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