Why the Left has a Moral Obligation to Embrace the Anti-Meat Movement

In light of Labour’s recent raft of animal welfare policies, Jay Staker, OULC member, argues that the Left should support eventually ending the consumption of meat and animal products. 

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, not only has the Labour Party adopted some of the most radical economic policies seen for decades, but earlier this month it added a programme of truly progressive animal welfare reforms to its agenda. These policies include ending live exports for slaughter or fattening, the provision of subsidies to move away from intensive factory farming, an end to the badger cull, bans on imports of foie gras and fur products, mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, and a ban on the ivory trade and wild animals in circuses. Adopting these policies is not only smart, given their general popularity, but for those of us on the left of politics, it is a moral imperative. The fact is, the Left cannot consider itself the champion of fairness, equality and rights if we leave the most oppressed and defenceless group in our society behind. Animals need a voice, and those on the Left are the only ones to give it to them.

But why should we, as advocates of left-wing politics, care about the suffering of non-human animals? These are mere brutes; they do not have interests, or if they do they are rightly subordinate to those of man. The irony of this kind of argument is that no-one who is both rational and compassionate, as members of the Left must strive to be, actually believes it. They would not for a moment argue that a man is justified in beating his pet puppy because his interests, as a human, outweigh those of a non-human animal. For those of us on the Left, the subjection of non-human animals relies on an Orwellian doublethink. Each day, we tell ourselves that eating animals is normal, that it is natural and necessary, while spending our days arguing that institutional racism is not normal, that gender inequality is not natural, and economic exploitation is not necessary. We recognise that race, wealth, sexuality, education and ability are not valid reasons for denying one happiness, freedom and fair treatment, and yet we deny these ends to some for belonging to a species other than our own (perhaps with exemptions for dogs and cats), as if this were any less arbitrary. We must remember that humans deserve rights in virtue of being sentient, because we feel and have interests and want to flourish, characteristics that do not stop at the borders of our species. Justice, freedom and fair treatment are universal ideals, and they cannot be denied to any who desire them.

Even if one is not convinced by this appeal to animal welfare, we know that the process of animal agriculture, from land clearing to the methane released by cows, is the cause of around 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming; that’s more than the emissions produced by all of the world’s transportation combined. And we know it is the world’s poor that will, and are, being hit first by the impact of climate change.

Our responsibility is only made greater by the fact that animal rights will only ever be brought about by the Left. As their very name suggests, the Conservatives will only ever seek to preserve the current system of economic relations, with the wealthy at the top, workers at the bottom, and non-human animals yet to make the list. The Tories sold out the public when they backtracked on their promise to ban wild animals in circuses, and again when they U-turned on outlawing the ivory trade. And had they not lost seats to Labour in the 2017 General Election, they would have sold us out again by reintroducing fox hunting. The Conservative Party will only ever protect the interests of those corporations that view animal welfare as a barrier to profits.

Labour’s new policies are certainly an excellent start toward improving animal welfare, but we know that the animal rights movement has a long way to go. And every day we delay, our atmosphere heats up and tens of billions of sentient beings are unjustly slaughtered. The only way to make progress is if we on the Left embrace our own values by reducing, and ultimately eliminating, our consumption of meat and animal products. We, as a progressive, reformist movement, must take hold of the debate, convince our representatives and fellow campaigners that this is an issue worth fighting for, and take our case to the country. Harold Wilson once said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. Being the defender of the oppressed is the raison d’être of the Labour Party, and when it forgets this, it betrays both itself and those it is meant to protect.


Saving the Child: Why the Left Must Support Global Redistribution

The Long Read

Kieran Marray, OULC member, accuses the Left of failing to act on its moral intuitions by not advocating for redistribution of wealth and resources on a global level.  

Imagine that you are walking through University Parks, this copy of Look Left in your hands. It is a crisp, clear morning. The chill bites your nose and fingers. You think that’s maybe why it is deserted. Not even a jogger disturbs the peace. You get to where the river winds past the path, glittering in the early morning sun. Then suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of splashing. You notice a small child, desperately trying to keep itself afloat. The water is deep and freezing cold. The child will surely drown if you don’t do something! You aren’t an amazing swimmer, but you know that you could jump in and save it. The problem is that you have just been given a fancy new watch for your birthday, and you don’t have time to take it off. It would be ruined. What do you do?

I think that every member of this club would jump in and save the child. It seems to be a common intuition that this is the right act to do. Yet every single day, we let the child die. Not only that, but we support a party which, if it were to come to power, would consciously let this happen thousands upon thousands of times. We are not doing what is morally right.

The thesis that I shall now try to defend is that if you are on the left, then you are committed to thinking that it is right to ‘save the child’ in all relevantly similar cases. This provides grounds for how we and our party should act, not just in our personal lives but in the policies that we put forward and implement. Acting on this thesis would entail a Copernican Revolution, a radical redistribution of wealth and resources from the global North to the global South. It would also mean a brighter future, one where we crush the evils of hunger, poverty, and disease once and for all. I shall present this case by looking at the morality that might be used to ground leftist thought. Firstly, I shall consider a brief overview of the relevant parallels in the world today to the analogy of saving the child, and thereafter what kind of personal actions and policies would entail ‘saving the child.’ Then, I shall look at what I see as the three most plausible criteria of what is morally right that are consistent with left-wing ideas: egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and that of Marxist ethics. Other theories don’t appear plausible as theories that might underpin the thought of those on the left; I am happy to defend this but shall not do so here. I shall show that, on all of the plausible theories, a radical global redistribution is morally right, and that therefore, those on the left should support it.

What kind of situations are like saving the child? According to the World Bank, more than 750 million people live in extreme poverty (classified as being on under $1.90 a day), the majority of these in Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Programme estimates that around 3.1 million children die each year due to a lack of adequate nutrition. Many of these children suffer from painful intestinal worms, which sap their concentration at school and stunt their development for life. The World Health Organisation calculates that in 2015, 438 000 people died of malaria. It would cost us relatively little in terms of our own resources to prevent all this suffering. According to the charity evaluator GiveWell, the NGO Deworm the World Initiative can deworm a child for a year for under a dollar, including all distribution and staff fees. Giving someone a malaria net by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation costs under two dollars, and it is estimated that someone’s life is saved for roughly every $3000 worth of donations. This is less than some, albeit very fancy, watches. Just because these people are far away, it does not make it hard to help them if it is done well. It takes less effort than saving the drowning child. You don’t need to be able to swim, you just need internet access. Yet when the majority of people think about how to spend their own money, they do not think of sending it overseas to those in need. When the Labour Party formulates policy, it thinks primarily of increasing spending within the UK. In the 2017 manifesto, which is over 120 pages long, only a single page talks about global poverty and inequality. They are willing to give a measly 0.7% of GDP to international aid, and suggest keeping the remaining 99.3% for ourselves. We, and our party, are like the person who walks past the child struggling in the river for want of a watch. People suffer and die, gross inequalities persist, and we carry on looking the other way. I think we need to be radical and try to change this state of affairs.

On an individual level, this radicalism means donating as much as one can afford to effective charities over time. On a governmental level, meanwhile, it means spending much more of Britain’s GDP on effective overseas aid, and relatedly, empirically testing what exact proportion would squeeze the greatest benefit out of every pound. 20% of GDP looks like a good place to start. This expenditure could be financed with redistributive taxation, expropriating the property and wealth of the rich to save lives. This might seem a very unrealistic proposition. Yet as the philosopher Peter Railton notes, the only reason why it appears unrealistic is that we live in a system which makes it easier not to care, and to let people suffer and die. We and our party need to break this system.

If you are on the left, it seems impossible to escape the fact that this would be the morally right thing to do. All the plausible moral groundings for leftist thought, which I give a quick exposition of below, support it.

The first moral theory is an egalitarian one. Egalitarians might be defined in simple terms as those who believe in the principle of equality, which states that, as the late Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit puts it, “it is in itself bad if some people are worse off than others.” This needs to be combined with some way of ranking different types of inequality as worse or better with actions that reduces inequality by a greater extent than the alternative being better. This seems to explain the pull of policies such as progressive taxation or providing housing for the homeless. Cases where some people are living in luxury while others are living in squalor often provoke the feeling that they are just wrong. A leftist worldview could be based upon this strong feeling of revulsion, and of the justice of making people more equal to each other. I’m sure that you can see where this is going. The greatest inequalities in our world are not between people within developed countries, but between the super-rich and the global poor. As Oxfam reports, currently eight people own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest half of the world. But there are also massive inequalities between those who live normal lives in the ‘Western’ world and the global poor; someone with an after tax income of £20 000 in the UK, below our median income, has in material terms 19 times the average global income, and is within the top 5% of global incomes in such terms. Hence, actions and policies which close these massive inequalities must be morally right.

The second is a utilitarian theory. Utilitarians believe that the rightness of acts are determined by their consequences, and that good consequences are those which increase human welfare (normally defined in hedonist terms, i.e. as pleasure and the absence of pain). This seems to explain a similar set of leftist intuitions: the feeling that one should alleviate the suffering of the worst off in society and create a future in which the majority of people have a better life than they do now. It also can explain the sense of injustice that many on the left feel when they see that a few have huge amounts of resources, which could help create a better life for millions of others. Again, it seems fairly obvious why global redistribution is morally right on this theory. By redistributing personal and national income in an effective way to those who are the worst off, we could prevent the horrific and painful suffering of millions of people. It appears likely that this would come at little expense to ourselves as well. Hence, it is certainly the right thing to do if you find utilitarian theory the most convincing.

The third theory is a Marxist conception of the rightness of acts. This is certainly consistent with leftist views as the modern left is rooted in Marxism to a large extent. Such a Marxist conception is hard to pin down, but a necessary condition of the rightness of acts would surely be to empower the working classes. This is because the endpoint of a Marxist conception of history is the overthrow of the bourgeois class by the working classes through revolution and the subsequent establishment of a classless society. So the rightness of an action is measured by the extent to which it empowers the working classes, improves their material condition, and liberate them from oppression. Global redistribution would certainly help achieve these goals by freeing the global poor from the burdens of poverty and disease, thereby empowering them to become more active in the public sphere. So it also seems to be morally right act for those who hold a Marxist conception of ethics.

How, therefore, can someone on the left fail to support global redistribution without contravening their own left-wing ideas about what is morally right? To consistently subscribe to any of the three moral theories outlined above, every left-winger must accept globally redistributive policies on a personal and governmental level. The process of changing government policy will of course be complex, involving gradual introduction so that any government willing to implement such radical change stands a chance of being elected. I am not trying to ignore that nuance. However, there seems to be no way in which someone on the left could not think it right to, and hence should not try to bring about global redistribution in the most effective way possible. In the same way that we would save the child, we need to do this.

The Case for Proportional Representation

OULC member, Owen Winter, who is the co-founder and director of Make Votes Matter, argues that Labour should back proportional representation in order to radically shift the balance of power in the country. 

“For the many not the few” is a message that resonated across the country last June. Labour was the party that stood up for the unrepresented, for ordinary people against the vested interests backed by the Tories. The phrase is more than just a soundbite; it appears in our constitution and informs much of our policy platform. But if we want to truly shift the balance of power in this country, we need to reassess our decaying democratic institutions. Most importantly, we need an electoral system that empowers people, rather than restricting democratic participation to the small number of swing voters who live in a dwindling number of marginal seats.

Our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system divides the country into single member constituencies with MPs elected by a simple plurality of votes in each constituency. The system sounds simple but it grossly distorts election results, severing the link between support at the ballot box and seats in Parliament. Under FPTP, if you vote for a losing candidate, or for a winning candidate who has already received the required number of votes to win, your vote is essentially wasted and cannot alter the final makeup of Parliament. At the last general election, 68% of votes were wasted in this way, leading to a Parliament that fails to accurately represent the public. We need a voting system where all votes count equally, regardless of where you live or who you vote for. We need proportional representation (PR).

Not only is FPTP undemocratic, its purported benefits are falling apart. FPTP is supposed to deliver strong and stable government, but for the last three elections it has failed to deliver a large majority to any party. You can’t look at our current coalition of chaos, with the DUP who received less than 1% of the vote propping up the Conservatives, and think that FPTP has delivered stability. It is also supposed to guarantee a local constituency link, but with vast areas of the country becoming effective ‘electoral deserts’, local views are failing to be represented. When some MPs are elected with as little as 29% of the vote, is it any surprise that they are unable to articulate the views of all of their constituents?

