For all the talk of big tent politics, the term ‘Soft Left’ has become a tent so large that it has collapsed in the middle, and runs the risk of smothering those inside. Given that we at the Social Review are often accused of being the Pravda of the Soft Left, it is perhaps worth setting out a clearer definition of what that means. As it stands, it is a large and unwieldly descriptor that now runs the gamut from ‘full-blooded Corbyn fans’ to ‘Progress hacks frantically trying to launder their reputations having realised that wing of the party is a sinking ship.’ Both are often used as epithets against the soft left, and repudiated as such – but both are fair descriptors of various sects within the broader ‘movement’.
The issue seems to be in the definition of ‘soft’, and whether it is used as a modifier for ‘left’ or not. For many on the soft left, Soft and Left have equal weighting. They are fans of the Corbyn economic programme, and perhaps have sympathy for the foreign policy aspect. The general sentiment is one that prioritises the wellbeing of people over markets. Where they jump off is the internal culture of the Party under Corbyn. For all that they are fans of the four-day week, a Labour Party which covered up sexual harassment, that swept anti-Semitism cases under the rug, and oversaw a fairly rancid complaints system was one that must be fundamentally changed. For this group, ‘soft’ is a descriptor of how you do left politics, rather than being a watering down of the left bit. They are ‘soft’ in a sense that feels personal – they want politics to be nice, they want those in it to be kinder.
For the other group, soft serves as a modifier. They are left wing – to a degree. They don’t agree with the Corbyn project; thinking it was far too much too soon. Their politics are likely closer to the 2015 manifesto than the 2017 one, and certainly not the 2019 manifesto. It’s a fairly easy jumping off point for Progress hacks – it requires a very small leftwards step, which can be rationalised as simply responding to the direction of the party post-Corbyn’s election.
In both these cases, ‘soft left’ is a hugely inappropriate title. The first group are just Social Democrats, some with a degree of radicalism. The second are more or less in line with the left edge of Christian Democratic thought. To draw a shaky European analogy – aware as I am that it will be both insufficient and fraught – the first group wants something that looks a bit like Norway, the second wants something that looks a bit like Germany.
I realise that the two groups I have drawn are far from perfect, and I don’t want to do Goodhart’s ‘Anywheres and Nowheres’ but for the psyche of a faction. I draw them to describe both a phenomenon that I believe exists, but also to illustrate the real problem with ‘Soft Left’ as a descriptor – if it can apply to anyone, chances are it adequately describes no-one.
Then comes the question of where the membership sits in all of this. For the membership, ‘soft’ plays another role entirely. In my view, the Labour membership sits somewhere between the two aforementioned groups – more naturally left wing than Progress hacks, but less ideologically committed than the melt left. They want nice things, certainly, but are willing to jettison certain policy asks if it means winning power for the Labour Party. They are desperate to end austerity, which they hate. As such, describing the membership as ‘soft left’ does make a certain kind of sense, but is entirely useless if you’re trying to depict an even remotely cohesive or coherent position (as much as it is possible to ascribe such a thing to about 250,000 people).
This brings me to the so-called ‘Soft Left’ faction: Open Labour. Often called the ‘non-factional faction’, this title ignores the fact that like it or not, the Labour Party was, is, and likely will remain, a deeply factional place. Consider Starmer’s campaign, which regardless of your thoughts on it (or indeed him), looks like it will secure an overwhelming mandate from the membership – current polling suggests a first round win. Starmer could be a natural ally to the soft left, but his campaign has made use of organisations like Labour First’s infrastructure – granted, with other staff drawn from the party’s left, like Kat Fletcher. This is often read as part of Starmer’s plan to unify the party, and this may well have featured in Starmer’s reasoning, but it’s worth reminding oneself that it was also a decision borne of necessity. There was no real soft left infrastructure Starmer could have drawn on to help his campaign, no organisation with real roots around the country he could turn to. Likewise, Lisa Nandy, who won the backing of Open Labour, has had to draw her actual infrastructure from elsewhere, or in many situations, build it herself.
There are genuinely interesting ideas coming out of Open Labour at the moment – Alex Sobel, one of the more prominent figures within the group, wrote what I think is one of the most important articles outlining a vision for Labour post-election, with an emphasis on a progressive communitarianism. If ideas like Sobel’s, or indeed any of the ideas of the 2019 manifesto are going to be implemented, both Open Labour and the Social Democratic wing of the Soft Left needs to become both larger, and more factional – in short, stop behaving like the ‘anti-faction-faction’ and more like a vanguard for a certain set of ideas. I have written previously that the names we give things matter, and so it is for the soft left. For those of us who currently use the label, it’s worth thinking equally about how we want to do politics, and crucially what kind of politics we want to do – once the hard work of thinking is done, we will need to find a name that summarises what we want, and get out there and defend it.
This article is part of our ongoing project to explore the future of Labour. Should you have any ideas about where the soft left, or indeed the Labour Party, ought to go from here, email email@example.com