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. 

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile