Since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, socialism is a term that has risen to prominence in the national consciousness. Some see the gains that Labour made in the 2017 general election as the nation giving a mandate for a form of socialism in Britain, whereas others suggest that Labour’s failure to gain a majority against the backdrop of Conservative controversy points to a Britain that will never accept socialist policies. The focus of the York Union’s debate on Thursday was whether Britain would benefit from socialist government. An initial poll prior to the debate placed support for the motion at 45% percent, opposition to the motion at 50%, and abstentions at 5%.
The main arguments of the proposition focused on the current state of poverty in Britain, and their view that our current system of capitalism is by its very nature unequal. Those arguing for the implementation of socialism in Britain see, under the current system, power resting in the hands of a small minority, whilst the majority is excluded. As a result, the majority have little say in working conditions, pay and treatment. Even though choice is technically a part of the democracy we live in, the proposition argued that the system of capitalism withholds choice, with daily financial living pressures meaning that it is impossible for many to improve their situation by moving, or getting a new job, or starting up a business. Essentially, they argued, capitalism promotes a ‘tax on living’. And it is, to some extent true. Current poverty levels in Britain mean that 4 million children live in poverty, with 67% of these children living in households where at least one person is in work. Ultimately, the argument was made that our current system is one of public risk and private profit, and that in order to progress our society, the fair and equal distribution of goods and services is necessary.
The opposition began by stating their disagreement with Conservative politics, with those opposing the motion mainly supporting centrist policies. Their primary argument hinged on the fact that socialism is an outdated ideology of the past and implementing it cannot forge a stronger position for Britain in the present. Instead of socialism, they supported “pragmatic centrist liberal politics.” They cited current examples of failed socialist states, such as Venezuela, arguing that after the implementation of socialism in the country, essentials are in short supply, the freedom of the press is being dismantled, and poverty is on the rise. The second part of their argument focused on the divisive nature of socialism, and that there is a need for a political system that creates unity, by working with businesses and workers alike.
After two speeches from each side, the debate was opened up to questions from the audience. Such questions focused on topics such as how socialism can be justified if it takes away certain freedoms such as the right to property, whether capitalism creates a meritocracy or whether this is a myth, and whether the panel supports some of Corbyn’s policies, such as nationalising the railway. The debate ended with 37% in support of the motion, 54% in opposition, and 9% abstaining. Evidently socialism remains a divisive issue in Britain. As an audience member, generally both sides of the panel seemed to do a poor job of discussing their views. The opposition seemed to find it impossible to recognise the differences between socialism and communist dictatorships, whilst the proposition failed to advocate a form of progressive socialism that would balance the rights of freedom under capitalism with the rights of the individual.
In my personal view, Britain would benefit from something that looked a little less like socialism, and a little more like Nordic and Scandinavian politics. Rather than advocating hard-line socialism, or sitting on the fence with centrism, those who hold liberal, progressive values, should unify to advocate a political future that prioritises equality of essential human needs, such as education, healthcare, and housing, whilst allowing people to fully pursue their dreams and ambitions. A little idealistic maybe, but possible if those who truly believe in equality work together. Perhaps Britain is not ready for socialism, but it seems likely that the next Labour government has a mandate for the implementation of certain policies, that, if you look closely enough, are certainly inspired from socialist ideals.