The biggest problem that radicals have had, pretty much since the Russian revolution, is a tendency to assume that equality is more important than freedom and the state is the people's friend. This often goes hand in hand with a belief that somewhere in the world there is a regime that is not entirely democratic but should be supported because it is standing up for the rights of workers and providing an example for us all.
Over the years I have met people who told me with all sincerity that you could find real communism in practice in China. They were making a great leap forward under a Great Helmsman. Then it turned out he was having women pulled off the street to send to his bed (this comes from his own doctor's account) and forcing through his decisions with such ruthlessness that it left 30 million dead in an unnecessary famine and innocent people like Deng's son crippled for life after being pushed out of a window.
I have also met others who told me that life in the workers states of Eastern Europe was better for ordinary people than life in the West because it was not organised on a capitalist basis. It turned out that it was run for the benefit of state bureaucrats and the workers in the workers state got sent to the camps if they complained and were desperate for the regimes to be overthrown. Astonishingly it was a surprise to some folks that both capitalism and state dictatorship were capable of being highly unpleasant even if the state did claim it was socialist.
Only a few years back I was being told that Venezuela was a socialist paradise despite skyrocketing inflation and shockingly bad living standards in a country with huge oil reserves. Apparently it was unacceptable to point out that the country was being governed by people who seemed well intentioned but were actually following economic policies that were bound to result in disaster and end up writing off the left in that country for a very long time. The result was a government that tried to be progressive got kicked out by the votes of working class people who are fed up of being poor in a country that should be rich. This is a huge defeat that cannot just be written of as the product of capitalist propaganda. It is the product of sloppy thinking and failing to listen properly to the concerns of ordinary people.
Much of the radical left in the UK is similarly failing to listen. It is making some pretty fundamental mistakes and we don't have much time to correct them before the public decides that those putting them forward can't be trusted. Here's my list of worries:
1. The left only talks to itself. It isn't doing enough of the hard work of talking with people who disagree with us and genuinely listening. Instead too many are busy using social media to shout down the slightest disagreement with their own views.
2. The left doesn't want to talk in language or concepts ordinary people use. Too many people want to spout jargon. You don't convince anyone by talking about neocons or the global capitalist conspiracy.
3. Many on the left don't want to do any practical work in their local communities to help those that they claim to support. There is a long track record of people winning trust by putting their ideas into practice and losing it by seeming remote and aloof.
4. The simplicity of the argument is being lost. I am against austerity. I am against badly thought out wars. I am for freedom of individual choice. I am in favour of helping poor people to be able to live their lives at a reasonable standard of living. I want to see the environment protected before it is too late. I support women's rights and respect the practices of any culture when it is respecting the rights and freedoms of others. All of these are ideas that are hugely popular with a great many people. I have many other ideas and enthusiasms that are of secondary importance. I don't have to ram them down everyone's throat and insist that they agree with every jot and comma of my position before I can work with them or like them.
5. Organisations are there to be helpful and we shouldn't allow tribal loyalties to divide us. I don't particularly care if someone is Labour, Green, SNP, Plaid, Lib Dem or Conservative. I care whether they are putting forward an argument that I can relate to. Most of the best speeches against Cameron's Syrian war came from right wing Conservatives. No one should be written off as always wrong or beyond being worthy of debate.
6. Opponents of the West are not all nice cuddly trustworthy people. ISIS really is massively worse than Cameron. Most of us would be strung up and killed painfully by ISIS. It is possible to live a life and say what you think despite the worst excesses of Osborne and Cameron. Putin really is a determined nationalist who allows extremes of wealth and poverty. Assad really does have torture chambers for his opponents and he really did oppress people so badly that he provoked a civil war. Accusing the West of sole responsibility for the mess in Syria and of wanting chaos there isn't a searingly deep analysis of capitalism. It is a serious misunderstanding of how oppressed people were and how determined they were to revolt. So is assuming that Mr. Putin's bombs in Syria are friendly bombs whereas Cameron's are not.
7. If the left wants to get taken seriously it has to defend and promote its core values and principles without being fear of offending those who deeply reject those ideas and claim a cultural justification for oppressive views. This means that when a woman is not allowed to show her face or subjected to male decision making in a Sharia court we are not being islamophobic if we denounce that. We are being consistent defenders of women's rights that were hard fought for.
8. We need to stop coming across as if we automatically assume that having the state run everything will always be the best. There are plenty of cases where we need to defend the state fiercely as the best way of providing a service. The NHS being the classic example. But there are also plenty of things that the private sector does very well indeed. When it comes to computer software design and implementation, for example, the private sector has a much better record than any part of the public sector. It is therefore not terribly clever to pretend that the public sector must always and everywhere be the solution. It undermines the attack on Cameron's narrow minded insistence of the reverse position that it must always be private sector which is best.
All in all what I am trying to argue is that the left has to connect with ordinary people and be part of their lives. If it allows itself to be separated then someone else fills the vacuum. The Front National is winning millions of votes in France that should naturally have gone to the left. UKIP won 4 million votes in the last UK elections many of them from perfectly decent ordinary working people. Radical ideas can persuade these people to think and act differently. But not if our campaigners become separated from the lives of millions of people and leave others to whisper poison in their ears down at the local pub and reap the reward.