On Clem Attlee and patriotic socialism

FOR A BOOK REVIEW, I’ve been plunging into John Bew’s excellent 600-page biography of Clement Attlee, now out in paperback. The book, with its cover depicting a jaunty-looking Attlee in a trilby has induced some shrugged shoulders and puzzled looks in the cafés and pubs of Stroud. For my younger reader, Attlee was prime minister of this country from 1945 to 1951, and his Labour government set up the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, nationalised the railways, the coal and steel industries and the Bank of England, and granted independence to India. Attlee was also deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition government, alongside the rather better-known Winston Churchill.

Attlee’s government is revered on the left and many Labour activists see it as the only really radical Labour administration (I would argue that Harold Wilson and Tony Blair’s governments achieved more than they are given credit for – but that’s an argument for another day). But Attlee himself is less well known. He was an uncharismatic politician, a mediocre speaker and was easily overshadowed by the bigger personalities in his cabinet, most notably Aneurin Bevan, the “founder” of the NHS. Attlee isn’t seen as a great thinker either – his government may have been hugely influential in both shaping the Britain we know today and the British idea of democratic socialism, but no one ever talks about Attleeism.

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Use it or lose it

SUCH HAS BEEN was my sense of déjà vu this summer that, reading the results of this poll in the Independent, I didn’t immediately clock that it dates from last year’s leadership contest, not the 2016 remake. Still, I don’t see any compelling reason to think the poll’s findings – that the public actually agree, by quite large margins, with many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies – will have changed much if the questions were asked today (as long as you don’t tell people they’re Jeremy’s policies, of course).

This has been true for a very long time; people are, on some things at least – the old core Labour things, like wages, public transport, fair taxes, free education and so on – more left wing that the media gives them credit for, or the public’s voting record would suggest. It only tells half the story of course: voters have quite a few policy positions – on welfare, immigration and crime, for example – which Jeremy wouldn’t like at all.

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Denis Healey: the last of the “us” generation

Grief at the death of a public figure is a funny thing. It can be self-indulgent or maudlin, a version of nostalgia. But we all feel it from time to time, and never more than when part of our own life seems to vanish along with someone we never knew.

Even though he was 98, the death of Denis Healey choked me up. Healey was a special figure to me because he always seemed to be just like my Dad. I even remember having a vague notion when I was very young that they were almost the same person, that Denis was a kind of “public” version of Dad, or perhaps some sort of important uncle. They were about the same age, with similar hairstyles and the same riotous eyebrows, and shared a taste for jumpers and casual shirts. The cover picture of Healey’s My Secret Planet still causes me to do a double-take whenever I catch sight of it. Subliminally, I suppose I’ve always thought of “Denis” as a sort of distant member of our family.

Dad, who died in 2009, shared with Denis a special kind of wisdom which comes from not from formal education (Denis had a very good one, while Dad had almost none), but from sustained contact with ordinary people through extraordinary times. It gave them a sort of super-charged humanity, an appreciation of people as they really are, warts and all, and a stubborn determination to pursue solutions to problems to the bitter end (summed up in Churchill’s favourite call to action: “keep buggering on”). In 25 years, Healey’s memoirs have never strayed more than a few feet from my writing desk. They are thick with annotations, from a time when I tended to underline things in books that I agreed with. When I read them, it’s usually Dad’s voice that I hear in my head.

Healey was one of the leading lights in a “golden generation” of Labour politicians who, thanks to the omnishambles politics of the 1970s, are generally seen to have underachieved — a view ignorant of both the odds they had to overcome and the very real achievements of the pre-Thatcher years. The 1974-79 Labour government had no majority for most of its term of office. Millions of days were being lost to strikes every year. There were wars all over the place. The oil price quintupled and inflation was out of control in all western economies. And there was a kind of madness in the air. Only a month before Healey became Chancellor, the problems of governing Britain had reduced the Cabinet Secretary to a quivering wreck, rolling naked on the Cabinet Office floor, chain-smoking and raving about the end of the world.

Most famously of course, Healey went “cap in hand” to the IMF in 1976. Quite rightly, he never apologised for it. The IMF was an essential mechanism in a global economic system which produced imbalances, and Healey used the tools available to him. We borrowed the money, we averted the crisis, and the loan was paid back in full within a year (Healey called it “sod-off day”). Why was it a “humiliation” to borrow from the IMF and not to borrow from gnomes of Zürich or the butchers of Beijing, as we do now, to finance much bigger debts? But the biggest irony of all was that the loans and associated cuts were based on Treasury forecasts. Had the Treasury got its sums right, Healey wouldn’t have needed the IMF at all1.

Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with.

Despite this wicked combination of crises, the government of which Healey was the key member still delivered rising living standards for working people, and slightly higher overall growth than the Thatcher government which followed it. It oversaw a significant reduction in inflation, passed Britain’s first race and sex equality laws, and made meaningful inroads into pensioner and child poverty. It presided over the most economically equal society we’ve ever known. It’s probably no coincidence that studies often show Britain was also at its happiest during the second half of the 1970s.

It’s hard to imagine today’s politicians delivering those results even in good times and with a thumping majority. Healey’s generation had to try much harder. They knew that, if western democracy was going to survive, it had to deliver for ordinary people. And one way or another, it had to survive. They had seen the alternatives — communism and fascism — and they knew we didn’t want to go there.

Dad and Denis were both born in south London, although Denis moved to Yorkshire when he was very young. Both were communists in their youth, Denis in the debating rooms of Oxford, my Dad on the streets of London, fighting the Blackshirts. They were both in the Royal Engineers during the war; Healey serving with distinction in North Africa and Italy, while Dad was part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, and later took part in the D-Day landings. (Incidentally, both were initially posted to different railway operating companies, and Dad thought he might have run into Denis during a stopover at Swindon in 1940 — Healey’s memoirs do mention a rather pointless posting in the Wiltshire railway town around that time, so it is possible). In their post-war careers, both had cause to visit the Soviet Union several times and were very unimpressed (but quite often amused) by what they saw there.

Of course, in many ways they were very different lives: Dad never went to Oxford and never became Chancellor (although he would’ve made a good foreign secretary in the Ernie Bevin mould, I think). Dad was a modest and private man, whereas Healey loved public attention and was famously arrogant, even if he had quite a lot to be arrogant about. But the fact they had much in common is important. When I was a kid, Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with. It’s hard to imagine someone from my Dad’s background today feeling they had much in common with George Osborne or Alistair Darling.

There was something special in the outlook of that generation, a set of attitudes that came naturally to them but which prove elusive to politicians (and people in general) today: a seamless blending of principle and pragmatism; that pig-headed “can-do” attitude to tackling problems; an unimpeachable patriotism, rooted in love of the British people rather than a flag or a monarch; a profound suspicion of ideology; and, most importantly, a really powerful sense of common purpose.

And let’s be honest — they did enjoy a good crisis. They loved the buzz of high-pitched activity, the feeling that you were playing for high stakes, and that everyone had a part to play in getting out of a hole. If they said “we’re all in this together”, they meant it — and “this” was usually the brown stuff. They had quite a taste for the good life too; if you had a chance of a share of the pie, however fleeting, you grabbed it with both hands — and then asked for more. All this was accompanied by plenty of gallows humour and a love for childish pranks, dirty jokes and silly songs. And, of course, everything was done in a haze of (shared) alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Dad’s sort of socialism, like Denis’s, was moderate but robust, and came directly out of his experiences before, during and immediately after the war. For them, socialism was not an ideology, a theory of history or class war. It didn’t demand that you believed weird things or have a particular lifestyle. It was based on simple, sound principles about equality, solidarity and responsibility that everyone could understand, even if politicians had to get to grips with complex ideas to make it work. There was no final victory, just a lot of hard work and “seat-of-your pants” crisis management. But you didn’t give in, you didn’t take the easy option of going along with what suited the rich and powerful. Socialism meant a sense of common purpose between working people — and “working people” included politicians. Neither Blairites nor Bennites really seem to get that.

