Saturday 14 May 2011

Progressive dilemmas for the Labour tribe

The Fabian Society today holds its 'Progressive Fightback' conference, the first chance for Fabian and Labour members and other campaigners to debate what the fallout of the 2011 elections mean for the future of British politics. Andy Burnham kicks off the conference at 11am. Follow @thefabians on twitter for live updates. We will have reports on Next Left.

Here General Secretary Sunder Katwala argues that the Labour tribe needs to think harder about how to achieve its goals in a society where there is no majority political tribe.


“There is no progressive majority”. That is said to be the lesson to take from the heavy defeat of the Alternative Vote referendum. The Yes campaign for AV failed badly. It was unable to mobilise anything like a majority of votes, and barely tried to do so.

But excessively simplistic lessons risk being drawn from this. There is no automatic progressive majority. But there is no right-wing majority in Britain either. (That is a point which the tiny minority campaigning for deeper spending cuts today are probably aware. Indeed Mark Littlewood of the IEA seeks to persuade the public to stop blaming the bankers instead of "the collective greed of the voting population of this country. We need considerably more cuts".)

British politics contains two large minority political tribes – Tory and Labour – of roughly equal size.

About one in three voters broadly identifies with one of these two tribes – while a similar number bear no particularly allegiance to either, instead being scattered across all other parties and none.

So May 2011 might yet be seen as a moment of hubris when the Tory party burnt its bridges. The strategic axis at the heart of the government has shifted from Cameron-Clegg to Cameron-Osborne. The campaign for a Tory majority is very much on. The Tories dream of their new boundaries (though John Curtice this week warned that they will make less difference than the Tories hope and than Labour fears). Still, the Tory tribe is cock-a-hoop, believing that the next election is probably in the bag. But do ask them to remind you why they failed, in uniquely favourable circumstances, to win the last one under Gordon Brown.

It may be trickier than many think for the Cameron-Osborne plan to negotiate its way to 2015. The Tory ability to govern depends on LibDem votes in what ought to become an increasingly fractious hung Parliament. It will become increasingly obvious that their electoral strategy demands the electoral destruction of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats across the south of England, to emulate the damage done to the LibDems by Labour in the north.

Still, the Tories once again have a plan, as they always do, and they know what it is. Jettison assumptions of a progressive majority and a central progressive dilemma remains: why does the right-of-centre tribe win more often than its overall political and social strength would suggest?

That was David Marquand’s question about the Conservative twentieth century – which had a major influence on different strands of centre-left thinking, from Blairite New Labour and Paddy Ashdown’s LibDems to the pluralist democratic socialism of Robin Cook. The pendulum swung, but with a noticeable bias to the right. From universal suffrage to the millennium, the Labour party was never re-elected after a full term in office, while the Conservatives often were. If you count up the Parliamentary majorities in double figures after the introduction of universal suffrage, the 20th century score was Conservatives 13, Labour 3.

One answer: the Tory tribe is often more ruthless in acting on what it believes to be its strategic political interests. But with a twist. Paradoxically, part of that Tory tribal ruthlessness is that it has habitually involved a much greater willingness to reach out beyond the tribe. The tribe’s leaders often seek to cooperate with and to co-opt outsiders, showing an impressive ability to make common cause in order to pursue conservative causes and to defend conservative interests.
Look at how the Cameron-Osborne alliance have deployed the Liberal Democrats to attack Labour’s economic credibility, while working with northern Labour allies to humiliate Nick Clegg. Having a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats to get into power, the Tories have managed to persuade LibDems to vote through the boundary changes which it thinks crucial to its chances of dumping its coalition partners to govern alone. In the trade, the junior partner got a humiliating slap in the face. Yet how was that delivered? The Yes campaign could not bring together a majority of Labour and LibDem support, Conservative Central Office had no trouble donating Tory donor funds directly to members of the Labour tribe fighting a ground war to damage the deputy prime minister on his home turf in Sheffield.

Labour tribalism can be an important asset of the Tory tribe, as it can make the contrast with their own dominant Tory tradition of pragmatic statecraft in pursuit of ideological interests a crucial strategic advantage.

