Analysing intra-ideological disputes in the intermediate public sphere reveals why the British left has failed to develop coherent solutions to the economic crisis.

Based on a reading of Alan Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational Change and Left Political Economy after New Labour’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations 15:1, 70-88.

by Danny Rye

In a recent article for the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Alan Finlayson argues that the failure of the British left to develop a coherent response to the ongoing economic crisis is, in part at least, the result of a dispute between state-oriented Keynesians and Polanyians[1] concerned with grass-roots issue of equality, which is encouraged by the competitive nature of the market in which the advocates of these differing views operate.

The ideas, solutions and frameworks that underpin major policy transitions, he says, are embedded in existing ideological communities which provide resources for debates to draw on and an anchor point from which to engage with outside ideas.  New policy paradigms emerge from a process of mediating between specific proposals and general philosophical commitments.  Thus, monetarism emerged as a specific solution to the economic problems of the 1970s on the political right because it was consistent with ideological frameworks on the right.  However, the British left has singularly failed to produce a coherent response to the current economic crisis: why?

With the decline of traditional forms of participation in political parties, an increasingly important context for the emergence of new narratives is the ‘intermediate public sphere’ located between the realm of policy professionals and the public.  On the left, it encompasses the Labour Party, associated factions and parties, trade unions, pressure groups, think-tanks, journalists and commentators, bloggers and more.  It represents therefore a relatively diverse sphere of intra-ideological debate situated in various institutional locations. It provides a structure for debate and facilitates the development of solutions congruent with ideological traditions.  Crucially, moreover, this is the basis on which supporters can be persuaded to communicate and promote those solutions in the wider public sphere.  In short, the intermediate sphere provides a link to the general public essential for the dissemination of policy ideas.

Exploration of this sphere suggests that the left’s failure is not for want of something to say but because it has in a sense too much to say.  The British left is embroiled in an intermediate level dispute at the core of which is a disagreement over the conceptualisation of ‘the state’ and ‘equality’.  This is not a traditional ‘left-right’ cleavage as such but one between those advocating a ‘Polanyian’ ethical socialism, with a core philosophical commitment to grass-roots democratisation and anti-commodification (famously associated with ‘Blue Labour’), and those of a more ‘Keynesian’ persuasion who see promoting equality and economic stability via state intervention as being the key purpose of social democracy.

Keynesians see the interventionist state and equality as going hand-in-glove and regard Polanyians as uninterested in equality for ordinary people.  Polanyians are more ambivalent about the state’s role, being committed to a pluralistic conception of participatory democracy rather than centralised state activity.  To them, Keynesians are elitists, hostile to the political participation of those same ordinary people.

This seems to indicate that all the ideational elements for responding to the crisis are present in the debate on the British left.  All that needs to be resolved is their precise configuration.  So why the failure to develop a narrative?

A key to resolving these arguments is the development of innovative solutions to which elements of both can consent but, ideational differences aside, a crucial barrier to this is the politics of the sphere itself.  The competitive policy market between advocates of different views, their need to maintain brand images and supporters and the pressures of the short-term political cycle militates against the forging of a common front and prevents the emergence of new patterns of ideological thinking which can break through into the mainstream.

Before the left can put forward coherent proposals for solutions to our economic woes, then, it appears that rather than competing with each other for ‘market share’, they need to start talking to each other about how their ideas might be creatively and usefully synthesised so as to be applicable to the very real problems we face.

[1] after Hungarian social theorist and economist Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation


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