and far worse. As she has pointed out time and time again, hers is not the generation that should be responsible for enacting change. The obligation should fall upon the shoulders of those with the power to change things now. And when those in power stand to suffer least from the effects of climate change, they need to be on the Left if they are to be expected to act.
You don’t need children to care about future generations, but mine have helped to motivate me to do more than sit by and tut. While there is pain and suffering, whether caused deliberately or simply tolerated by power, I’m not comfortable telling my kids I’m okay with it. And I don’t want them to be okay with it, either. Ultimately, that’s what being left-wing means to me.