Sunder Katwala

21 July 2009

What is it about your political beliefs that put you on the Left rather than the Right?
That we are for a fairer and more equal society.

Any successful left is a broad church, not a narrow sect. To be ‘left’ is to be part of a political conversation both about what equality and fairness mean and how we try to bring it about. Each generation of the left needs to engage with perennial questions about our ends and how we translate them into practice: ‘equality of what?’, ‘how much equality is fair?’, ‘how do we narrow the gaps which matter most?’ and ‘how do we persuade people in a democratic society?’ so that we mobilise the movements and coalitions which can make change happen.

I think it is still the value of equality which separates the broad left from most of the democratic right.

We have a philosophical difference with the ideas-based ‘less government is always best’ right about what freedom and autonomy substantively mean. And we believe that freedom, rather than privilege, depends on our all sharing it. We can also now show that a fundamental anti-government fails the evidence test: wealth and opportunity have become more concentrated, and is too often in denial about climate change and failed states.

Some on the right may now accept a moral argument for equal life chances – in which case, we need to persuade them of the scale of change that demands. But very few voices yet acknowledge the evidence that inequality, and relative position, matters, though we should welcome those who do.

We should respect the traditions and ideas of political opponents on the democratic right. The conservative tradition represents one significant strand in our society, defending established institutions and articulating the interests of those who benefit most from the way things are. (Though conservatives might not want change; they do often show a talent for living with change if others can bring it about). I expect the Conservative Party to be motivated primarily by those conservative ends and instincts, and so to be a force for conservatism rather than progress. I imagine most conservatives feel the same.

What do you consider made you Left wing?
Without identifying any specific moment, I knew where I was coming from by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. I grew up in the north-west during the 1980s before the family moved to the south-east, so that had an impact. I was interested in history and in politics. We had the Daily Mail in the house, and I started getting The Guardian too. I discovered George Orwell and read as much as possible.

The other things that dominated my world somehow became more political. I was absurdly obsessive about football – and was interested in the emerging fanzine and supporters’ movement before the Hillsborough tragedy, when that seemed very urgent. Then, when I was 16, Norman Tebbit proposed his ‘cricket test’. Well, I had supported England since I was seven or eight. My Dad didn’t – which was probably a good enough reason to go for England when they played India. (Viv Richards’ West Indies were magic: was that was the real ‘cricket test’?). I felt the divisiveness of that quite personally – my Dad worked for the NHS yet was being accused of treachery for liking Kapil Dev. So I was confused: could I keep supporting England now that had been made a loyalty test of support for Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit?

How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?
A society of equal life chances. Our opportunities and outcomes in life should depend much less on where we are born, who our parents are and what they earn. Having the chance to follow your goals and realise your potential needs to be extended so that it is the birthright of us all. That would in practice be a considerably more equal society, and we would need a stronger sense of the common good and the ties that bind a society together if we are to get there.

What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?
Ending child poverty, and paying much more attention to the unequal distribution of assets and wealth. The means to have a stake in society is an important condition of equal citizenship.

What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?
The way in which stereotypes of the less well-off seem to have become sharper and harsher. Among the greatest problems of increased inequality is that it can reinforce itself through greater social and psychological segregation, leaving us ill informed about the basic facts about the society we live in and lacking empathy for the lives of others outside our own social circle.

Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?
Bobby Kennedy said that we must be prepared to imagine worlds that do not exist and ask ‘why not?’ The left has succeeded best when this has also been a practical utopianism – also able to organise the movements which can make an impossibility the new political reality.

That is the spirit of the left’s successful campaigns against the workhouse, for weekends and paid holidays, for universal suffrage, for civil rights and gay equality.

The early Fabians – a tradition too caricatured as statist and top-down – transformed the politics of the last century precisely because of their enormous civic footprint, founding the Labour Party, the New Statesman, the LSE, campaigning to end the Poor Law, and shaping local as well as national government and politics.