I am myself part of the Labour tribe, which the Fabians were central to creating in the first place. But successful political tribes need their external ambassadors and bridge-builders too. There are some strange and often unexamined assymetries and contradictions to how the most tribal elements of the Labour party think about politics.

If you are tribal Labour, you think of David Cameron’s government – like the National Governments of the 1930s – as an essentially Tory government.

Wouldn’t it then follow that a Labour-led Coalition would, by analogy, be an essentially Labour government? No. Quite the opposite. That wouldn’t be a proper Labour government at all, however large its majority. (As John Prescott has now said publicly as well as privately: “I did say to Tony Blair if Paddy Ashdown walked in the front door I'll be out the other door”).

The Labour tribe’s instinct is “ourselves alone” and it is most comfortable with the idea that ‘everybody should fall in behind us’, being hurt and bewildered if that does not materialise.

If you believe that the only real politics that matters is Labour versus Tory, then anybody who refuses to fall into line easily gets labelled a crypto-Tory. (Independent Councillors are closet Tories; the SNP are Tartan Tories, and so on).
This means that those who say they hate the Tories above all tend to reserve a moreintense rage for those non-Tories who “collaborate”: the ‘betrayal’ of Nick Clegg mirroring that of Ramsay MacDonald or Lloyd George after 1918, or of other ‘splitters’ from Joe Chamberlain to David Owen.

This is not, on the whole, a particularly attractive way to build alliances, whether short-term tactics or more. Labour is at its least attractive when it projects an assumption ofentitlement. As Douglas Alexander has put it, it needs to resist its instinct of thinking that Liberal Democrats are simply people who got lost on the way to the Labour Party committee rooms.

In any event, if anybody who is “not Labour” is usually considered tantamount to being a Tory anyway, doesn’t this negate the cry of betrayal, if they simply go and do what they were already being accused of.

So the gut instinct of this Labour tribal position is often to prefer the clarity of a Tory government to a hung Parliament, or the politics of negotiation and compromise, though this is rarely owned openly.

So it has been the Conservatives who have habitually been the party of Coalition in British politics. The Tories have been part of every peacetime Coalition government in Britain for 150 years; Labour never. The Tories have usually swallowed up or spat out their allies and partners – the Whigs and Liberal Unionists, National Liberals and National Labour – while the Tory tribe has sailed on.

The 2010 coalition talks saw a Tory premier-in-waiting adopt an archetypal strategy of Tory statecraft in Cameron’s “big, open and generous offer” to the Liberal Democrats. The third party was lured seductively in to what may well turn out to be existential danger. A Labour leader who had finished seven points ahead at the polls would most likely be advised to go it alone (as the party did in 1924, 1929 and 1974).


The two great political tribes will be with us for a long time yet. Their disappearance is habitually predicted – but the obituaries have often proved premature. Each of the two tribes demonstrated sufficient bedrock resilience to recover from near death experiences and prove premature obituarists wrong. There was still an English Tory bedrock of 31-32% who preferred William Hague to Tony Blair when New Labour was at its height. Enough Labour voters kept the party in second place in the 1980s, against the Social Democratic challenge, whatever was in its manifesto in 1983.Yet the tribes are slipping too. Their joint share of the vote has been in long-term decline.

If David Cameron does maintain his coalition until a 2015 election, he will be seeking to win the first Tory Commons majority in a General Election for 23 years, almost a decade and a half after either party came close to 40% of the vote. (There is no sociological or political inevitability in this. The third party’s entry into government may see a rally back to the main two standards, but that would be unlikely to herald a return to the party allegiances of the 1950s, and a fair part of the LibDem vote may scatter in many different directions).

It is at least an open question as to whether the straight two-party era of 1945 to 1970 which frames so many of our assumptions about British politics should be considered the ‘norm’, or rather the anomaly in the British political history. In a less bipolar political world, one important question is how far the rest of the electorate takes an ‘anybody but Labour’ or ‘anybody but the Tories’ view.

