A new politics of pluralism

Mark Perryman asks why an effective left-of-Labour opposition has taken so long emerge - and what the prospects for it are now
September 2007

Ten years of Blairite-Brownism and a politics of pluralism to challenge the rightward march of Labour is finally emerging. The Jon Cruddas deputy leadership campaign was clearly important in coalescing a broader left in the Labour Party than has existed for years, and the Compass group is of some considerable significance in terms of carrying this foward.

Yet the institutional changes of Labour organisation mean it is now virtually impossible to entrench any shift in policy. This is the key question for any remaining Labour left: how precisely will change be effected?

Catching the ear of a minister, engaging with a group of MPs, maybe, but actually moving the party in any kind of direction leftwards is a scarcely-credible position. Brown has made it clear he wants no such thing; the Blairite cornerstone policies remain in place - the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), after all, remains what Brown considers his finest hour; the tiny band of dissident left MPs will get still smaller after the next election; and party conference has been so scaled down in political significance that to consider it a sovereign body would be the grandest delusion of all.

With 200,000 members having left the Labour Party whilst in government, and the two million who marched against the war on 15 February 2003, it remains a puzzle that it has taken so long for an effective opposition in the shape of a left-of-Labour party to emerge. There are four key factors.

The unions

First, the historic link between the trade unions and the Labour Party has generated a culture of Labourism that is suspicious of any sense of a break. Yet the ten years in power have reduced the actuality of this link to a laughing stock.

There must be some trade union leaders, Tony Woodley of Unite in particular, who have 'Won't Get Fooled Again' playing on their ipods permanently, so convinced are they that Brown will be different from Blair. He treats them to Quentin Davies, Digby Jones, Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street, an effective public sector wage freeze, a permanent revolution of privatisation and they still don't get it.

So far it's only the smaller unions, the RMT and FBU, that have disaffiliated. But among the union's fast-disappearing activist base there is little love lost on Labour.

The Liberal Democrats

Second, while opposition to the war defined disillusion with Labour in many constituencies when it came to voting, the Liberal Democrats were a credible choice, in England at least. But as the agenda has begun to move on it is doubtful that many on the left will be persuaded to vote Lib Dem again with any degree of enthusiasm. Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg are fully paid-up members of the political class dragging party politics further and further away from popular engagement.

Demoralisation

Third, demoralisation and atomisation. For idealists the past ten years have been a crushing disappointment. Eighteen years of Tory misrule and we always thought the alternative would be a Labour government. Of course Labour has done some good things, but being better than Thatcher is hardly a ringing endorsement. Nor is the claim that Brown is better than Cameron. We should expect nothing less and deserve a whole lot more.

But as this grey fog of technocratic managerialism increasingly forms a Westminster consensus, those who wished for something else find themselves left out. It becomes harder and harder to identify how change might be effected, with any sense of social solidarity squeezed dry. In this respect, when two million marched and nothing changed this proved to be a huge defeat, one the left has hardly begun to grasp the significance of.

The electoral system

Fourth, the electoral system. First-past-the-post doesn't do small parties any favours. And it is hard to maintain any kind of electoral momentum when the enormous effort expended delivers marginal impact at best, and more likely defeat after defeat. But the spread of proportional representation to the European elections and the Greater London Assembly, plus, in Scotland and Wales, the Scots Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, has at least begun to dislodge the unfairness of the system.

There have been some breakthroughs for the Greens, while targeted campaigning at local level have secured victories for Respect, the Socialist Party, the IWCA in Oxford and a number of broadly progressive independents and community activists. Of course proportional representation and local targeting has also enabled UKIP and the BNP to break through, with considerably more success than either the Greens or Left parties.

The importance of Respect

The core of each of these four key factors that have determined the terrain of an oppositional politics in the last decade are changing. This is what makes the debate in Respect so important.

The potential for a left-of-Labour party is considerable. A handful of MPs, councillors spread across the country with a number of key strongholds, a membership of 10,000-plus - this is the realistic ambition that Respect should be aiming for. But it has remained since its inception trapped within the conservative culture of the far left, the SWP in particular.