Like George Orwell, Denis ended up being defined more by what he opposed than by what he supported. His bellicose opposition to revolutionary Marxism and Bennite socialism leads many commentators to claim him as a figure of the right. Healey became an anti-communist, but that didn’t make him anti-socialist, still less a monetarist, a neoliberal or a stooge of international finance. It was Healey who promised his chancellorship would provoke “howls of anger from the rich” (it did) and who called Thatcher “la Pasionaria of middle class privilege”. He strongly opposed the Iraq War. In recent years, he even reversed his passionate support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent — simply because, as he saw it, the situation had changed. In Healey’s politics, like Dad’s, anti-fascism came first, and then it was all about making socialism practical, appealing, and meaningful to working people. And like Denis, Dad had no truck with the SDP breakaway in 1981; the idea of splitting the movement horrified him.

When I asked Dad about the things he was proud of in his long life, he once mentioned the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, but more often he said something about me and my sister and the lives we were able to have. What should we most remember Denis Healey for? Organising the assault on Anzio as beach master in 1944? Helping to rebuild Europe’s shattered socialist parties after the war? As defence secretary, for helping to keep us out of Vietnam? For beating Tony Benn “by an eyebrow” for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981? There are so many possibilities. But, for me, being Chancellor of the Exchequer when we were at our most equal and most happy might be the best thing of all.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989), p433 ↩︎

Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

Read the cutting

Labour’s Janus project

We’ve had a four month leadership contest. There have been several TV debates, many hustings, hundreds of supporter meetings and countless discussions in CLPs up and down the country. Jeremy Corbyn alone spoke at 99 rallies. By now we should know exactly what the Labour party stands for.

Yeah, right. The leadership contest mainly consisted of people shouting past each other. We aired our differences but settled nothing. There was, at last, some talk about what the Labour party is for. But no decisions were reached, no consensus emerged.

Corbyn’s remarkable victory means something deeper and more important than a lurch to the left (after the shitstorm of recent days, we can forget about enjoying our “comfort zone”). Labour wasn’t a Bennite hard left party when I went to bed on Friday night and it hadn’t become one by the time Chelsea kicked off against Everton at lunchtime on Saturday. But for good or for ill, the party has reasserted itself as a political movement rather than an electoral machine. Labour will now, at last, have to stop fudging, nudging and grudgingly bending to the political winds. It will have to decide what the main left-of-centre party in a modern European democracy should look like. There will be a lot of blood on the carpet, and it may well cost us the 2020 election. But it had to be done sooner or later.

One of the most frequently heard complaints about Labour during the election campaign was, “I don’t know what they stand for”. Older voters often added “any more”. Younger voters just shrugged their shoulders. Some didn’t even realise that Labour is supposed to be a left-of-centre party (although they probably do now).

In recent years, Labour has sought out policies that might be popular with “swing” voters and then tried to stitch them together into a political programme. It didn’t work because it’s the wrong way round. One of the biggest fallacies in modern politics is that you “sell” policies like you sell oven-ready lasagne or flat-screen tellies. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to learn from marketing techniques. But in the end they are just that — marketing techniques. They’re not a substitute for politics.

Voters know they’re not “buying” policies the way they buy things at the supermarket — apart from anything else because they can’t pick and choose the ones they like. They have to take or leave the whole package. Even if they like your policies, if they think your leader is a bit flaky or your cabinet is full of spivs and crooks, they probably won’t vote for you. Unless they strongly identify with a party already, they choose according to a complex mixture of motivations and previously-held convictions: their own material wellbeing; the effect on their community and the issues or causes they care about; the competence of the party leaders and the credibility of their programme; voters’ own sense of identity and how they feel about Britain’s place in the world. Many of these responses are emotional rather than strictly rational.

The American academic George Lakoff has argued the left often ignores the emotional impact of political argument, while the right ruthlessly exploits emotion and presents arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff.

We saw this very clearly in the 1980s. Voters weren’t suddenly converted to Margaret Thatcher’s free market mania once the Exocets started flying in the south Atlantic in May 1982. In portraying the Falklands as a sort of rebirth of the British nation, Thatcher wove her free market ideas into a story about Britain that a good chunk of voters responded to. It swept aside their previously deeply-held concerns about Thatcher’s destruction of industry and her uncaring attitude towards poverty and unemployment. In short, she created a myth around grains of truth and persuaded people to believe in it.