In the 1930s and 1980s, it was Labour that was isolated, representing the depressed rump of the industrial north, Scotland and Wales, as the Tories sought more affluent support. Ahead of 1997, the mainstream of British politics seemed to become a broad anti-Tory popular front, with many of the debates that mattered taking place between different strands – Blair and Brown, Labour and LibDem – on the centre-left.

The Scottish elections of 2010 and 2011 show how voters can switch very quickly on this question of which of the two tribes they want to punish. Even in this so-called ‘Labour heartland’ territory, there is an anti-Labour majority as well as an anti-Tory one. In May 2010, the Scottish focus was on keeping the Tories out at Westminster. Uniquely across the UK, there was a swing to Labour. Yet in May 2011, there was a strong swing against Labour to the SNP. Labour’s vote fell only marginally but the story of the election was the SNP sweep of the Tory and LibDem vote. ‘Anybody but Labour’ proved a potent enough appeal, combined certainly with a much greater SNP confidence about Scotland’s future than seemed on offer from anybody else, for pro-union voters to be willing to vote for a pro-independence party in very large numbers.


If Labour is instinctively suspicious of the politics of cross-party cooperation, so many of its major achievements have been founded on a range of different forms of centre-left alliance or partnership.

Keir Hardie certainly didn’t like or trust the Liberals. But, as Next Left has set out, examine the political career of this great champion of Labour independence, and you will find that he advanced whenever he was in (tense) alliance with the Liberals, and faltered badly whenever relations broke down. These were alliances of necessity rather than affection.

Labour’s ability to establish a Parliamentary party in 1906 was the product of a (secret) electoral pact which contributed to the Liberal landslide.

The greatest Liberal achievement in power in the 20th century was victory in the great constitutional crisis of 1909-1911. In truth, this was a Lib-Lab achievement too, for it was only a Lib-Lab understanding about candidates which prevented the Tory minority winning a majority of seats in the crisis elections of 1910. Labour votes were then needed to sustain the Liberal government in the hung Parliament which resulted.

The social liberalisation of the 1960s was led by the great liberal icon Roy Jenkins as a Labour Home Secretary, while the abortion bill was introduced by David Steel and carried with much Labour backbench support. The post-1997 constitutional reforms, the most significant changes to British polity since 1911, were achieved by the educative force of the liberal pressure group Charter 88 on Labour opinion, and by Lab-Lib cooperation in opposition and briefly in Cabinet committee during Labour's first term.

At other times - in dealing with the unemployment of 1920s and '30s, or facing the Thatcher challenge of the '80s, - progressive forces have been scattered and divided, resulting in Tory dominance.

Nick Clegg was right to warn against arguments assuming a permanent realignment of the centre-left or centre-right. Democratic politics shouldn’t do permanent, despite the presentism of so much political commentary. A Blair-Ashdown deal in 1997 would not have delivered permanent centre-left government. It would have shifted the centre-of-gravity to the centre-left, by speeding up the Cameron reality check to the Tories. If, by 2010, the Tory party was several points ahead of Labour, then a centre-left coalition would have been replaced by a centre-right one.

We will now hear much less of the widespread claim twelve months ago that this coalition meant that there would be a Cameon-led realignment on the centre-right .

With the LibDems in most trouble of all, the main battle is once again between the two dominant and dwindling political tribes. But either tribe has a good deal more to do to broaden its appeal a great deal to get close to 40%.

Most of the Tory tribe has now forgotten its own leadership’s analysis of why they hit a 36% ceiling last May.

Labour tribalists need to realise that their vision of Labour governing alone requires a broad electoral appeal which goes well beyond the tribe, as was achieved in 1945, 1966 and 1997.

So “there is no progressive majority” is at one level a statement of political reality, yet at another it is being used to drive a political analysis which risks leaving Labour in far too narrow a political cul-de-sac.

While Labour certainly needs Tory votes, there are different arguments and strategies to appeal to them: a blue Labour ‘left conservatism’ appeal would be different to a Blairite one, for example. Those who say the only votes which matter will be Tory ones are setting an electoral ceiling of 35%.

The Labour tribe will need to do better than that.

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