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14 July 2017

This parliament has already proved that cross-party alliances are the future

Progressive politicians must empower grassroots movements – and accept some loss of power themselves.

By Peter Hain

Never before has the political culture in Britain felt so angry, bigoted and polarised.

The EU referendum introduced an ugly strain of lies, misinformation and angry, macho politics that squeezed out any room for nuance or complexity and shouted down opponents instead of trying to reason with and persuade them.

But in truth this was on display earlier – through the Tory general election campaign of 2015 which sought to use the prospect of a Labour coalition with the Scottish National Party to scare voters into submission, and a referendum campaign in Scotland that was based on fear.

The Tories have spent seven years trying to shut down challenge – introducing the Lobbying Act, which gagged charities, restricting the right to judicial review, denigrating “experts”, and vilifying senior judges. Recently, a cabinet minister accused a journalist of being “unpatriotic” for asking a basic question.

In recent years, the debate in the Labour Party has become too often angry and closed. In trying to report on it, some journalists have come under sustained personal attack.

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On social media, the debate is frequently aggressive, racist and misogynist. A tool that should be a huge force for democratisation has too often been used by the mob to silence challenges and dissent, with little action from social media companies. Straight lies, vicious abuse, widespread use of terms like “slut” and other nastiness is now par for the course.

People seem to have lost the ability to have an argument – however fierce and passionate – within a spirit of tolerance and respect.

We should all be worried about this. The combined effect is to erase the great tradition of debate that allows us to show respect for one another, while reserving the right to vehemently disagree. It shuts people out of the debate and in doing so reduces our ability to hear, to understand and to represent the full breadth of opinion in Britain.

This polarisation, as we have seen in apartheid South Africa, and closer to home in Northern Ireland, can be profoundly dangerous. Across the world we are witnessing the rise of strong man politics, from Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump. Britain must not take this turn.

But there is a clue to a better future in this current parliament. In response to the Queen’s Speech, Stella Creasy formed a cross-party alliance that successfully extended the rights of Northern Irish women. She did so by adopting a politics that is plural in outlook. It is a politics that is nimbler and fleeter of foot than the creaking politics that has been on display in Britain for some time. The future belongs to this approach.

This is particularly essential for Labour. Our core purpose, forgotten in government, was never simply to share wealth but to redistribute power in all its forms. And the future for us, and for Britain, must be to discover again how to share power more widely. Grassroots movements like Citizens UK and Sum of Us, which create platforms for people from all backgrounds to speak and be heard, should be our guide. If we want to form such alliances to achieve change, we will need to leave party allegiances at the door. 

The lesson from 13 years of Labour government is that it is harder to dismantle an energy co-operative with hundreds of members than it is to close a Sure Start built and run by the state. Breadth and common ownership is the only way to create real lasting change.

In order to empower some, we must disempower others. This may be profoundly uncomfortable after decades of a top-down, statist approach in government and running through our political parties. But this is the task of progressives in this parliament, however long it lasts. The recent past has moved at great speed and there is every reason to believe it will again. With the future of our politics and our country up for grabs, we must take a radically new approach to build the plural, tolerant, inclusive country that so many people in this election told us they desperately need.

Labour after all was founded as a broad church, a cocktail of Marxists and Methodists, workers and intellectuals. Mutual respect, mutual cooperation and mutual care was always the essence of Labour’s socialism. We need again to practise what we preach. And to lead the country in doing so, too.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan. Peter Hain is a campaigner, and a former Labour MP and cabinet minister

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