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29 July 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:05pm

A sectional Labour party would consign itself to permanent minority status

The electoral system, combined with basic arithmetic, dictates that a party in search of power must eschew sectionalism and adopt a big-tent electoral strategy.

By Peter Harris

Of the many choices facing today’s Labour party, one dwarfs all others in terms long-term significance for the party and the country at large: should Labour fight to remain a national, catch-all party or should it reorganise itself along sectional lines? It is a debate that has plagued Labour since its very inception, and especially since it first formed a majority government in 1945. But this time, the consequences of giving in to sectionalism would be disastrous — and potentially irrevocable.

Few in the Labour party openly use the term “sectionalism,” but sectionalists nevertheless abound. They are the elected officials and activists who argue that Labour should forgo broad appeal—at least in the short-term—in order to spend time consolidating Labour’s traditional core support, an elusive demographic usually imagined, rightly or wrongly, to be trade unionists and left-wing intellectuals.

Historically, sectionalists have been an unsuccessful faction within the party. Because a parliamentary majority at Westminster can only be won by catch-all parties with truly national bases of appeal, the dominant view has tended to be that a party aspiring to national government must also be a party of national appeal—a view that its proponents argue is borne out by the lessons of 1945, 1966 and 1997.

As a result, the common goal of Labour leaders from Clement Attlee to Ed Miliband has been to reach out beyond Labour’s core supporters to convince a broad cross-section of the British people to endorse the party. While some have fared better than others, to be sure, the shared political calculation has remained constant: that the electoral system combined with basic arithmetic simply dictates that a party in search of power must eschew sectionalism and adopt a big-tent electoral strategy.

The national, catch-all strategy has always had its detractors, of course. From the early twentieth-century Marxist critics of the Labour Representation Committee to the Bevanites of the 1950s and the Bennites of the 1980s, generations of sectionalists have criticised Labour for being insufficiently dedicated to representing the narrow interests of organised labour. For them, advancing the cause of Labour’s core has meant answering only to Labour’s core.

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Today, this sectional tradition has found new expression in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the party leadership. Corbyn’s supporters argue that Labour’s recent electoral challenges stem from the party being too inclusive rather than not inclusive enough. Labour has overly indulged moderate and centre-right voters, they say, while also doing too much to pursue the business community and to respond to the uncomfortable concerns of Britain’s neglected underclass. Labour has lost elections because it has lost its way.

The leftists’ answer is to retreat to what is, to them, familiar territory. The party should unite around a core of organised trade unionists; it should adopt a recognisably left-wing policy platform, including an uncritical defence of the public sector; and it should define itself by what it is not rather than what it is for. Labour must be a virulently anti-Tory party and ought to oppose anything that even the faintest of Conservative sympathisers might support. This is a sectional strategy par excellence.

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The problem is that the political territory upon which the sectionalists wish to concentrate is decidedly unfamiliar—and quite unappealing—to the millions of persuadable British voters who, over the past seven decades, have been responsible for putting Labour over the electoral threshold and into actual power. And however incomprehensible it might be for Labour’s left-wing, it is a basic political fact that many of these voters—the very people upon whom Labour depends for political power—are not averse to voting Conservative and forsaking Labour if they believe that Labour has forsaken them.

Truth be told, advocates of the sectional strategy would be glad to rid themselves of having to cater to the politically promiscuous. After all, disagreements and disappointment are endemic to big-tent political parties, and it is understandable that diehards find it frustrating to have to compromise with hangers-on whose main bargaining chip is an implicit threat to quit the party and support somebody else. Viewed from the perspective of the long-suffering Labour left, sectionalism doesn’t look half bad: it would give them “their” party back.

Still, there can be no avoiding the fact that turning Labour into a sectional party would mean an historic reversal of the party’s traditional raison d’étre. Labour was founded on the principle that government can be a tool of helping the worst off in society. But only parties that follow national electoral strategies can be poised to win power and make those progressive changes.

By contrast, sectional parties relegate themselves to permanent minority status, at least under the majoritarian electoral rules that exist for elections to Westminster. Sectionalism is a one-way street to becoming a glorified pressure group, a party that is arithmetically incapable of holding power on its own.

Ups and downs notwithstanding, Labour has survived from 1945 to 2015 as a viable national entity. For 70 years it has enjoyed a more-or-less permanently realistic chance of forming a majority government. This feat should not be understated: Labour is one of only three such parties in British electoral history and one of only two in existence today—the other being the Conservatives. Through the progressive politics of persuasion, compromise, and coalition-building, Labour has managed to balance the objectives of retaining a core purpose without ossifying around a stagnant—and numerically insufficient—core membership.

If Labour takes a sectional turn in 2015 then the Conservatives, despite their own narrowing appeal, will be left as the country’s only credible national party come 2020 and beyond. Such an outcome wouldn’t just be bad for Labour; it would also be bad for Britain. And it would be enormously difficult to undo once Labour’s non-Tory opponents—the Greens, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and even UKIP—have swooped in to absorb those spurned by the party’s exclusionary rump.

In the United States, political parties are often regarded as quasi-public institutions, integral parts of the country’s functional constitutional apparatus. Labour members would do well to view their party in a similar light as they weigh the choice between sectionalism and big-tent politics. Because what Labour decides for itself now will have profound consequences for the wider political system tomorrow and the next day, as well as for all who live within it.

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University. He tweets as @ipeterharris