Birth of a New New Left?


The dark, dank Union Chapel, with its stern stained-glass etchings of the Biblical heroines Ruth and Naomi, sits behind one of those quaint English private gardens in North London’s chichi Islington birthplace of New Labour.

It’s not the ideal location for the rebirth of the broad, international, liberal Left. But the authors of the Euston Manifesto are not interested in aesthetics. They think the Left has spent most of the post-Cold War period doing nothing but dream especially since the failed efforts to stop the Iraq War resulting in an alternating trail of disappointment and destruction.

So, beleaguered but determined, they did what the Left always does they had a meeting. It took place in 2005 in a Euston pub (you remember Euston: light blue on the Monopoly board), Their objective was to get the Left out of jail (two spaces after Euston, as budding capitalist gamesters will know).

They subsequently produced the Euston Manifesto.

And on 25 May, in Union Chapel, they launched.

Having endured the hype practically every national paper and political magazine in Britain has run a column, editorial or blog on the Euston Manifesto I found myself seated on a pew waiting for the substance.

It was supposed to be a strictly ticketed event and I’d forgotten to book, but by the look of my half-empty pew I needn’t have worried. The crowd ranged from teens to pensioners, yet there were noticeably few Black and minority ethnic faces for a London borough where such groups make up 25 per cent of the population. But to raise that quibble might be to stray into identity politics and the Manifesto’s authors don’t like that either.

The panel at the public launch of the Euston Manifesto.
(L-R): Alan Johnson, Eve Garrard, Nick Cohen, Shalom Lappin and Norman Geras.

They don’t like many things, actually. They don’t like dictators, they don’t like apologists for Muslim fundamentalism, and they don’t like wallowing in past mistakes. Nor do they really like Bush and Blair.

So, what do they like?

They like democracy, and honesty about who is and isn’t a democrat.

They like America.

They like scrutiny and objectivity.

They like condemning all abuses of human rights, whoever the perpetrators.

They like freedom of speech, even if it causes offence.

They think ends matter as well as means (eg democracy in Iraq).

We could surmise that they are supporters of egalitarian liberalism, who think that those who speak for the Left need to wake up to themselves.

Whether they ought to save the Left (is it worth saving? they might ask) or split from it, is a debate they have skipped over for the time being. For now, it is easier to stick to basics and make a bit out of the ‘Euston Underground’ merchandising sideline they have going.

The event on 25 May had almost no energy. The speakers nearly put me to sleep. A ‘Sorry Day UK’ event mercifully clashed with the launch, so I missed question time.

I wanted to like them. I really did. But I couldn’t help wondering why whole chunks of essential issues were left out of their Manifesto. What about globalisation, for instance? What about equality is it an unwieldy prescription in a complex, new world or a core value? What exactly do they hope to offer on human rights that Amnesty doesn’t already do ten times better? And is this just about the British Left debating itself or do they really want it to be international?

While it’s a struggle to call the group’s outlook ‘fresh,’ they do offer something few others are offering now: a willingness to act as a check and balance against the regular rush of Leftists wanting to resist and rescue. That is: resist global capitalism, resist any attempt to change the role of the State, and rescue whatever group they decide is fit for their pity at the moment, Muslims regardless of whether that group want to be rescued or not. For that reason alone, I think the Euston Manifesto is a force for good.

But let’s hope the Manifesto and its authors don’t follow the path of Naomi and Ruth, whose golden stained-glass shadows were cast across them at the launch. Naomi had a mid-life crisis and changed her name to Mara or ‘bitter’ in Hebrew. Ruth, meanwhile, was responsible for the rise of King David the closest thing the Old Testament had to a modern-day media tart.

Such symbolism might be too close to the bone for the Eustonites as 40 per cent of the country four per cent more than he needs is rushing to anoint another David (Cameron) as heir to the throne.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.