In one respect, the Left should be a little worried by the Conservatives’ failure.
To see what I mean, consider John Kay’s claim that there’s an intellectual vacuum” on the Left:
The search for a practical political philosophy for the left in Europe has…moved backwards since 1997. Market fundamentalism is out of favour, the failings of socialism are still not forgotten. Social democracy seems inevitably associated with high taxes and obstructive and overbearing public sector trade unions.
Now, there is in theory a solution to this. What the left needs is to pay much greater attention to questions of ownership. It needs to break away from the post-war social democratic view that the evils of capitalism could be tempered by trades unions and state action alone. I mean this in four ways:
1. Some form of worker ownership would abolish the toxic class conflict that has bedevilled some (yes, public sector) industries such as Royal Mail or the tube.
2. Intelligent cuts in public spending can only be done through decentralization, because workers on the ground know better than Whitehall where the waste is.
3. The financial crisis was not (just) a market failure, but a failure of ownership. As John himself writes in Obliquity:
[Banks’ bosses] supposed they were in control of large financial institutions, when in reality the floors beneath them were occupied by a rabble of self-interested individuals determined to evade any controls on their own activities.
This means the Left should abandon its view that ownership structures are a question best left to the private sector.
4. In a globalized world, it’s difficult to redistribute income through the tax system, partly because taxes on profits are shifted onto wages. Giving workers ownership might, therefore, be a more feasible egalitarian strategy.
Leftist thinking should, then, pay more attention to issues of ownership.
And this is where Cameron’s disappointment is, in a sense, my disappointment too. His “big society” idea went down about as successfully as Nigel Farage’s plane. A big reason for this seems to have been that people just don’t want to take control of local services.
Which raises the disturbing possibility. Could it be that a possibly coherent theme for the Left – empowering workers – would be unpopular with voters because they don’t want the responsibility that comes with power?