If we’re to move entirely past the rather ideologically bankrupt centre-left consensus that emerged in the aftermath of 2008, we need to get into what the defining issues of that consensus are — its main tenets and its main flaws. A good case study of this is a pamphlet authored by former Shadow Chancellor and notable opponent of the hard left, whoever they are, Chris Leslie. Nobly entitled “Centre Ground — Six Values of Mainstream Britain” (PDF), it deftly illustrates the profound limits of this kind of thinking, which accepts the structures of neoliberal Britain wholesale and proposes that not only is fundamental change undesirable, but that anyone who suggests it is a misguided populist.
The issues with this start with the title; “Centre Ground — Six Values of Mainstream Britain” makes several assertions within its seven words, none of which stand up to basic questioning. Leslie is here saying that the thoughts and values contained within are in the “centre ground” (implying, in the most generous sense, that they are shared by a wide number of people), that the “values” he identifies (which your average horoscope writer would consider a bit broad) speak to universal truths, and furthermore that these are mainstream and indeed universal to Britain.
The most generous explanation I can come to about how Leslie came to think that what he’s outlined in this pamphlet is in any way representative of a wide swathe of British popular opinion is that, bluntly, he has a level of unearned self-regard that is frankly beyond human comprehension. He has simply declared his own opinions and beliefs to be not only mainstream, but also intrinsically and uniquely rational. Here is but one of many points at which I could mention that the one aptitude Chris Leslie unfailingly displays throughout his work is an uncanny ability to be totally unable to spot his own cognitive biases.
One of Leslie’s most basic mistakes, repeated many times throughout the pamphlet, is to assume that combining a common left-wing trope (e.g. “everyone needs a helping hand”) and a common right-wing one (“but you have to try if you can”) somehow results in profound insight, rather than something completely meaningless, if not actually tautological and punishingly obvious. His unwillingness to nail his colours to either mast and propose anything that might stray into the verboten areas of statism leads to his policy prescriptions winding up as either laughably vague or just, frankly, stupid.
Take, for instance, his precis of “Responsibility” from which the above “helping hand”/”try if you can” quotes are taken. His stated policy ideas are as follows, and I will quote this in full:
A harmonised flat rate of 30% pensions tax relief could help people save more effectively for their own retirement, as could action against high fund management fees and an extension of auto-enrolment to critical illness and life insurance. Incentives for individuals to structure their employment as though they are ‘contractors’ are unfair to others who pay their taxes responsibly and should be removed.
A standard leftist response to the issues of pension provision in old age and cover for critical illness would be something akin to the triple lock — if not simply a drastic increase in the state pension — and an increase of and broadening of scope for government welfare benefits for those unable to work due to serious illnesses, neither of which appear to have crossed Leslie’s mind or which he presumably instead dismissed out of hand as being, well, a standard left response. Instead he settles for an idea of a tax break on pensions and undefined action on high fund management fees, which aside from being merely a relatively minor and not particularly consequential tweak to something that already exists is also a massive giveaway to those who have excess money to plough into what is already a tax-efficient investment vehicle.
A standard leftist response for the provision of life insurance, meanwhile, simply does not exist as lack of access to life insurance is not a problem that anyone meaningfully has, it being a widely-available and relatively inexpensive financial product with a huge and well-regulated market place. Aside from this being a solution without a problem, auto-enrolment into life insurance is simply a dumb idea. One of the first things people who sell life insurance will tell you is that there is no real identifiable need for anyone who does not have a mortgage and/or dependents to have life insurance, since there would be no real beneficiaries from such a policy. Everyone gets old and sick; that’s why old age pensions and state healthcare provision are (or should be) considered to be a universal good. Not everyone has dependents or a mortgage. Auto-enrolment would thus ensure that people who did not actually need an insurance product would be compelled to buy one, which aside from being a drain on their paycheque would also represent a giveaway to insurance firms. This is, in the bluntest terms imaginable, a stupid idea for a policy.
To Leslie, this presumably is a very profound idea — it’s what a person who’s ideologically prohibited themselves from properly intervening in a market to improves peoples’ lives thinks an intervention looks like. In terms of achieving a useful social end, however, it is difficult to see what this achieves. His other policy idea, of contractors not being able to structure their affairs to get a leg-up over employees tax wise, isn’t too bad — the problem is that it’s not new, it’s already in place, it’s called IR35 and the Government has already acted to further close what loopholes remain.
The real money shot however comes also under the heading of “Responsibility”, with this paragraph:
“The responsible stewardship of public finances is critically important to jobs and the well- being of the community, but those on the fringes of the political spectrum either neglect the role of government or give the impression that taxpayer resources are limitless. The centre ground must stand up for sustainability, long-termism and the duty of care for the public realm.”
We now get to the core of the issue. Leslie talks about “neglect[ing] the role of government” but it’s beyond obvious that he is instead incredibly cool on government actually doing anything or increasing its remit in any meaningful way; he instead seems to completely accept the Osborne-era rationale for austerity, that we must live within our means, or as he puts it, that “resources are not limitless” — again, something that somehow manages to be pathetically obvious and immensely glib at the same time. After over eight years of state provisions being mercilessly hacked to the bone by a government fanatically committed to doing so, it takes a frankly astonishing amount of chutzpah to claim that a desire for greater spending on public services is either irrational, a desire solely held within the “political fringes” or somehow prima facie wrong. This also begs the question of what Leslie thought about public spending in the latter days of the Brown government, before austerity was introduced — was this, too, based on Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling having an impression of “taxpayer resources being limitless” or was it simply because the money was actually there, that deficits and public debt do not in fact cause the sky to fall in and because they recognised that some things are public goods that government has a proper role in providing to a high standard?
