The Left and liberty – Report

Amalia Kontesi (UCL Student Human Rights Programme): Although many would expect hesitancy from the members of the panel, considering the ability of the left to safeguard liberty, the outcome of this discussion was the exact opposite. It is true that in its pursuit of equality, the Left has often sacrificed liberty in the past and despite its respect of human rights, it has not empowered citizens to reach a level of full emancipation. However, this panel discussion was a good indication that the Left has the will to embrace liberty remaining loyal to its ideology.

The first one to point out this view was the chair of the panel and General Secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala. He explained that we should not identify the Left with New Labour whose decisions were severely criticised during the course of the discussion. He pointed out that the Left can indeed help people to recover their liberty. The question of whether the Left values liberty enough was posed. Given that when refering to the Left we should not only consider the Labour Party but also the democratic left, he explained that some of the Labour Party’s practices have been authoritarian, creating the impression that the Left does not care about Liberty. Katwala asked everyone who attended the panel to keep in mind during the discussion the definition of liberty that was included in The Guardian according to which: “Liberty is the right to live an honest life under the rule of law without fear of oppressive authority”.

When Neal Lawson, the chairman of Compass, started to speak, he focused on the Left’s lack of a single universal international truth. More specifically, he referred to the fact that although every organisation has a single universal international truth, around which its actions and decisions evolve, the Left has to get its truth back. This is perhaps due to the vagueness often related to the concept of liberty. In any case, the Left now faces two issues which have to be adressed effectively in order to enable citizens to be fully emancepated. These issues are market fundamentalism and state fundamentalism. There is a false belief nowadays that the market and the state will operate in people’s best interests. Lawson suggested that the route to freedom is the appearance of individualised consumers in the market. This could only be achieved with an increasing involvement of the state in the market due to the current lack of control mechanisms in the free market. In the meantime, people’s ability to act for themselves has been reduced by the state which has become policing, dictating and controling. These two attitudes make it difficult for us to trust people to behave in the right way.

The extent of the problem appears clearly when we realise that this trust is essential in order for liberty to be acquired. The solution to this is to recognize the problem. What we need is a free society and we can only be free if we have the resources we need. Since the only way to conceive real freedom is by relating it to autonomy, we need to achieve a certain level of solidarity. People can have real autonomy and power by acting together, as a whole. What should be done is to give people real power and control and trust them to take the right decisions. Lawson encouraged us all to organise ourselves in groups and claim the necessary change in the name of a different vision of the good society and the good life.

Observer columnist Mary Riddell said that the Right annexed freedom in order to free the market. The recession we are experiencing which threatens our liberties is due to the freedom of the markets.. The introduction of the identity card and the database demonstrates that although people consider themselves above scrutiny, they are not. The privacy of the individual is sacrificed in the name of self-exhaustive data. She then emphasised the need for the Left to change its attitude since freedom can be better guaranteeed by the Left than by the Right due to the Left’s insistance on fighting poverty and social oppression which are all threats to liberty.

Mike Rustin, the founding editor of Soundings, offered a valuable insight by identifying the problems that Labour’s policies have caused and comparing them to the policies announced by Obama in the U.S.A. He suggests that from Thatcher onwards society has been driven by market forces, banks and corporates resulting in sacrifices being made in terms of social order, jobs and wages. It is true that the way in which the world market has been operating brought important benefits to countries such as China and Brazil. However, is it possible that these benefits are outweighed by the limitations imposed on our liberty?

The way modern markets operate has led to people having no protection, low quality healthcare and limited access to pensions. The policies recently announced in the U.S. are radically different to the ones which are now implemented in Britain. Obama has announced increased taxation on the rich, a rise in government spending and more regulation. These policies are a far better way to reach liberty than the ones adopted by the Labour Party according to Rustin. Rustin later clarified that although he does not consider Obama a Left winger –there are no Left wing parties in the U.S. he said – he considers his first declarations impressive given the extremely conservative American political system. The conservatives are not a solution to Britain’s problems either since they believe that the state should be doing less rather than more. Rustin argued that this system would not encourage respect towards civil liberties since it might cause disorder and alarms. Government intervention ought to produce stabilisation which can only be achieved by the regeneration of democratic institutions.

All the members of the panel agreeed that the Left also values equality and fraternity and not only liberty. However, a way must be found by the left in order for all of these principles to be represented and proteceted simultaneously. 

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