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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.