When Teresa May scrapped the clause of the Equality Act that made it a duty of government to reduce inequality, she saw her actions as a blow against “socialism in one clause”.
By raising the spectre of socialism, May suggests that it isn’t dead. (My affection for Ed Balls which really knows no bounds - as long-suffering friends will wearily agree - was increased - if such a thing were possible - by discovering that at the height of Blairism he was not embarrassed about using the ‘S’ word to label his political position.) But May’s usage also suggests that, if socialism is alive, it is not necessarily well, and is still seen by many as something bad which should be resisted. Indeed, any left-wing event can attract an eclectic band of weirdos that you probably wouldn’t want to identify with, as George Orwell so memorably noted in The Road to Wigan Pier:
There is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.
George might have a point (and I say that as the kind of feminist-vegetarian who would clearly have sent him apoplectic). Attending a recent Anti-Cuts meeting to plan some protest events, I couldn’t help thinking of Orwell’s words. A woman sat next to me was selling copies of – and I think I’ve remembered this correctly – the New Bolshevik News. Alongside this historical throwback (I mean, the Bolshevik News!), there were bad jumpers aplenty, negligible hygiene, and more hot air than could feasibly power the national grid. (I should, however, say that there were also people who didn’t conform to such stereotypes and that the organiser is a lovely man who is clearly attempting to forge a protest that is broad-based and appeals to the general public. No easy task, given the need to hold together the fractious elements of the left who form the core of the movement.)
How can those of us who see ourselves as socialist move beyond the stereotype of the fusty crank, of socialism as something you should ‘grow out of’, and broaden our appeal to the wider public? Can we shape a contemporary socialism that is so attractive that no one would doubt its power to shape society after the failure of the market? Given the disparity in incomes and the fact that the poorer members of society stand to foot proportionately more of the bill for the bankers’ excesses than the rich, this should be an easy task. Why isn’t it?
It’s good to see Ed Miliband launching a radical review of Labour policy. The answers of yesterday can’t be the answers of today: and that applies both to the discredited solutions of New Labour and the State Socialism of yesteryear. What is particularly hopeful is his statement that the thing that gets him out of bed is the need to challenge inequality. Our country has a wide gap between rich and poor that continues to grow, and I hope Miliband’s read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett show through detailed, empirical research that economic inequality isn’t just bad for the poor, it’s bad for all, contributing, for example, to higher levels of violence, mental illness, and stress related illnesses. If we lived in a more equal society, they argue, all would benefit.
But before we even get to this point we need to do what Orwell suggested: humanise socialism, so that it isn’t about statistics, or programmes, or doctrines, or initiatives. Instead, we need to present it as something that is for all who long for justice and equality for all, and that to long for these things means relating to each other with warmth, humanity, compassion, humour and friendship. Out with socialism as a po-faced pose; in with socialism as the ordinary social engagement that underpins good human relationships! Not sure it works as a chant though…