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