A return to tribalism won’t save Labour

The centre left must embrace pluralism if it is to avoid permanent decline.

What is Labour's political purpose and strategy? The fault lines are now becoming clear: to go it alone, or build a wider political alliance?

Dan Hodges, in his usual robust and entertaining style, offers the case for the former through the creation of an alliance within Labour of the working and middle classes. Sound familiar? That's because it is. In effect, it's the big-tent strategy of one Mr T Blair, whom Dan so effectively opposed over ten years, for selling out the Labour cause.

But now it's the big tent as one more heave. And Dan and other leftist supporters of this strategy find themselves firmly anchored to other Labourists of the right such as John Reid. They find common cause in saying No to AV and No to anything that doesn't offer the hope of a majority Labour government that can usher in socialism for our people from above.

So why will this big tent be any different from Blair's, especially when Dan would rather the ringmaster was David Miliband? There is no reason to expect it will. To create such an alliance, all the emphasis will again be on the swing voters in the swing seats that Blair courted so effectively and in so doing stopped Labour being Labour.

Remember how in 1997 Labour won 140,000 new AB votes but lost four million Ds and Es. The big tent doesn't work even as an electoral strategy – let alone for social, economic and political transformation.

To be fair, it did once, in 1945, but that moment, along with the class and culture that spawned it, have long gone. The world has moved on, become more fragmented and complex. Centre-left politics will follow or wither still further.

Two things are interesting here. First, the initial New Labour victory in 1997 was based largely on a pluralist approach to politics – with a strong opening-out to Ashdown, Jenkins and the whole Cook/McLennan process. As Labour retreated to a one-party approach, so its vote collapsed and its radicalism shrank.

The second thing that is interesting is that the extreme tribalists like Dan Hodges and John Reid recognised the power of pluralism through their alliance with David Cameron and George Osborne to smash AV. So they practise pluralism to entrench tribalism. Weird, hey?

Holey misguided

These extreme tribalists are in a hole and want to keep Labour in it. They want the trench warfare of old adversarial politics, despite the fact that the poor are getting poorer and it's palpably not delivering for the left. It is based on "getting the right people elected", whoever these people are. The neoliberals in Labour ranks are bizarrely tolerated and much more social Liberals or egalitarian Greens despised.

Through their victory for keeping first-past-the-post (FPTP) they will try to lock the left into the politics of decline as the 1.6 per cent of the electorate that matters in the dwindling number of swing seats will deform our politics still further. A politics that gives all power to Murdoch and the Mail. As the old parties continue to disappoint under a system that focuses on so few, so voters look elsewhere or withdraw.

It's why FPTP will deliver more hung parliaments as the shared vote of the big two parties, but Labour in particular, drops. Yet such defiant tribalism creates the problem but denies the solution as the likes of Reid exercise their veto over voting reform or coalition-building with other parties, as they did so effectively after the general election last year. It is the politics of permanent opposition through self-marginalisation as they dream of a better 1945.

Labour did badly in the recent elections because it is still pursing the failed strategy and politics of New Labour. It is not offering an alternative political economy and it is refusing, because of the likes of Dan and John Reid, to operate in the world as it is, preferring the comfort of past glories. Ed Miliband – far too tentatively for my liking – is at least trying to push at the boundaries of a politics that will make Labour both social and democratic.

We are going to have to chart a course through the complexities of a world in which the politics of Caroline Lucas, Chris Huhne, Charlie Kennedy and others are less pro-market, more democratic and sustainable than John Reid, Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett. It requires the mobilisation narrative of a Good Society to coalesce and spark into life a progressive majority that can be created – and must be created.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”