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.

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With Boris gone, the next Tory PM will be dangerously tough on immigration

Talking tough on immigration is good for your leadership chances, but not for future trade deals. 

On 24 June, Boris Johnson had just pulled off the gamble of his life. The blonde pretender's decision to back Leave had helped bring an insurgent campaign to victory and force the Prime Minister's resignation. The political establishment was in smoking ruins, but the path to No 10 was clear.

Less than a week later, though, everything had changed. Johnson was forced to tell journalists at his campaign launch that he was pulling out. It seems the issue that scuppered him was immigration.

Johnson has never been a convincing border patrol guard. As the country digested Brexit, he wrote in The Telegraph that: "It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so."

His fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove seems to have thought differently. A leaked email from his wife discussed the need for "specifics" on what many believe to be immigration controls. 

Announcing his campaign launch on Thursday morning - minutes after alerting Johnson to the fact - Gove declared that voters "told us to restore democratic control of immigration policy".

Of course, Gove is not alone in the contest to be PM of Brexit Britain. But with the Classics scholar Johnson out of the way, a consensus on a tougher immigration policy looks likely. 

A relaxed Theresa May (pictured) laid out her arguments on Thursday morning as well, and although she backtracked from earlier calls to quit the European Convention on Human Rights, she  is clearly playing to the audience when it comes to immigration. 

During the EU referendum campaign, she quietly backed Remain but nevertheless called for "more control" over EU citizens working in the UK.

At her leadership launch, she expressed a desire to cut net migration by tens of thousands each year. "Any attempt to wriggle out" of regaining control "will be unacceptable to the public", she said. 

Stephen Crabb, another contender, has already described ending free movement as a "red line", while Liam Fox wants an Australian-style points based system to apply to EU migrants. 

Of course, condemning "uncontrolled" EU immigration is one thing. Agreeing on whether immigration per se is too high is another. Some Leave campaigners argued they only wanted a level playing field for EU or non-EU migrants. 

But the Tory candidates face a bigger risk. The public may lap up anti-immigration rhetoric, the party members might vote accordingly, but it leaves little room to manoevre when it comes to negotiating trade deals with the European Union. Even the cool-headed German chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear access to the single market is reserved for those who accept the free movement of people, as well as capital and goods.

If the successful candidate also wants to be successful in government, they will have to find a way of redefining the debate, quickly.