We need a ‘movement politics’ today – but our own history should have told us that before the age of Obama, from which I think we can take much hope and inspiration too. Today’s left knows we should push for changes in government policy – but we must remember that deep political change requires public-facing campaigning to change arguments in society. (Bobby Kennedy was borrowing his inspirational soundbite from George Bernard Shaw too!).

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society

30 Responses to “Sunder Katwala”

  1. Derek Smith
    July 21st, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    Better definition than some but still worried that most contributors felt the need to define themselves in opposition to the right or conservatism. If the Left is the optimistic side, why reference the other?

    No-one seems to mention concepts of liberty either?

  2. Rav Casley Gera
    July 21st, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    Indeed – compared to in the aftermath of 9/11 the sense of alliance between the left and libertarians seems to have completely gone. I suppose it's to do with doing this exercise in the wake of the financial crisis. Whether the Tories with their new-found libertarianism can capitalise on this I don't know.

  3. PeterJukes
    July 21st, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    One principle which could unite aspiration, equality and opportunity is the idea of OPENNESS.

    I'm on the left because I believe it is much more likely to lead to Open Minds and an Open Society. Socially, the left in the UK has always been on the forefront of tolerance, both towards other races and religions (see abolition and non conformity), to opening up the vote for non middle classes and then for women.

    It's this openness of thought that's attracted me to left wing figures like Orwell and Camus. Of course there are totalitarian figures on the left, but British democratic socialism has been mercifully free of commissars and apparatchiks (compare with France and Italy). It has so many bases – unionism, chapels, Fabian intellectuals – that is has not been dominated by one simple ideological strand.

    I think the principle of openness could be applied to government and the marketplace. An OPEN government would seek to devolve more power, be more transparent and accountable. A more OPEN economy would seek to reduce those barriers to entry, and inequalities of education, health a and aspiration, that repress a lot of talent, and waste so much creativity.

    The principle of OPENNESS would also leave a renewed Labour Party less vulnerable to the siren forms of control – whether than be corporate, communitarian or authoritarian – where individual liberties are sliced away for short term or institutional advantage.

    Basically, while remaining true to the principle of fairness, one can actually have more freedom. In fact, because we are social animals, it's hard to have one without the other. And OPENNESS combines both the concept of freedom and fairness.

    Glad you've called the new website open left. Some glimmering of hope there.

  4. PeterJukes
    July 21st, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I absolutely agree. We mustn't let the concept of civil liberty – something which the left has fought for over two centuries – be captured by the right. The Tories have opportunistically used the 'liberty' argument over the last few years, but we know they are social authoritarians at heart. That leaves the Mill and Paine concepts of liberty up for grabs for an anarchic right wing ideology which would effectively abandon everyone to corporate and military power with no accountability

  5. Graeme_Cooke
    July 21st, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    Peter – great comment. We've had quite a bit of discussion on open left so far about different types of equality, but there is also a big debate about different routes to liberty. Really interested in your openess theme too, which is definitely something we want to explore.

  6. Jacob Freeze
    July 21st, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    Whern Sunder Katwala starts talking about “the age of Obama” as a dawning golden era of the Left, I have to ask…

    Is she insane?</>

    Obama has already mortgaged every stick and stone in the United States with $23.7 trillion in commitments to cover toxic financial derivatives for his friends in the banks, and his healthcare initiative is already so diluted that it's likely to bypass millions of permanently unemployed citizens, while the economy continues to bleed 20,000 jobs per day. And… there's absolutely no money to pay for any sort of social safety-net whatsoever, unless the Chinese support a multi-trillion-dollar bailout of US bonds, and why should they?

    The Age of Obama!


    In the United States, it's more like the Year of the Rat.

  7. Michael
    July 21st, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    For too long the influence of Marxism has forced thinkers to constitute left-wing thinking wholly through the economic perspective, which allows a kind of fetish for change to flourish (there are poor people; they need help; the current system isn't working; it needs to change). Whilst one might have sympathy with this in the economic sphere, the problem comes when the principle is applied as a means of guiding and forming policy in all aspects of life (which, since the political and cultural elite became obsessed with a bunch of miserable French philosophers from the late 60's onwards, it pretty much has done). Thing is, life is much too varied and nuanced for a solely economic perspective to do it justice, and so to continue in this way commits a kind of violence, even to those very roots from which left-wing thinking initially grew (that is, were its original founders to be alive today they would certainly be caricatured as hard-right on matters such as religion, for instance). This alienates and disenfranchises, simply by presenting a false absolute, illustrated beautifully in this piece with the comment that conservatives are simply those who 'benefit most from the way things are'. Okay, one may wish to assert this in terms of wealth or possession, but what about other matters, such as morality, aesthetics, architecture, or environmentalism? Or, a more pragmatic example, an orthodox Roman Catholic living in inner-city Liverpool can be portrayed as hard-right (to put it politely) for his views on abortion, or marriage, or homosexuality even whilst voting Labour all his life – being a conservative or a socialist is clearly about more than just economics, and the Left needs to engage with these other concerns more earnestly . I think it is these intellectual blinkers that currently disenchants the Left; that is, its authoritarian monomania.

    As such, it seems to me that if the Left wants to rediscover itself, then it needs to come up with a more coherent account of what conservatism is, so that it can cast off its fetish for change and re-connect with common instinct.

  8. PeterJukes
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 1:11 am

    Thanks Graeme

    The great thing about openness is that it links both equality AND aspiration. It goes beyond mere opportunities to look at some of the internal and external barriers that prevent people from fulfilling their social, economic and personal potential. Because we're human, and some of the best innovations in our work or personal lives come from left field, it's also a way of framing Amartya Sen's language of human development in a way that does not dictate what the outcome should be, so liberty is buried in it too.

    I actually worked on GB's Britishness speech in 1998, where we tried to frame national identity on the same terms – Britain as an open minded, outward looking country. That was a very limited application though, and obviously dictated by the internal Labour party politics of the time. An Open Left has a much broader application, linking the liberalism of say Popper and Berlin, with a more proactive approach to inequality.

  9. PeterJukes
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 1:13 am

    Are you the same Jacob Freeze who I encountered on MYDD during the Obama campaign? If you are, I must say you were wrong about his chances of winning the primary and election then, and you're still wrong.

  10. Jacob Freeze
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 6:58 am

    I guess nothing has changed.

    You right. You still can't read, and I'm still criticizing Obama for the same reasons… dishonesty, superficiality, and a mysterious affinity for friends like Larry Summers and Penny Pritzker. About his chances of winning the primaries and general election, I simply followed the polls.

    I'm sure that you would have sucked up to Obama as soon as he looked like a winner, no matter what his program might have been, and you simply can't understand how anyone could criticize him when was leading in all the polls, and even after his election.

    But I despised Barack Obama from the moment he supported the free trade agreement with Peru, in November 2007, after 4,000,000 Peruvian farmers and workers had gone out on a general strike against it, and I have to admit that his administration has been worse than I ever imagined, with the largest upward transfer of wealth in the history of the United States under cover of unaccountable multi-trillion-dollar giveaways by the Federal Reserve, and intensification of the war in Afghanistan under the command of the “black ops” butcher General Stanley McChrystal.

    Obama is nothing but a pretty face who was nominated and elected by David Axelrod's slogans and Penny Pritzker's unlimited financial support, and if he didn't look good on TV, he would be nothing.

  11. chrisblask
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    Liberty is a concept that political views right of the center line contain, so wherein these views fail to also contain the class/race/gender/etc-based discrimination found elsewhere in righthanded political ideologies there is a very real risk of the Civil Liberties Banner being captured by political parties from that side. Civil liberties were open to being owned by the Leftward Movement when established Rightward parties paradoxically embraced “Universal Liberty for All (except those poorer/darker/who-talk-funny)!”. Now that most (not all, but most) people or at least parties to both sides of center recognize the internal illogic of such Inconstant Liberty it takes more than simply railing against fading prejudices to claim the moral high ground of civil rights as exclusive territory.

    I agree very much with Sunder's statement on enabling the liberty at the source of each life (hopefully blockquotes work here):

    “Our opportunities and outcomes in life should depend much less on where we are born, who our parents are and what they earn.”

    That is the type of belief that can expand the area encompassed within a Left-oriented political group. It is not at all outside the belief-space of one who values individual liberty to attempt to limit the amount of influence the circumstances of one's birth have on one's ability to succeed in life. No child is at birth responsible for choices that should rightly limit their social or financial success, and society as a whole is better served when more individuals begin their lives on a path which can lead them to self fulfillment and the ability to choose to help others with their own excess capacity. This is quite the opposite of the taking from adults who have been successful and giving to adults who have not that the political Right rails against (correctly, I might add, when such failure to succeed is the result of choice rather than circumstance).

    Equality of opportunity is a civil rights banner that the political Left can benefit by laying claim to, imho.

    (BTW, don't feed the trolls… ;~)

  12. James_Purnell
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    Great comments on this thread…. Quite a few of the contributions do talk about liberty – either as people being free from arbitrary power, or Stuart White talking about how being on the left is about recognising that both liberty and equality matter, but that you can't have the former without the latter (I'm paraphrasing badly). One interesting question: where are the big liberal causes on the Left? Gay rights has been a big issue over the last decade, but in other areas, freedom is much more contested, and creates disagreement as much within as between parties – eg reconciling civil liberties and security, or individual freedom and public health. Where should the left go on these issues?

  13. chriswright88
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    I think today's great liberal causes are international ones – supporting a whole host of freedoms in countries where they are incipient. Where possible, an aggressively anti-totalitarian foreign policy is not a bad place to start. At home, improving the way the press is regulated would be a positive liberal goal (ie because the current combination of expensive libel suits and an ineffective, cliquey Press Complaints Commission restrains more good journalism than bad journalism).

  14. » blog » Blog Archive » OpenLeft: a response
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 1:35 am

    […] Katwala Original That we are for a fairer and more equal […]

  15. sunderkatwala
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 10:38 pm


    Thanks. I think your comment also captures the way in which an egalitarian left can make common cause with those who may have different ideas about meritocracy and opportunity, particularly in identifying unjustified inequalities which should be challenged.

  16. sunderkatwala
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 10:41 pm


    Thanks. The idea that fairness and freedom should be inextricably linked is a good and important one.

    Much of the openness agenda you identify is attractive.

    There are some tensions and trade-offs though. The liberal-left might well have openness instincts on immigration (global solidarity, free movement, value of cultural diversity and exchange) but a social democratic concern for the distributional consequences of openness would surely need to be reconciled with this?

  17. sunderkatwala
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 10:44 pm


    Thanks. (I am, as it happens male). Obama was an aside

    But if you are a very staunch opponent of Obama and see him as a deep red, I would be interested to know how you explain his political success. America is not a socialist country, yet the Joe the Plumber knockdown argument descended into farce. It seems to me that the problem of the US right is its entrenched certainty that it is right and popular – and its deep confusion when that goes wrong. Then what? Say it louder Palinism.

    I have found Andrew Sullivan's writings about Obama from the early primaries very interesting. Sullivan remains instinctively a small c liberal conservative. But he understands Obama's appeal.

  18. sunderkatwala
    July 22nd, 2009 @ 10:53 pm


    Thanks. The idea that there are no great causes yet (which has been argued since the 1950s and Look Back in Anger) is one we need to challenge. Sometimes the issues have become more complex, and there can be a nostalgia for some clearer/simpler battles of the past, but we are not at all short of social democratic or liberal causes, at home or abroad.

    I think there is at least one remaining important but difficult 'traditional' civil rights cause in Britain today: the social and political status and role of relatively settled and long established irregular/illegal migrants.

    The arguments for regularisation and how it could be achieved with public support are certainly difficult and challenging. But I am not sure the social and political challenge is necessarily in an entirely different league to divorce or the decriminilisation of homosexuality in the 1940s or gay marriage in the 1980s. These issues were difficult, unpopular minority causes before they became part of the social consensus.

    One fairness and integration argument we could try here: 'let them pay taxes'!

  19. Jacob Freeze
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 2:37 am

    Since I obviously knew so little about you that I even got your gender wrong, I googled around a little before replying, and found, for example, “The hunt for the British Obama” in New Statesman.

    Most of that intelligent article is just the opposite of your remarks about Obama… which is to say that it's extremely well-informed and instructive about the details of ethnic politics in England and various problems with minority short-lists, and so on.

    But about the United States and Barack Obama, you obviously don't have a clue, and you're even so completely lost in some fantasy-world about that con-man and compulsive liar that you couldn't even minimally comprehend what I wrote about him.

    Whatever his “real” political persuasion may be, if such a thing even exists beyond his monomaniacal promotion of himself, nothing like a conviction or principle entered into the process of his nomination and election, and he's just a pretty face brilliantly promoted by the advertising genius David Axelrod and the right-wing billionaire Penny Pritzker.

  20. PeterJukes
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 8:12 am


    My fault: I should have unpacked the idea of the OPEN economy and open markets a little better. This is where the distributional inequalities could be addressed. Free markets (and closed markets) tend to clustering effects, with built in monopolies or monopsonies of privilege or wealth, that then accelerate through educational and professional advantages.

    One way of tackling this is to apply the principle of openness to work, employment, training, skills etc. People should not be penalised through their class background, geographical location, historic skill sets. So inequality is fought by reducing barriers to entry. The state acts not as 'gatekeeper' but as 'gate opener'

    In that way you can combine the liberal left agenda on civil freedoms with a more classic labour position on full employment and redistribution. A more open market would reduce inequalities of wealth and income. But openness is a constant struggle, devoting resources to levelling the playing field in terms of access to work, childcare etc, and against the closed shop practices in the professions, or the modal monopolies of finance and credit.

    The redisributive effect could be as radical as the shift of wealth from the 40s to the 70s, and also represented as something positive – a reduction of barriers to entry for whole swathes of society – rather as punitive in the classic Hattersley Healey 'levelling down' effect. Open Markets should level things up

  21. PeterJukes
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 8:30 am


    Kudos to you and Open Left for starting this discussion now, rather than as a reaction to the next election…

    I think you're underestimating the amount of anger AGAINST civil liberties intrusion by Government. It's not just ID card, but a whole raft of measures for the last 30 years which, in some lights, can seen to be an erosion of the Tom Paine J S Mill principles of individual liberty. Labour has been great about getting the state out of the bedroom and making judgements based on sexuality, gender or race. But there has been a drift to communitarian values which some interpret as authoritarian.

    This is a widespread concern throughout the population, and that concern has currently been captured by the right. At one extreme it becomes a kind of tin foil hat anarchism, where the far left and right are indistinguishable. But my guess is that a lot of those concerns have been opportunistically hijacked by the Tories. Here is the party of Thatcher, now claiming to be anti authoritarian, and protect individuals from the state (when they've fought against every electoral and civil liberty reform I can remember).

    The left often feels uncomfortable on this ground, because this is discussing negative liberty, and seems to be selfishly individualistic, but we must fight to reclaim a historic role as defenders not just on the civil rights of groups, but the civil rights of individuals.

  22. PeterJukes
    July 23rd, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I'd add that the current libel laws have a chilling effect on that most important civil right – freedom of speech

  23. brianbarder
    July 24th, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    “Equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy” are basic tenets of the right, not the left. Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” to describe a dystopia in which those not equipped to compete in a ferociously competitive society (through ill-health, lack of intelligence, poor education, cultural poverty, or whatever) are left to go to the wall. Equality of opportunity does nothing for such people: they don't have the capacity to make the most of their opportunities. Those of us on the left need to make it clear that we are concerned about much greater equality of *outcomes*, not just opportunity: outcomes not only of wealth and income (although those too), but also of access to culture, of social esteem, of empowerment and control of one's life — in other words of quality of life. Those who make use of equality of opportunity to emerge with material and cultural privilege, whether or not gained through hard work and native intelligence, can safely be left to look after themselves. It's those who don't who should be the concern of the political left. It's worrying that so many of the contributions to this 'conversation', and comments on them, apparently fail to grasp the utter inadequacy, from a leftist point of view, of “equality of opportunity” and the meritocratic society.

