Out of one party, many cultures

If Labour is to survive in the age of new politics, it must transcend its instincts to descend into

In the run-up to the 1997 election, during discussions about a possible alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown asked of Tony Blair: "Is he a pluralist?" The answer, we eventually learned, was "No", but the question as it relates to the car crash of a party Blair left behind remains pertinent. Can Labour become a pluralist party? The answer to the question will seal its fate.

The fight for Labour's future is not just between right and left, but critically between pluralists and their opposites, the tribalists. It is a struggle between different ways of conceiving power and doing politics. It is existential. What are the differences between pluralists and tribalists? Why do they matter, and can pluralists win?

Let's start with the dominant strain within Labour's diminished ranks. For the tribalist, power can only be singularly held and, because the winner is deemed to take all, means are readily used to justify ends. It's not how you achieve power that matters, but only whether you have and can hold on to it. Power is captured through the party and then the state, whose functions are then used to dispense social democracy from the top down.

Social democracy is thus defined as what Labour governments do, even if they are seldom social and never democratic. Change is done to people, not with people. The political game is to draw clear dividing lines between yourself and any enemy, internally or externally, who wants to stop you gaining a monopoly of power. Dissent, opposition, rivals and debate itself must be crushed. For the tribalist, if Labour doesn't say it or do it, it isn't progressive. The party has a monopoly of wisdom.

Tribalism comes from a mix of vanguardism, as practised by Leninists and old-style Fabians, and rigid class analysis. History is on the party's side. All it has to do is seize control of the state. After four failed general election attempts at such seizure, it was easy for the New Labour vanguard to take over the party in the mid-1990s. But this time, the historic certainty was the inevitability of free-market globalisation.

Tribal Labour desires predictability, certainty and, above all, control. It is a politics of pagers, whips, targets and iron discipline. Everything is subject to control from the centre: the cabinet or its shadow, the parliamentary party, the National Executive Committee, party conference, parliamentary selections, devolved administrations and even Iraq and the economy. It is a culture that cuts across the left and right of the party. It is a technocratic, managerial, brittle, rationalist machine that, by definition, is profoundly anti-democratic. It desires a monoculture that is partisan, paternalistic and graceless. It is the politics of an uncompromising and relentless search for singular power. If you can command, you control.

Together as one

Pluralists are different. They give primacy not to ends, but to means. For the pluralist the process and the journey are everything. Change for pluralists comes through dialogue, respect, trust, tolerance and interest in others. Pluralists recognise a political terrain of multiple centres of power and celebrate difference as a dialectical force. Through debate and consensus-building we learn. We need to work with others, not destroy them. That doesn't mean fundamental differences don't exist; it does mean that little is black and white. We can co-operate and compete. Pluralists are self-critical, curious and often ambivalent about a world that is increasingly complex and paradoxical. Like the tribalists, pluralists span the left/right internal party divide, but they borrow heavily from Gramsci: politics is about securing hegemony in a war of manoeuvre involving many spaces, not a war of position in deep-cut trenches.

The abiding quest of pluralists is to create spaces in which people can determine their future collectively. These are spaces such as trade unions, mutuals and co-operatives. Pluralism is about letting new things happen on a journey of trial, experiment and failure. Democratic engagement may take longer to reach a conclusion than a central diktat, but results in more effective outcomes, precisely because these are negotiated by people who use and produce services.

While tribalists rely on control of a machine that eventually leaves them marooned and detached, pluralists know that shared answers are more enduring and that, once people have struggled to win advances through pluralistic spaces, they are more likely to fight to keep them. What matters is the ability to participate in the process, to find the resources and structures to search for genuine collective freedom to manage our world.

Obviously, I am exaggerating - no one is entirely tribal or totally pluralist. But it is clear that Labour remains a largely tribal party in an age that is increasingly pluralist. Brownites tend to be among the least pluralist, while some Blairites support proportional representation - the litmus test of pluralist credentials, because it denies power without securing strong and enduring majoritarian support - and open pre-election negotiations.

Gordon Brown had a palpable fear of public conflict. Debate was to be avoided at all costs, hence the remorseless sidelining of all pretenders to his crown. He would not fight Blair and no one would be allowed to fight him. Blair himself appeared more open, but as Ashdown found to his cost, the veneer was thin. Under Blair and Brown, party democracy was hollowed out and links to other progressive forces dried up. At the very most, they believed that five people could change the world.

All tomorrow's parties

Yet politics is changing. In 1951, the two main parties secured 98 per cent of the popular vote; this year it was 65 per cent. With the smaller parties (including the Liberal Democrats) winning more than 80 seats, hung parliaments, even under the current system, will surely become a regular feature of elections. Labour will have to be prepared to form alliances or remain in the wilderness. Today, across Britain, seven different political parties are in office. Facebook, Twitter and satirical sites such as mydavidcameron.com mean that neither a party's central command nor the Sun can win it any more.

Tribalism and the elitism that goes with it have cut Labour off from its core base; witness the former prime minister's clash with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, the defining moment of the election campaign. Labour has become the lumbering party, the arrogant party. Compare and contrast with the coalition government, which may be on the centre right but is pluralism in action: the merging and potential strengthening of political cultures and traditions. The days of catch-all left-of-centre parties such as Labour and Germany's once-mighty Social Democratic Party (which won only 23 per cent of the vote in the last election) are over. In Sweden and France the left is renewing only on the basis of broader red-green coalitions.

Back in 2001, in a book optimistically entitled The Progressive Century, the Lib Dem adviser Neil Sherlock and I described the potential of a new politics, requiring not Blair's suffocating big tent but a campsite of different parties and movements, sharing common values while retaining their own identity. Labour can - indeed, it must - take a lead role as part of a progressive alliance, but only if it can move away from a belief in its singular and exclusive role. Only then can it help to create an alliance whose sum is greater than its parts. This would not be a rainbow alliance of vested interests but a genuine coalition because of a shared set of values.

In the meantime, the poor get poorer and the planet burns; and the inability of our political system to deal with these crises creates a third - that of democracy itself. A progressive alliance can be built from the growing recognition that we cannot create a more equal, sustainable and democratic world by addressing any one of these issues in isolation.

But can the pluralist win? Can the ambivalent, curious, generous and open-minded succeed against the take-no-prisoners approach of the tribalists? On one level, the omens aren't good. In every crisis that Labour has faced, notably in 1929 and 1979, it has retreated into tribalist orthodoxy. Today the party has once again been pushed back into its heartlands. One MP sent me an email when the post-election talks with the Lib Dems broke down, in which he gleefully said that it was time, comrade, for hobnail boots, not sandals.

For inspiration and guidance, we should return to Gramsci and his understanding of political turning points, or of interregnums, the short space between an old order dying and the emergence of something new. Tribal orders feel insurmountable, but can fall fast because they are so brittle. They can't be scratched, yet under continued pressure they can suddenly snap.

Hello to Berlin

Over the coming months and years, Labour needs a "Berlin Wall" moment that will help transform it into a pluralist party. To make such a fundamental shift happen will require sustained effort to win the larger argument about how we can best transform Britain into a more equal, sustainable and democratic nation. Ironically, it was Lenin who said that "the right words are worth a hundred regiments".

The Holy Grail of pluralism - proportional representation - is again off the agenda, but we cannot allow ourselves to be constrained by electoral systems. We must instead understand that it is culture, ideas and organisation that need to change first. All of these we can shape and build. We have to pre-empt a more pluralist politics by practising it, and show it works by submitting ourselves and our institutions to continual democratic scrutiny.

The leading social-democratic theorist Eduard Bernstein wrote that "democracy is both means and ends. It is the weapon in the struggle for socialism and it is the form in which socialism will be realised." Through pluralism, we can seek to remoralise public institutions as places in which the values of equality, solidarity and citizenship resonate.

Pluralism can't offer certainty - it is always unfinished business - but it is our business. Pluralism is the only way socialists can be. Fundamentally, it is about trusting people to make their own democratic future. Unless we get that right, everything else will go wrong.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and the author of "All Consuming" (Penguin, £10.99)
The annual Compass conference, A New Hope, takes place on Saturday 12 June at the Institute of Education. Details: compassonline.org.uk

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. 

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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