If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal consensus.

Voters seem increasingly reluctant to jump into the boxes politicians set out for them — “Worcester woman”, “white-van man” and so on. They keep changing their minds and their priorities. Sometimes emotion swamps reason, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is because they are complex beings responding to a world in flux. By the time politicians and pollsters have identified a group, let alone calibrated policies for it, the group has already broken up – if it ever existed in the first place.

White van man might be an English patriot who’s not keen in immigration, but he’s also pissed off with insecure employment, with paying through the nose for inadequate housing and that his local has been turned into another Tesco Metro. Is he left wing or right wing? Worcester woman might be concerned about tax rises and standards at her local comp, but she also does voluntary work for a refugee charity and is campaigning to save her local hospital. Pigeon-hole her if you dare.

To win power, Labour needs to win back voters from the Tories, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Stay at Home party. It will have to persuade people who feel let down that it will do enough for them or for the things they care about. At the same time, it must persuade some people who are doing okay, or think they’re doing okay, that it won’t do too much and wreck things. Coming over as more “left wing” and more “right wing” at the same time will be tough to say the least, but as Jimmy Maxton said, “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”.

Forget policies that tack to the left or the right. For Labour, the only way through this is to come up with a completely different story about what Britain can be from the one offered by the Tories. Britain doesn’t need a second big neo-liberal party. We have a perfectly good (and rather effective) one already. If Labour wants to keep its place as “the other big party” in the UK, it has no choice but to define itself against the free market consensus which, whatever its merits, led directly to the banking crisis, wrecked European unity and has no answers to the three great economic problems we face: soaring inequality, stagnating living standards for working people and appalling levels of productivity.

We don’t have to lurch to the left or reject the moderate values that have always had a place in the Labour party. But there’s no point in Labour moderates pursuing neo-liberalism any further. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right to say that Corbyn’s triumph is “mainly about the strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse of Labour moderates”. If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal “consensus”. And it needn’t be that much of a wrench. Labour moderates like to talk about aspiration, but there’s nothing very aspirational about neo-liberalism. It’s a gloomy philosophy which assigns most people the status of losers in a global race which never ends.

The failure of the free market neo-liberalism to protect things people value is a huge weakness for the right and for the British Conservative Party, whose rhetoric still emphasises security, tradition and community while, in reality, trampling all over them. But it’s a weakness Labour, and the left in general, has failed to exploit.

Labour needs a vision that joins people’s instinctive “conservatism” — their need for a strong sense of identity and desire to protect things they treasure — with their equally instinctive feelings for fairness, equality and generosity. This shouldn’t be that hard for Labour people – right, left or centre — to get their heads round. Because it’s not just where the voters are, it’s where democratic socialism is too. Social democracy isn’t about destroying things, it’s about building things. And sometimes that means preserving things that we value. Let’s face it, most of us on the left have spent the last 30 years opposing change.

Mixing social democratic values with  traditionally “conservative” ideas about national pride and local control makes a powerful cocktail.

Public alarm at the pace of change in our way of life is often dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia. That’s patronising bollocks and the left should have no truck with it. Whether it’s Routemaster buses, Woolworths, local hospitals, pubs, railways stations and high street shops, or pensions, employment rights, affordable family housing and time with our kids that are under threat, it’s the same global free-market steamroller that’s crushing them.

This means coming to terms with the fact that socialism and (small c) conservatism maybe different but they’re not opposites, and global free market capitalism is pushing them closer together. It’s perfectly possible to build an alternative that will deliver strict fiscal rectitude without hitting the poor hardest (as James Meadway, chief economist at the New Economic Foundation argued recently in this excellent piece). What kind of socialist doesn’t want to wring the last penny of value from the people’s money? And you can make a powerful electoral cocktail by mixing social democratic values with more traditionally “conservative” ideas about identity, national pride and local control, as the SNP have shown in Scotland.