Electoral reformers are often accused of being ‘political anoraks’, but our choice of voting system is far from just about fairness or partisan advantage. FPTP has serious real world effects on the way our country is run. There is a substantial body of evidence that countries with PR systems are more likely to have outcomes which we, as Labour members, can all get behind. PR countries tend to have lower income inequality, are likelier to share out public goods more evenly and take greater action on climate change. While there is considerable debate among academics as to how far PR is directly responsible for such outcomes, there is a strong case that a more proportional voting system, because it encourages politicians to reach out and work beyond their own sectional interests, is at least partly driving these results.

If Labour wins the next general election, it will have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on how society is organised. We as a party should combine bold social and economic policies with a radical programme of democratic reform, starting by abolishing our outdated voting system.

The Labour Party has historically been hesitant when it comes to changing the voting system, but we should remember that it was Labour that played a leading role in introducing proportional electoral systems to the UK’s devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London during Blair’s first term. The vast majority of Labour supporters back reform, with 76% of Labour voters saying they would support a commitment by the party to introduce a new voting system. MPs from across the board, including John McDonnell, Chuka Umunna, Cat Smith, and Stella Creasy, have come out in favour of reform. At a grassroots level, members are pushing PR up the internal policy making agenda. Now, it is time for Jeremy Corbyn to call for a more proportional voting system.

As the major party which is more open to reform, Labour is key to securing a better voting system. As a Labour member, you can help make electoral reform a reality by exerting continued pressure on Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform are already taking action now, passing motions in branches and CLPs, speaking to Labour members and pushing for a debate on PR at party conference.

The next time Labour comes to power, we will have the opportunity to bring our democracy into the 21st century and shift the balance of power for generations to come. Labour members need to ensure that this opportunity is not missed.

Why Students Should Support the UCU Strike

Rida Vaquas, OULC Campaigns Officer, encourages her fellow students to support the upcoming UCU strike and details what OULC is doing to aid the protesting lecturers.

Solidarity is the fundamental principle which governs the labour movement. ‘Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong’ aren’t just words to a song for us, they demonstrate how we organise and the actions we take. It is on this basis that it’s imperative we do everything in our power to make the UCU strike successful.

From Thursday 22nd February onwards, our university staff are going on strike over proposed changes to their pension scheme, which could result in them losing up to 40% of their pension and might scrap a guaranteed level of income in retirement entirely. If these changes go ahead, the pensions of university staff will be entirely dependent on the whims of investments in the stock market. We are in danger of moving from a socialised welfare system in retirement into compelling university staff to take on enormous amounts of private risk. This is a shameless attack on the dignity and security in old age that we, as a labour movement, have fought for throughout our history.

So why is it important for students to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our lecturers and tutors? The answer is simple: they are fighting for a future. The UCU is the largest union in the higher education sector; a defeat for the union now signifies our inability to fight back as a collective when faced with attacks from the government or our employers. Moreover, our fellow students will be taking strike action, and graduate students employed by the university will be participating in the dispute.

It is a fatal error to counterpose the interests of students and the interests of university staff, and to treat students as passive consumers that merely buy the services provided by workers. Instead, our interests are aligned: the marketisation of our education system affects us all. The long-term damage done to an education system where workers are underpaid, overworked, and lack any form of collective security will far surpass the impact of having to miss a few lectures (for those who wake up to go to them). The UCU recognise this, hence time and time again, they have fought for us in the student movement, combatting further privatisation and deregulation of higher education and making the argument against the Prevent programme. Students and university staff are fighting the same battle here: to make our education a social good that can be accessed by anyone, and where we collaborate collectively.

Furthermore, we as students have an obligation to hold our university to account. As highlighted in this blog by Michael Otsuka, Oxford and Cambridge Universities have played a key role in the demise of the current guaranteed pension scheme by hugely exaggerating the risks of a multi-employer scheme to themselves, largely in order to protect their own assets. We attend an obscenely wealthy and privileged institution. We should be demanding that it takes, for its part, a very minimal level of risk in order to participate in a collective welfare scheme, rather than transferring this risk onto its employees, thereby jeopardising their security in later life.

So what can we do? The Labour Club is co-hosting a banner making session on Tuesday 20th February at Wadham College, so do come along! We want to be a big and vibrant presence at the rally organised by UCU on Thursday and show that students are on the workers’ side. We will be joining picket lines throughout the industrial action, as well as leafleting students.

If you want to get involved with anything, keep an eye out on Facebook and drop me a message if you have any questions!

It is only by acting collectively in powerful and practical solidarity that we have a chance at winning a future for any of us. So get involved and let’s make the strike successful!

The Danger of Psychoanalysing Trump

OULC member and fifth year medic, Rob Sutton, critiques those on the Left who attack President Trump as mentally unfit. 

After over a year of frustration with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, attacks have increasingly turned from his policies to the man himself. In particular, commentators have begun to question the inner workings of Trump’s mind. In recent months, a series of articles have considered the idea of using a psychiatric label to explain his deeply unsettling approach to administration, with Democrats in Congress going so far as to consider creating a panel on Trump’s mental health.

There is a strong temptation to attempt to psychoanalyse the man who has so deeply divided his country, and who takes an approach to policy and diplomacy which seems erratic at best. In a time of political instability and moral turmoil, it is only natural to attempt to rationalise what we see. Yet there is a strong precedent for why such “armchair diagnoses” are best avoided.

Poor judgement and politically disagreeable actions are not the same as mental illness, and equating the two causes harm on many different fronts. Not only do we draw attention away from the genuine and numerous failings of the Trump administration, but just as worryingly, we also give a moral and political angle to the label of psychiatric illness.

By using psychiatric diagnoses to discredit our opposition we stigmatise people living with these conditions, and fail to recognise Trump’s remarkable talents in manipulating the media and those around him. And the underlying assumption of such attacks – that psychiatric illness is an immediate disqualification from high office – is an abuse of diagnostic labels, and deeply offensive to all those living with such conditions.

Current commentators are not the first to realise the potential that psychiatric labels have to score cheap points against political opposition. The history of armchair diagnosis is long, with a particularly notable example being the US presidential election of 1964.

During Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign for election against his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater, Fact magazine published an article polling psychiatrists on Goldwater’s sanity. As negative campaigns go, it was devastating, with over 1000 psychiatrists (who had never met or formally examined Goldwater) indicating that he was “emotionally unstable” and unfit for office, thereby causing considerable damage by skewing public perceptions of the candidate.

The fallout from the poll resulted in an overhaul of the ethical guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and led to a libel suit against Fact. The APA’s resulting “Goldwater Rule” stated that is was improper for members of the association to offer such diagnoses unless they had conducted a formal examination of the patient, and had been granted authorisation to make a statement.

But the damage had already been done, and the deep unease which the article generated among the American public about the Republican candidate effectively derailed Goldwater’s campaign, and contributed to a landslide victory for the Democrats in 1964. Despite the Goldwater Rule, pundits have continued to offer their opinions on the mental fitness of our political leaders.

In the case of Trump, the current vogue for many commentators is to speculate that he has a condition known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). NPD is a long-term psychiatric disorder, characterised by a strong need for the approval of others, feelings of grandiosity and a lack of empathy. On these grounds, Trump does appear to have some of the characteristics of NPD. However, it would be difficult to find any political leader who does not display these characteristics to some extent.

Our compulsion to apply this label is misguided because of a further diagnostic requirement. Like many of the personality disorders, diagnosis of NPD is very difficult to make, and even experienced clinicians are often reluctant to label patients. And a key feature of the diagnosis requires that the patient experiences significant functional impairment in their day-to-day activities.

As Dr Allen Frances, a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Duke University and author of the original NPD diagnostic criteria, points out, even without formal examination, Trump clearly does not meet this condition, and so cannot be diagnosed with NPD: “Trump certainly causes severe distress and impairment in others, but his narcissism doesn’t seem to affect him that way.” Far from causing functional impairment, Trump’s behaviour and actions have raised him to the highest political office in his country. Effectively, this rules out a personality disorder.

As with many vulnerable communities, the way we use language is powerful and has the potential to cause harm through the associations we make. When we criticise the current administration’s policies, we are engaging in a discourse which is our right and which is required for the effective functioning of a democracy. But when we question the mental fitness of Trump without strong clinical backing, we risk turning such labels into terms of attack, and causing lasting damage to those living with a psychiatric diagnosis.

Despite the progress that has been made in de-stigmatising psychiatric illness through public awareness campaigns and patient education, the understanding that mental health issues are common and socially acceptable is fledgling. We must continue to educate people about these issues and remain alert to the risk that they become means to discredit our political opposition. In attempting to make such arguments for Trump’s impeachment without formal psychiatric diagnosis, we may cause lasting damage to members of our communities that we should be striving to support.