Monday 11 January 2010

Tribes or causes? Why the left must campaign across party lines

The Fabian new year conference 'Causes to fight for' takes place this Saturday 16th in London. You can find full details and book tickets on the Fabian website. Next Left will preview some of the big conference questions which we believe the left must answer in this general election year.

In this guest post, Will Straw, editor of the Left Foot Forward blog, addresses the challenges of cross-party pluralism on the left. Are our party 'tribes' part of the problem of political disengagement, or does the idea of more pluralist campaigning risk our distinctive values and identities being lost? And how can a more pluralist left be achieved given our political culture and system?

(Also on this theme, regular Next Left contributor Stuart White also writes today about what more pluralist left can learn from citizen campaigning on the New Statesman's Staggers blog).


On Saturday, I’ll be speaking on the Fabian conference panel on the question of “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” In thinking about the answer to this question, it is worth reflecting on two separate trends.

First, two-party politics is over. In 1951, Labour and Conservative parties gained 96.8 per cent of the vote and all but nine seats. In 2005, the two parties only just got two-thirds of the vote while other parties returned 92 MPs.

Second, the combined vote of the Labour party, Liberal Democrats and their predecessors has not dropped below 50 per cent since 1945. In the last three elections, it has bobbed around 60 per cent. There has been, essentially, a progressive majority in the UK.

Despite these shifts we still have electoral and parliamentary systems that create an incentive for partisan tribalism. First-past-the-post encourages the creation of dividing lines between every political party even if they have to be fabricated. Meanwhile the chamber of the House of Commons encourages an “us versus them” attitude between Government and all opposition groups.

But in pushing for the extra expenditure needed to meet the child poverty targets or for a green new deal, it makes no sense to appeal solely to the supporters and representatives of one political party – instead we can branch out to like-minded people who have found themselves in a different political tradition or none at all.

The research carried out by the Fabian Society in their “Facing Out” pamphlet made this point powerfully by showing that there are many non-party progressive activists who want to join Labour campaigns, provided they don't have to sign up to the party card. Indeed, the tribalism of political parties is often a turn off to new recruits. For this reason, when I set up Left Foot Forward, I was clear that I wanted contributions from Liberal Democrat, Green and unaligned writers of the left.

There does, however, remain one real dividing line in British politics. Although some will argue that the left-right distinction withered when the Berlin Wall fell and “history ended”, its usefulness has revived in the wake of the financial tsunami that has wreaked such havoc around the world.

There is once again a clear ideological distinction between parties of the liberal-left and right. The Conservatives are alone in their resolute opposition of using Keynesian demand management to lessen the impact of the recession on jobs and savings while only supporting forms of redistribution like the 50p tax through gritted teeth. Meanwhile, their membership and many of their elected representatives (although not the leadership) are sceptical about the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

So while Labour tribalism may have had its day, in campaigning for the causes we hold dear we must look for a new tribalism of the liberal-left.

* Guest post by Will Straw.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this article. Petty tribalism is damaging progressive politics. On the Labour side this is reflected in viewing the Lib Dems and other parties as irrelevant while in other parties its replicated in fantastical dreaming about replacing Labour (unlikely in our electoral system).

Also, the point that needs adding to this is that in transcending these divisions the left would sow the seeds for a more pluralist politics that would inspire more confidence than the current model does.

Newmania said...

There has been, essentially, a progressive majority in the UK.

Given that 35% of Labout voters say their second choice Party is the BNP your "Progressive" majority is not progressing in quite the same direction is it .
When will you get it through your head that when the majority say tbey want less immigration , less EU , less abortion ,less soppy sentences less international aid and less Progressivism they are not lying.
As for the so called Liberal left its right up there with boiled ice in the fiction top ten.

You go ahead and have another LibLab pact , pleeeze . It has clearly not occurred ot you that by pretending your ghastly product is two ( one for dry hair one for greasy) you exaggerate your support.

Robert said...

yes I could easy vote BNP in anger at labour. But I will more then likely not vote at all or I will vote Lib Dem's thats a break of forty years in labour.

My argument is why the hell has labour ended income support, why is it that as a disabled person Paraplegia will I lose £12 from my benefits this year.

I find it hard to under stand how labour can even think of stopping DLA from the over sixty fives. Most people in electric wheelchairs rent them from motability using DLA and AA.

I know a lot of people would rather see the disabled gassed and I'm not talking about the frauds or the cheats, but like it or not many young lads from the military will struggle to cope on benefits I know I do.

SO what the hell is New labour about who is the core voter, I've no idea.

Will Straw said...

Thanks for the comments. A couple of points that I think are worth expanding.

We should not be so naive as to think that every Labour and Lib Dem supporter shares a single set of values. James Purnell set out some of those tensions in yesterday's Guardian and Newmania cites another (btw do you have a link for the 35% figure before, which I've not seen before).

That said, we should be clear that there is commonality of views from activists and supporters on many policy issues including a proactive economic policy (rather than laissez faire), a need to tackle climate change through multilateral means, increasing rather than undermining the solidarity of the welfare state, and the need for further constitutional reform.

The problem with the non-cooperative status quo is that we get into a trap where progressive parties in opposition (ie Lib Dems & Greens) have an incentive to point to the Government's failings rather than suggesting solutions. I certainly don't agree with all Newmania's assertions but there is little doubt that Labour is out of touch on both immigration and the EU. There are clear problems with both but they have also been allowed to become scapegoats for society's other ills. Without consensus, it is politically hard to stand up and talk honestly about how the right forms of immigration make us both culturally and financially richer while the wrong kinds undermine our social solidarity. There are similar positives and negatives of the EU that rarely get aired.