Labour's pluralist challenge

Labour is necessary, but no longer sufficient, for progressive advance.

I was 16 when Margaret Thatcher fell from power. One of the ways in which she changed the left was to half-convert the Labour Party to pluralism. Labour asked itself seriously for the first time whether there was anything much wrong with the British state that wouldn't be solved by Labour being in charge of it.

Anthony Barnett's Charter 88 created important civic pressure on Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians to create an extensive reform agenda. New Labour's first term did more to reform the British state than any government since 1911. In power, older instincts re-emerged, yet the effects of devolution and Freedom of Information will endure.

Yet Barnett's latest anti-Labour New Statesman polemic barks up the wrong tree. It would make a hung parliament less, not more likely. Voting against the big two is not the same thing as promoting a hung parliament. Voters who want to stop any party getting 326 seats should back the strongest anti-Tory candidate in any seat the Conservatives could win (until they think a Labour majority more likely than a Tory one).

Write Labour off as a lost cause and there will be no plausible, pluralist governing project for Britain any time in the next decade, either. The Greens seek a parliamentary foothold, the Lib Dems to hold 120 seats after two elections. Then what?

Any new settlement will require alliances, which are overwhelmingly more likely on the centre left. (By all means, try to make David Cameron's centrist rhetoric at least constrain his party's Thatcherite ambitions; the realistic goal may be the conservative one, to protect past advances from repeal.)

The great progressive advances in British politics all arose from various forms of Lab-Lib co-operation. That was true of Labour's 1906 entry to parliament; breaking the Lords veto in the hung parliament of 1911; Attlee enshrining the Keynes-Beveridge settlement; the social legislation of the 1960s; and early New Labour's constitutional legacy.

 

A fair share of freedom

Outside these sporadic pluralist flurries, the right has mostly dominated. David Marquand's central thesis in The Progressive Dilemma was that Labour was necessary, but no longer sufficient, for progressive advance. If the 1997 and 2001 landslides seemed to disprove this as a matter of electoral arithmetic, the theory looks stronger than ever if we seek a transformative politics.

Pluralism should recognise differences. Different parties on the left of centre have different traditions, identities and instincts. They have much to argue over -- yet these arguments sharpen central challenges.

How can markets be sustainable and fair? We need to restore Labour's instinct for civil liberties, without lapsing into an allergy to state action in breaking down class-based disadvantage. The central political challenge is how to sustain majority public coalitions to be able to narrow inequalities, address climate change and sustain Britain's place in Europe.

Perhaps the defining argument between left and right is whether equality and liberty can be allied, or are always in fundamental tension. The quest that has animated thinkers from Tawney to Amartya Sen -- how to secure the fairest possible distribution of substantive freedom -- should provide a foundation stone for a plural left.

None of this can be achieved by one party alone, nor could any party easily wish the others away. But we must create a more pluralist Labour Party, able to play a leading part, for it to have much chance of happening at all.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.