The very term “Socialist” had been so thoroughly ridiculed and vilified for decades, that I would never have thought of describing myself as a Socialist at the time of the last General Election in May 2015. (Remember that election? It was when Cameron was successfully marketed as a “statesman” and his backers in the mainstream media persuaded people that Miliband was “odd” and was the one who would bring “chaos”).
I realise now that my beliefs mean I should describe myself as a Socialist. Obviously, I have been influenced by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and by Bernie Sanders in the US. The greatest peacetime prime minister the UK has ever had, Clement Attlee, was a proud Socialist, as was the greatest British writer on politics and society of the last century, George Orwell.
My political hero, Tom Paine - arguably the father of modern democracy and human rights - predated Socialism but he shared some crucial beliefs with it. Paine hated bullying by the rich of the poor. He challenged the assumptions of the powerful everywhere he went: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right”.
Paine’s comments, 200 years ago, were revolutionary and dangerous:-
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want…When these things can be said, then may the country boast of its constitution and its government.”
Like Corbyn, Paine was viciously mocked and abused - that is the inevitable fate of anyone who dares to challenge the interests of the powerful.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, Orwell addresses the meaning of Socialism. He defines its essential ideals as “justice and liberty”. These ideals are to be understood in a very practical sense. In 2017, for example, the courts may give you justice, but only if you can access them and millions of people have been denied effective access since 2010. And someone working all hours on poverty wages has little meaningful liberty.
Orwell sets a test for himself and others so they can know whether or not they are a Socialist. In the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes the bleak conditions of the working class in the coal mining areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the Great Depression of the 1930s. He starts the second half of the book arguing that “before you can be sure whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide whether (such) things at present are tolerable or not tolerable.”
(Orwell is scathing about Middle Class left-wingers who like to advocate progressive policies but always manage to rationalise to themselves why this is never the right time or this is never the right method to actually fight to make them a reality. “Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed”. Orwell would undoubtedly view the Guardian, the spiritual home of such have-your-cake-and-eat-it views, with withering contempt in the current circumstances.)
When Orwell described the grinding poverty in the North, he was consciously following in the tradition of Charles Dickens. He wanted the comfortable middle class to know what was happening in their country. He knew that most of them were oblivious to the reality. They did not see it with their eyes. It did not affect anyone they knew. They could pretend - even to themselves - it was not happening under their noses.
The closest we have to a Dickens or an Orwell today is, probably, Ken Loach.
His film I, Daniel Blake, shows the grim reality of the lives of millions of people in the UK. According to an authoritative study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 13.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK today. This number includes 3.7 million children. And more people living in poverty are in working households than in non-working households - people are working hard for poverty pay. (The facts make a mockery of the facile Tory mantra that if you work hard you can escape poverty.)
I, Daniel Blake shows what Loach describes as the “conscious cruelty” of the Tory benefit system. At the heart of the film is the draconian and arbitrary system of benefit sanctions. The most vulnerable in society including children, the mentally ill and the physically disabled are “punished”. A number of suicides have been linked to these sanctions. They force people to food-banks which since 2010 have become “normal” in the UK. This is one of the richest countries in the world - yet since 2013, the Red Cross has been delivering food parcels to our hungry and well over a million food parcels are handed out each year and the number is rising inexorably.
I don’t think that what I, Daniel Blake describes is tolerable in our country. By Orwell’s test, then I am a Socialist.
The stakes are incredibly high in this election. On the one side is the Trump-loving, NHS-destroying, public-services-trashing, Murdoch-Dacre-crony May. On the other, the Socialist Corbyn. I am with the Socialist.