The Australian is running a series of articles on left-wing politics, called ‘What’s left?’. The answer so far is that more than a set of specific beliefs the left is a particular sensibility.
This idea is most explicitly argued for in Dennis Glover’s contribution this morning:
social democracy springs from an enduring but mysterious human desire to create a better society, the challenge for social democrats today isn’t just to produce a newer and smarter program but to appeal to this moral and political impulse on an emotional as well as rational basis. It has to show passion and character, not just logic.
Glover argues that this desire goes back to the start of Western civilization in ancient Greece. The form it takes varies a lot. What was needed to improve the lives of, say, the 19th century working class is very different to the concerns social democrats have today. But the moral impulses are similar.
For Julia Gillard, the left-wing impulse is emotional:
Even when I was at school, … I had a sense of what I thought was right and wrong in a values sense. Instinctively at home, Labor was our team. Even more importantly than the events, we’d talk about the values behind what was happening in the news. A sense of indignation has always burned in me about what happened to my father [who missed out on higher education]. (emphasis added)
This series seems to have been triggered by the work of the suddenly everywhere Tim Soutphommasane. A couple of weeks ago, The Australian ran his op-ed calling for a ‘romantic’ vision of social democracy. Just what social democrats should be ‘romantic’ about the article did not say.
At the weekend, Tim returned to The Australian with a more theoretical piece. He’s not sure what the Rudd government really stands for, and concludes that ‘Australian progressives appear, at least for now, to lack a unifying idea behind reform.’ He says they need to have a robust debate about ‘what a commitment to social justice and equality must involve in the 21st century.’ But aside from mentioning the ideas of some left-of-centre intellectuals, he seems reluctant to start such a debate.
After reading several of his articles, I still don’t know what a bright (Oxford PhD, new book with Cambridge University Press) young social democrat like Tim Soutphommasane thinks social democracy should be about in any specific sense. But he wants to believe in the power of politics to create a better society, he wants to be inspired by a romantic vision.
In institutional terms, social democrats are in a strong position. The welfare state is entrenched, and in Australia at least the formal social democratic party is securely in power.
But it is also understandable that some social democrats are feeling political angst. With power comes the grinding daily realities of trying to make the massive welfare state work a little better, and all the trade-offs and compromises that so disappoint the party faithful. It makes Labor less competitive with all the people who feel passionate and indignant about some actual or perceived injustice, who romantically want to believe in the redemptive power of politics.