For one thing, dividing politics up into Right and Left is a tad narrow-minded. There are three distinct political traditions (socialism; conservatism; liberalism; with the possible addition of environmentalism as a fourth), and if one must divide politics along a single axis, that between authoritarianism and freedom is as germane as that between a planned or a spontaneous market.
But accepting that the press will never manage to handle something as complex as three – let alone four – dimensions, there is another reason why talk about great battles between Left and Right ring hollow. There really isn’t much of the old Left left.
At least that’s what I thought until I went to the Trades Union Congress to discuss child poverty.
The recent TUC event on the theme of “A Minimum Social Wage” was like a throwback to the 1970s. There were at least two speakers who argued that poverty was an essential tool of capitalism, necessary to force the labourers to work for their capitalist masters. They clearly had not heard of the four hundred million Chinese who were condemned to subsistence farming and occasional starvation under Socialism but who are now rich enough to know that they will never go hungry again. For these relics of a time thankfully past, the replacement of the Capitalist system with a Socialist alternative was something that we should all strive. I wondered whether any minute Tony Benn was going to appear, waiving a copy of the 1983 Labour Party manifesto and calling for the collectivisation of the commanding heights of the economy.The highlight for me, however, was when the representative of the National Union of Journalists addressed the audience. He stood to make a point of such crass irrelevance that it would have been silenced by any other Chair. Only in the TUC, in fact, could a speaker get away with beginning his remarks by reminding the room that pointing “This week marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of Comrade Che”.
And your point is? How exactly is the death of Che Guevara relevant to child poverty in the UK in 2007? Perhaps, just as Guevara shot those whom he suspected of treachery in the Sierra Maestra, and later led President Castro’s death squads after they came to power, the TUC would like to line those whom they blame for child poverty up in Bedford Square and finish them off. I don’t doubt for a second that many of the representatives at this conference would have been inspired by his period as Minister for Industries, during which he expropriated all private business (down to the smallest farm; the last shop). There is undoubtedly also a parallel between his luring thousands of young Latin Americans to their deaths in pointless revolutions, and the continued siren song of the hard-line socialists.
Fortunately, we have largely learnt to ignore these bizarre throwbacks to a bygone age. But we must still be on our guard. While their most extreme cohorts are too rabid to be taken seriously, the underlying themes they espouse are shared with more moderate voices that still affect the political discourse. Statism; syndicalism; paternalism; prioritising the collective over the individual; a willingness to use coercion to achieve their ends; the priority of equality at the expense of freedom: these trends are still dominant in our society, and it is the poorest that suffer, and their children who suffer most.
If we really want to help impoverished children, that might be a good place to start.