But we can’t do this if people pay lip service to the idea that Labour is a “big tent” while spending most of their time trying to push people out one end or the other. I no more think that Jeremy Corbyn is a Trot than I think Liz Kendall is a Tory; you can’t expect everyone on the left of politics to agree, nor would it be desirable if they did. And we can’t do it as long as we remain mesmerised by neo-liberalism – either meekly following it or just sloganeering against it. Just let it go. We need a serious and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism and we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it.

Photo: Chris Beckett at flickr.com

Should I vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

In politics, I like to think of myself as principled but realistic. I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. My political heroes were mostly practical, moderate socialists – intellectual heavyweights for sure, but people who didn’t mind dirtying their hands in getting something done: Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, François Mitterrand. People who understood the grubbiness of the material world and were prepared to work with it. People who had few illusions about how working people think, or about where extremism can lead.

When I was at university, 25 years ago, I was mocked (in a comradely way) for being the most right-wing member of the Labour club (although, as I remember, I was the only one prepared to join the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, a proscribed organisation in the Labour party at the time). When I left, the committee gave me a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, inscribed with warnings not move further to the right or become any more “careerist” (no worries on that score).

Inevitably, one or two of the wellwishers in that book went on to be leading lights in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The party moved round me. What I thought of as mainstream social democracy went from being on the right of the party, to the centre and then to the left. Even “Red Ed” Miliband couldn’t put together a coherent social democratic programme – although that had as much to do with lack of confidence as lack of conviction. By about 2000, it was a mark of the hard left to be in possession of, to use Denis Healey’s preferred definition of democratic socialism, “an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable suffering”.

The definition is, I think, Kolakowski’s. But in his memoirs, Healey went on to expand on his own feeling for what socialism should be:

Socialism emphasises the community rather than the individual, consensus rather than confrontation, public welfare rather than private gain; it puts the quality of life before the quantity of goods. But its priorities are not absolute; it does not deny that the values which it normally puts second will sometimes need to come first, or that it’s opponents may also give some importance to socialist values. 1

Spot on. But that’s Denis Healey, one-time monetarist chancellor and bête-noire of the Labour left in the 1980s. Spout that kind of stuff within earshot of today’s shadow cabinet and they visibly flinch.

Every fibre of my being says I shouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but the reasons just keep melting away like snow on a hotplate. I think austerity is nuts; Corbyn is the only anti-austerity candidate. I think the NHS has had enough marketisation and privatisation; he’s the only one to rule out any more of it. I’ve always supported renationalising the railways; Corbyn is only candidate to say he agrees (I suspect Burnham and Cooper agree too, but are afraid to say so – hardly a compelling reason to support them). I’m against the cuts in tax credits which, after years of both parties telling people they’d be looked after if they got a job, are cruel and unnecessary. Corbyn is the only candidate who voted against them in the Commons.

Don’t even get me started on the irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

These are not extreme or “hard left” policies. They’re solid, social democratic positions. And I’m willing to bet that they’re shared by a majority, or at least a very large minority, of the British people.

And then, just when I thought I’d found my personal red line, Corbyn ruled out supporting Brexit in the EU referendum.

But, scream Corbyn’s enemies, he can’t possibly win the election! True, all conventional wisdom and experience says it’s very unlikely. (I actually remember 1983). But that argument only holds water if you think any of the other three can win. I don’t.

Liz Kendall is in many ways an admirable candidate, but I’ve already written about how her England-only strategy simply cannot work. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have so far offered little that’s new or interesting. And don’t even get me started on the delicious irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

What passes for Corbyn’s electoral strategy involves winning over non-voters and supporters of the Greens and the SNP. We don’t know if that can work; no one’s really tried it before. Election gurus tell us that non-voters are very hard to mobilise and many people think Scotland has “gone” already. So it looks optimistic, to say the least. But, after an election in which Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP and the Tory vote hardly changed, to say all we need to do is move closer to the Tories is just witless.

The best argument against Corbyn is simply that he isn’t a serious candidate. He doesn’t really want to be leader, still less prime minister. It’s hard to imagine him going up against Cameron at PMQs. He’s too old (71 at the next election). The rest of the shadow cabinet may not work with him. There are some unpleasant people associated with his campaign talking about purging the party. Corbyn himself has taken foolish positions with respect to the IRA and Hamas in the past, which will be ruthlessly deployed against him in the future.

