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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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