What’s left of the Left in Poland and the UK – and why we need it more than ever.
The left is, in this twenty-first century, experiencing its greatest crisis in history. And it does not result from electoral weakness. There have been times in the previous hundred years when social democratic and socialist parties fell to such electoral depths as seem impossible today. Nor does it stem from a lack of answers to the social and economic problems of today’s world – the economic consensus has, after all, shifted towards greater state interventionism and participation in the economy.
No, the problem of the left goes deeper: its leaders lack vision, and its members lack ambition.
In times when the left in Poland, SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) and Razem, reach the dizzying heights of 3% support in polling, and the nationalistic right has stolen our social slogans, we need to look towards the fundamentals of our creed. And creed or faith is the most apt description of our ideal that tomorrow can be better, that the economy can grow to benefit the many, not the privileged few, that all people have the right to partake in the wealth of nations.
As full of pathos as it may sound, the shortest and most complete description of what pushes us to politics I heard in recent years not from the lips of social democratic barons, but from the elected mayor of one of London and the UK’s poorest boroughs, Tower Hamlets. This is where city bankers do their compulsory charitable hours as corporations fulfil their CSR commitments. This is a borough that had, until the early nineties, some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country.
John Biggs, then the leader of the borough council (to non-UK readers, the council is here the size of a small city – 284 thousand inhabitants), and now the directly elected mayor, said that his political career was driven by a “flame of anger against injustice”. That anger then became the force behind a campaign to improve the schools in Tower Hamlets, to make council services more reliable and widespread, and to create many and varied jobs for the people of the borough. Tower Hamlets today is, due to the efforts of Labour councillors and MPs over two decades, immeasurably better for its residents, though entrenched problems remain.
The contrast between Tower Hamlets and the historically rich, but ideologically driven Tory-run council in Barnet in North London is huge. Barnet council even tried to privatise the running of local elections, a market fundamentalist experiment that ended in catastrophic failure as thousands of Barnet residents were denied the right to vote due to a fault in the private provider’s system. The council is closing the few remaining public libraries. Barnet did not build council houses for twenty years. Then, in 2014, it broke that streak by building three council houses, despite experiencing, like the rest of London, a desperate housing shortage for the young and not-so-well-off.
That contrast encapsulates what’s best in the left and what the right does worst. Inspired by that flame of anger against injustice, tens of thousands of left-wing councillors, regional parliamentarians and community activists dedicate themselves to improving the lives of people in their communities. The right, to quote Thatcher, remains steady in the misguided conviction that “there is no such thing as society”.
Our leaders have forgotten about the anger and the constant battle to improve the living conditions of our fellow citizens. What would Włodzimierz Czarzasty, convicted for corruption and sleaze and now leader of the SLD know of the life of a farmer from the impoverished podkarpackie voivodship in Poland? Czarzasty, who’s spent his life jaunting in the upper echelons of the Warsaw elite, making sure his friends from the former ZSP (the Union of Polish Students under the Communist government), now in the Ordynacka Society, weren’t dealt a hard hand in the new system.
What could an MP from the bourgeois borough of Islington know about the fate of a Cornish fisherman, an MP who, during perhaps the deepest splits within the Labour Party and while the media were revealing him to have lied in a campaign ad, took some time off to make homemade jam?
Our members are becoming less interesting in working for the common good, while their need to satisfy in ideological terms their utter laziness becomes ever stronger. An acquaintance who spent a good few hours trying to convince me a Tweet can achieve more than a day on the doorstep made me despair – that view is becoming ever more prevalent, despite experience demonstrating the contrary.
To quote a Polish classic, former president Alexander Kwasniewski, who in his slightly intoxicated state appealed to an opposition politician: “Do not take that path”. There lies the road to our complete destruction as a political force.
The role of the left is no less and no more than to take power in the name and in the interests of the majority of citizens, to deconstruct the unjust division of wealth in society and to achieve solidarity and peace between nations. Our objective is to demolish inequality and to be a light in the darkness of capitalism, to democratise our public sphere and the relations of wealth.
The lack of vision from our leaders, and lack of ambition of our selectorate is a betrayal of our role as the flame of anger against oppression. Only when we regain our vision and ambition and focus on winning will we deserve the title of representatives of the people, a title we now usurp all too often.