Much more importantly, Corbyn’s policies, attractive as many are to people on the left, don’t add up to a coherent programme for a socialist government. I’m disappointed with Corbyn on policy; I hoped he’d be more imaginative and serious once it became clear he had a chance of winning. Corbyn’s campaign still prefers to chant slogans about the failures of free-market capitalism rather than do the hard work of transforming it into something better for working people. There’s no attempt to develop a serious political strategy that can unite more of the anti-Tory majority around a progressive platform. And I’m still baffled by Jeremy’s reluctance to back electoral reform. (Corbyn is now promising to make his website a forum for serious policy debate. Marina Mazzacuto and Will Hutton’s thinking about an “enabling” or “entrepreneurial” state – refracted into a political programme by Peter Hain – might be a good place to start.)

But if Corbyn’s campaign looks like a protest movement, that’s because it is. It increasingly resembles a typically English, cobbled-together version of the movement against austerity and neo-liberalism we’ve seen in Scotland, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Young people, in particular, are flocking to Corbyn and his campaign seems to be igniting interest and passion in politics in the same way as the Scottish independence referendum did last year. If Corbyn can forge that movement – which stretches from moderate social democrats like me to the far fringes of the Occupy movement — into a political fighting force, that might be better for the left than trying to scrape together a Labour majority from soft Tories and refugee Lib Dems. But that’s a big “if”.

Voting for Corbyn means gambling with the life of the party we love for an uncertain, amorphous return. In normal circumstances I’d never go near it. But these aren’t normal times; across Europe, the future of the democratic left itself is at stake. It might just be worth rolling the dice.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of my Life, London 1989, p 578-9. ↩︎

UPDATE 17 AUGUST 2015: Since this post was published Andy Burnham has announced a plan to renationalise the railways “line by line” as existing operator franchises expire.

Middle Gingers, Frimley, Surrey

Look left, look right, look left again

When I joined the newly-formed North West Surrey “Young Socialists” (as young Labour members were somewhat patronisingly called back then) in 1985, one of our first campaigns was one to save a 16th-century cottage in the middle of our village (although we never thought of Frimley as a village, to us it was sprawling London suburbia). The house was apparently under threat from Thatcherite property developers, who wanted to bulldoze it to make way for some sort of executive housing. We didn’t do much – maybe we held a couple of meetings and wrote an angry letter to someone at the council. I very much doubt it had anything at all to do with our “campaign”, but Middle Gingers (pictured above) was saved. It was later beautifully restored and extended, and is now no doubt the property of some proud multimillionnaire (with a very un-Elizabethan swimming pool).

It wasn’t social housing, and the campaign wasn’t particularly socially useful. So it may seem like an odd cause for enthusiastic Young Socialists to champion in the white-hot political atmosphere of the 1980s. But there weren’t any pits to save in Surrey and none of us were (yet) students with loans and cuts to protest against. There were apparently 250 homeless families in the borough of Surrey Heath, but we didn’t know any of them. None of us were even on the dole!

But Middle Gingers was local, tangible, achievable. It was also emotional. I think the reason we felt strongly about it was that we’d all learned about the cottage at primary school. It was the oldest building in the village. I think it had a priest’s hole. It was a tangible link to Henry VIII, the Armada, and the lopping off of heads which seemed to be the main feature of English history as taught in the 1970s. Middle Gingers stood right on the former village green, common land where our 16th-century forebears would have been able to graze their animals for free. It somehow felt like part of who we were, both as locals and as English boys and girls (and when you come from the Surrey working class you need every scrap of identity you can get). The idea that it could be done away with by some faceless company on the make felt just as wrong in principle as closing a pit or selling off a council house.