  24. sunderkatwala
    July 24th, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    Up to a point, Brian. At the level of ideas, the different conceptions and their potential consequences matter. There is a danger of conflating or confusing these too much. So I accept that part of your argument.

    I was arguing that there were practical coalitions which were possible with those with weaker equal opps or meritocratic positions. Crosland made these points well, being clear about why meritocracy was 'not enough' yet noting too that the argument 'no unjustified inequalities' could carry us a long way in practice before you get to points of divergence.

    So I think it is important and useful to hold the right, or centre, to scrutiny if they wish to state a belief in equal opportunity (including a meritocratic one), because taking even that seriously requires some significant egalitarian shifts, for example in the current scale of inequalities of assets and wealth, or in chalenging the strength of link between social class and educational outcomes.

    The practical politics of narrowing inequalites must, in my view, seek to build alliances of this kind. That need not derail attempts to also argue for non-meritocratic principles about equal respect/dignity, need, etc.

    If we were to move closer to a meritocracy, there would be important criticisms to make of it. But I would identify the danger of meritocracy being more if people come to believe there is meritocratic 'fairness' in a highly stratified society (eg the American dream). And here the argument 'we are a long long way short of equal opportunity' is a much more potent one in persuading those who think that ought to be the destination than if we refuse to entertain that concept at all.

  25. Dennis Sewell
    July 24th, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    It is remarkable how so many aspirations on the Left seem to require the reconciliation of mutually exclusive factors: e.g. liberty and equality (of outcome). Now Sunder Katwala offers another oxymoron: practical utopianism.
    Maybe if they spent less time and energy trying to square circles the Left would get more done.

  26. Anonymous
    July 24th, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    You and no other man can presume to give me anything. I make my own choices and have my own liberty. I will fight to the death any one who gets in my way.

    The only war is a class war!

  27. derekontheleft
    July 24th, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    It does feel like all the black and white issues have gone and most are now shades of grey, including the left/right political divide. For example, most people would now accept that history has provden that economically extreme left socialism and extreme right capitalism are both flawed models.

    What excites me most about this project is trying to identify the values and guiding principles first and then let every policy decision flow from there and ensure policies demonstrate those values. I see a very similar parallel to businesses that plod along without a proper strategy guiding their plans and decision making. Get the vision and the strategy straight first, everyone behind it and the rest follows. Trying to make decisions and plans without this guidance is very difficult.

    I like the values of fairness, equality and openness and just about every liberal or left wing thought I have can trace back and be justified by one or all of those values. Equally every policy that I dislike goes against these values.

  28. robert
    August 2nd, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    So the left has already gone into touchy feely mode just as the Tories did in 97. If they (the Tories) get in it won’t be because of better policies over the left, more that the left allowed the Labour party to become the new Tory Party in order to achieve power.

    As a result it turned its back on its core vote while trying chase the votes of middle England (sorry I forgot I should be using that swear word I meant Britain) to create a perfect world. Which I might add, it was not elected to do. It was elected to sort out the mess of the Tories left us with high long term unemployment and a social underclass which had been thrown on the slag heap of live.

    The labour Party in all it disguises has failed in my option too right these wrong and in some case’s have made things worse.

    Child poverty
    Inequality in health care provisions between Scotland, Whales and England (sorry I’ve done it again) I meant that peace of land that border those two countries.

    The list goes on.

    So while the left goes into hairy-fairy mode, the poor have to suffer your failures (adding to fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is as wide as ever). The problem was that the Labour wasn’t radical enough in trying to change this country for the better. Maybe another 18 years in opposition might convince Labour to be so next time.

    But, then again may be not? My life has shown me over 41 years; as long as the rich are ok the rest of us will pay. So you lot carrying on talking all you like trying to dream up your fair-tale wonderland on plant Koosbaine .

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  30. Ebon Talifarro
    September 26th, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

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