Leslie also talks about “long-termism” but he also doesn’t seem to specify exactly what he intends to achieve over the long term. It’s all very well thinking about things in the long-term, but usually the idea is to do so in pursuit of an actual goal; what is Leslie’s goal here? What, indeed, are his maximal demands; what is his overarching aim to all of this moderation? Does he even have any, or is the moderation an end in and of itself? More to the point, if there’s not money to spend on schools, hospitals, railways or anything else in this country that has been deliberately starved of spending, when will there be?
Leslie’s follow up to the “Responsibility” section in the introduction is “Evidence not ideology”, and it helps us answer the above questions convincingly:
The battle of ideas isn’t simply about competing visions or outcomes. It is also about the way the world is analysed, the process through which decisions are taken, and the means to the ends. Centre ground politics sees the world as it is today and then tries to improve it. Decisions on public policy should be grounded in truthfulness and merit. The centre ground needs to guard against the fanatical fervour of the ideologue and defend the basic tenets of good governance. More than this, there is a need to re-make the case for rationality in the conduct of public affairs.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and this is principally because a lot of the things Leslie says he simply asserts, and a lot of the things he asserts are simply wrong. First of all, politics (or as he rather pompously puts it “the battle of ideas”) is entirely about competing visions or outcomes; that is fundamentally what politics is for, from the ground up. What is the point of being in politics if you don’t have a vision for what you want society to be like that you in some way want to see enacted? Ideology isn’t some unreasonable cancer that has infected the previously-pure world of politics; the entire point of politics as a profession and as an endeavour is to try and get your ideology converted into public policy so that you can change your country, if not the world. The idea of a non-ideological politics is nonsense.
Secondly, “seeing the world as it is and trying to improve it” is hilariously meaningless. Improve it to what end? What is wrong with the world today that needs improvement? Do you therefore simply accept the world as it is now, and just wish it was a tiny bit nicer? We again run into the question of what Leslie’s maximal demands are; if Chris Leslie was given the utmost free rein to shape any sort of society he wanted (a nightmare scenario, however you spin it), what would be produced as the end result? The only real answer that can be gleaned from his treatise is that it looks basically like today with some of the edges filed off. But then that is itself an ideology; if you accept the world as it is now, and in particular accept Britain’s particular neoliberal system as it is in 2018, then you are essentially saying that this either is the ideal end-state or is quite close to it, and that on some level you wish to preserve it. How is that not ideological? Political systems and structures that exist now are not somehow bereft of ideological underpinnings simply by merit of factually existing. To suggest so is plainly absurd.
More to the point, Leslie’s greatest mistake, and the defining issue with his entire argument, is that he seems to consider centrism (as he defines it) to be rational and all other ideologies to be irrational — the work of “ideologues” and “populists” who are stuck in the past and unwilling to meet the challenges of today. He thus belies his own assertions of rationality and independence of thought by imposing his own ideological limitations on the remedies he proposes — he just sees his own anti-statist ideology as natural, rational, “mainstream” even, so does not stop to consider that it might inform the nature of what he considers a reasonable solution to problems the country faces. It becomes obvious very quickly that what Chris Leslie asserts to be “mainstream” or “rational” is actually just what Chris Leslie himself thinks.
So the answers to the questions asked above are quite simple, if not explicitly stated: there is no long-term goal. The maximal demand of his ideology is that the country be basically the same as it is now only slightly nicer. The moderation is the end of the endeavour because the aim is not any kind of real progression or improvement or radical change, it is stasis. The extra money for schools and hospitals and buses and parks and railways and houses and so on and so forth is not coming because it is not currently there and thus, in Leslie’s extremely limited calculus, will never be there.
I could go on about the litany of serious issues with this pamphlet; the repeated bold assertions of fact which are not in any way supported by evidence, the meaningless diagrams (I particularly enjoy the one I tagged to this article which somehow gets both “pacifism” and “military intervention” to feed into the same cohesive whole), the bizarre mischaracterisations of anyone who Chris Leslie deems to be insufficiently mainstream and therefore a populist, the out-of-left-field assertion that “Keynesianism sits close to the centre ground” when he’s spent years opposing anything even remotely resembling Keynesianism. However it suffices to say that the worldview Chris Leslie outlines is not the exciting, forward-thinking and progressive one he seems to think it is; instead it is an overtly reactionary one, where anyone who proposes sweeping change to a system that appears to be fundamentally broken is not only wrong and irrational but almost even immoral, and we must instead tinker at the edges to try and maintain everything precisely as it is.
There appears to be no concept in Leslie’s world of there being a light at the end of the tunnel; what Leslie proposes instead is building slightly less dank tunnels. Far from being “mainstream” or in the “centre-ground”, his own ideological blinkers prevent him from proposing anything that might actually in some way help with the many crippling problems Britain faces, and thus are likely to do nothing more than keep him on the fringes, plugging away with his non-ideological ideology for the benefit of nobody.
(Originally posted: https://medium.com/@bloonface/the-very-real-limits-of-chris-leslies-non-ideological-ideology-6e61ecaff956)