Thinking back over my thirty years in the Labour Party and the labour movement, I’m struck by how much time and energy we’ve spent trying to save things (and usually failing) — trying to stop change rather than bring it about. Think on it: we’ve opposed privatisation, we’ve tried to protect much of the welfare state, we’ve campaigned (mostly) against NHS reform. Lefties have worked to “save” comprehensive education and opposed marketisation at the BBC. We’ve tended to oppose – or at least be sceptical about – foreign takeovers of venerable British firms like Cadbury and Boots. Many of us are very worried by the erosion of communities (particularly in working class areas), the disappearance of pubs, and about not knowing our neighbours or how we barely speak to each other anymore outside of work.

And voters, too, have opposed – often by very wide margins – many of the supposedly “inevitable” changes of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era. That’s a paradox for the left: for the most part voters have been on our side. Most people want to keep their local hospital and want to keep their local schools open to everyone. Most people didn’t want the Royal Mail sold off and didn’t much like the look of either Labour or Conservative NHS reforms. They wanted British Rail to stay in public hands. Most people now think selling off council houses was a mistake and they certainly don’t want the government to force housing associations to sell up either. Even in Thatcher’s pomp, support for privatising British Telecom and British Gas was at best lukewarm. Polls say most people want to stay in the the European Union, despite the EU’s best efforts to shit in its own nest.

If you look at what we like and what we want, a lot of people seem to be both social democratic and conservative. That’s not cognitive dissonance; it’s actually where most people on the left have been during the last 35 years. But it’s not hard to see why the conservative side usually wins out at the polls. People who support Thatcherism obviously vote for the Tories. They are joined by people who are basically conservative in disposition and actually think the Conservative party is, well, conservative. They vote Tory because of the party’s name and reputation. And then there are people, who for all their conservative and social democratic beliefs, simply think they’ll be better off under the Tories. Their personal financial wellbeing simply trumps their desire to save their local hospital or keep a good local school open to everyone.

But the British “Conservative Party” values nothing. It has been quite happy to sit back and see communities destroyed in the name of globalisation. It has been happy to see London turned into a global investment supermarket, driving more and more of the city’s working population to the margins or out of the city altogether. It’s done little to conserve rural Britain, encouraging fracking, axing transport services, cutting housing and social support, and leaving farmers exposed to the repacious power of global supermarket chains. If the “market” dictates and the market is controlled by a global elite, there is no room for community, tradition or neighbourliness. There’s no room for local people having a say. Those values are the enemy of the atomised, mobile workforce global capitalism demands – demands to which the Conservative Party almost always accedes.

UKIP has tried to cash in on this, but is hamstrung by its narrow and old-fashioned idea of English identity (conservatism isn’t the same as nostalgia), its quasi-racist reputation and hardline free-market ideology. Farage and his party have no answer to the insecurity and destruction wrought by unfettered global free market. Rather than tackle this difficult contradiction head on, they look for easy scapegoats – immigrants and the EU.

And Labour, while actually being more conservative than the Conservatives in opposing destructive change, offers no idea of the nation (despite Gordon Brown’s hamfisted attempts to articulate “Britishness”) and a very negative, cautious attitude to localism and community. Its conservatism is cut off from any sense of identity, heritage or even values. When it tries to be “conservative”, it just comes over as stick-in-the-mud statism or Blairite sucking up to the rich and powerful.

Community and togetherness ought to be something democratic socialists (or social democrats if you prefer) have in their blood. But the left has been terrible at expressing it and often seems ashamed to embrace community activism or localism (look at Labour’s feeble response to Devo Manc and its total incomprehension of what’s going on in Scotland). This has allowed an increasingly anti-community Conservative party to “own” the issue (in England at least) and, with the collapse of the “localist” Lib-Dems, bank the votes associated with it.

Socialism and conservatism (small ‘c’) are different but they are not opposites. As the steamroller of global free-market capitalism presses relentlessly on, they will be pushed even closer together. And, if blended well, conservatism and socialism are a powerful political cocktail. What is the SNP insurgency other than an effective mix of social democracy and traditonally conservative ideas about identity, national pride and “looking after your own”? What are the bouyant Greens if not a left-wing party of conservation trying to prevent what they see as cataclysmic change. Democratic socialists need to stop fighting it and embrace their inner conservative. Before it’s too late to save anything.