At the start, as a mainly protest vote against the war, this mattered less. And when the meteoric George Galloway defeated the war-supporting Oona King it seemed as if charisma and protest would be sufficient to gloss over the internal contradictions. But as politics moved on the control culture the SWP inflicts on any organisation it seeks to dominate has become more and more prevalent.

In late August 2007 George Galloway rebelled. In a strongly worded discussion paper, he outlined a critique of the consequences for Respect if it remained trapped in the model of political organisation the SWP has imposed upon it - what it describes as a 'united front of a special type'.

In effect this means the SWP exerts maximum control over the organisation in the interests of determining its development to suit the needs and priorities of the SWP. The result? A non-existent party culture and a membership of just 2,000, scarcely bigger than the SWP itself, which of course further ensures that its interests are protected.

There will be some who remain suspicious of Galloway's motives, but what matters is that the critique was issued. Ever since the SWP have done everything possible to suppress, hush up, the debate. For four weeks the Respect membership was not informed that such a debate was even taking place between its key components, and when the debate was finally referred to on the Respect website it was in words that would have done the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party proud - a resolution was passed 'unanimously' with zero mention of any of the preceding differences.

In the midst of this, Salma Yaqoob, Respect's vice-chair and Birmingham councillor, has produced a remarkable document. It maps out the potential for Respect as a pluralist party, founded on participation and part of a much broader formation based around all those left out of the Westminster Consensus that Blair and Brown have so assiduously constructed.

Contest for the future

The contest for the future of Respect remains dynamic. Either it will remain fundamentally moulded by the cultism of the far left, one-dimensional in its understanding of class and particularly race, or it will evolve into something far more interesting. Respect remains a key starting point in this contest because of three factors.

1. Unlike all preceding Left projects it has executed a local turn and established at least the beginnings of electoral success. Not since the 1950s has there been a left party that has succeeded in getting an MP and a decent number of councillors elected. These remain fragile gains but if they can be built on we could see emerge a left-of-Labour party genuinely rooted in local politics and community activism, providing the basis for projecting a practical alternative to the policies and practice of Labour.

2. Out of opposition to the war sections of the Muslim community are committed to, and centrally involved in the project. For the first time the predominantly white left is engaging with race and faith within its own organisation as a potent force of the future. A party that is genuinely pluralist and participative won't necessarily deal easily with the consequences of difference but it will find ways and means to practise dialogue and learning. This is a real challenge to traditional ways of organising but the experience has the potential to help shape a discourse way beyond simply Respect.

3. A strong argument is being made for an organisation founded on pluralist politics, participative democracy and prefigurative practice. If this ethos comes to dominate and shape Respect we will see the emergence of an entirely new political formation.

The SWP have sought to control the debate; they want it dictated on their terms, within the extraordinarily limited vision of a culture in which debate is always sacrificed in favour of party discipline. They are simply incapable of understanding that their ways of working always repel more than they attract. But the experience of unfulfilled potential that this has imposed on Respect has forced the shaping of an infinitely more ambitious alternative - a perspective that is rooted in the realisation that to be left-of-Labour means simply standing still for the past ten years while Labour marched rightwards dropping principle after principle.

In effect, this alternative has a social-democratic shape - but one that is rooted in the local, and social movements, and is pluralist in content and practice. A space that offers the possibility of participatory democracy, not as a privilege founded on central committee diktat but as a right. And an organisation that is prefigurative, proving in its daily life that the Westminster way of doing things is not the only way on offer.

If the debate that is unfolding in Respect opens up opportunities for a local turn for practical idealism, engages with the demands of difference and fosters the principles of pluralism, participation and the prefigurative, then instead of waving goodbye to the Labour left we can start to celebrate the reconnection of our ideals with practical politics.

Mark Perryman was a member of the Communist Party from 1979 to 1991. A member of Respect, he is currently editing a book, The English Impatient: Politics and Nation in a Disunited Kingdom, to be published by Lawrence and Wishart in 2008

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