Labour must not turn its back on pluralism

Tribal differences have obstructed progressive change in the past. They must not do so again.

In one day last week we saw the UK Independence Party (UKIP) record its best ever by-election result, a Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister speak against his own government to support Labour's leader (whose own party was chalking up solid by-election wins as Lib Dem support evaporated) while a panicky Tory vice chair called for a deal with UKIP. Let's be suspicious of instant punditry that tries to tell us 'what this all means'.  But, at the very least, it's safe to conclude that politics is not going to return 'to normal' anytime soon.

Normal, to my generation, meant an essentially two-party battle with those odd (Liberal) Lib Dems occasionally winning. A younger generation saw that disappear in Wales and Scotland years ago, and a three-party system became the norm in England. But that, too, is now crumbling. We may not know where the votes of the disaffected will go, but with each passing election, fewer and fewer are likely to return en masse to Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems.

While that much is commonplace, too few people have asked what this means for progressive politics and for the chances of achieving progressive change. Labour instinctively believes that, even if politics is more volatile, it can become the default choice for progressive voters.

In the short-term, that may be true in parts of England where the Lib Dems attracted a part of the progressive vote. It no longer works in Scotland and Wales, though, and all the signs are that it's not a long-term bet for England either. Rather than Labour re-establishing itself as the sole party of choice for progressive voters, it's more likely that the progressive vote will be split as it has now been for decades.

In these circumstances, the chances of progressive change will depend on a political system and a political culture that enables the progressive views of voters to be reflected in the government of the day.  It requires a pluralist political culture, a willingness to cooperate with others in order to deliver values that are shared among the voters of different political parties.  A one nation Britain not only needs a one nation Labour Party capable of garnering support from many different voters in many different parts of the country, but an open approach to politics that builds alliances for progressive change.

The launch of Labour for Democracy on 4 December is an attempt to break down tribal sectarianism and promote a pluralist culture within the Labour movement. The focus is not on coalitions or cross-party deals, but on finding ways of delivering what progressive voters want. We've already shown that, in the main, past Lib Dem voters hold similar values to Labour's, and quite different to most Tory voters. It's also clear that, despite the failures of the coalition, the public still generally want politicians to work together when they can, rather than exaggerate their differences.

This isn't the easiest time to make the pluralist case. The Lib Dems' governmental and electoral performance is hardly encouraging, and has revealed a culture at times as sectarian as anything Labour has to offer. Meanwhile, Labour is doing well, and, of course, every party activist will work as hard as they can for every Labour vote. It is tempting to see pluralism as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence; even an unwanted attempt to give Nick Clegg a permanent and undeserved place in government.

But we must be bigger than that. Tribal differences have obstructed progressive change in the past. Voter allegiances to the major parties are declining as fast as the icecaps are melting. There are even signs that the ‘progressive majority’ that split its vote in the 1980s is itself shrinking in the face of recession and insecurity.  If we want to change Britain in a progressive direction, Labour must show it is willing to work with, not just lead, everyone who will support all or part of that change.

Labour leader Ed Miliband was supported by Nick Clegg in calling for the implementation of the Leveson report. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder