Wednesday 7 December 2016

Tribalism and the Progressive Alliance

As promised, let's talk about the so-called progressive alliance, that Labour, the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid should come to a non-aggression arrangement to maximise the anti-Conservative vote in upcoming by-elections and the next general election (now most unlikely to be next year). This means unpicking 'tribalism'.

Let's start off with a question. Though it has happened at local level on a number of occasions, most Labour people from all wings of the party would react with horror about cutting a deal with the Tories. Why? It isn't a matter of them being "not us". Politics is not a game of football where someone is wedded to one side and affects hatred for designated rivals. On the whole, the reaction against the Tories is because of what they do. We see their policies hammer our people and protect the privileged, and more often than not regardless of the damage they wreak on the fabric of social life. We know they represent a set of interests that ultimately aren't the same, and indeed are opposed to the interests of the people our party represents.

Let's bear that in mind when we come to the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair liked to flatter them by pretending their party lies within the radical tradition, but that is to evacuate any sense of meaning from the term. The LibDems, historically, represented the less backward elements of the same class the Tories do. When they collapsed and were supplanted by Labour in the 1920s, they faded away into electoral obscurity. Yet, philosophically and in terms of its core constituency, they were not qualitatively different from the Tories. The Liberals as were had sharp policy differences with the Conservatives from time to time, but these were of degree and not of kind. And we don't need to play thought experiments or dredge up records in local government. They might have prevented some utterly mad Tory policies while in coalition, but their time with ministerial portfolios saw through cuts to social security, the doubling down of market mechanisms in the public sector (especially in the NHS), and a complete abandonment of their Keynes-lite strategy for getting the British economy moving again. They are hostile to trade unions acting politically and, lest we forget, that nice "lefty" Tim Farron is open to the idea of going in with the Tories again. Lovely.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru, on paper, should be better candidates for a progressive alliance. Leanne Wood is a nice centre left-type with a Trot pedigree to her name. Nicola Sturgeon's closet has no Fourth Internationalist skeletons, alas, but apart from independence you could make a case for the Scottish government being more consistently social democratic than the Labour administrations preceding it. What's more, the SNP had its own Corbyn-style surge long before Corbs lent his name to politics-defining membership surges. In one sense, the SNP is entirely different to what it was before the Scottish referendum. Most of the left are there. Most of the progressive vote are there. And yet, two stubborn political realities remain. Despite approaching the same number of members as the Tories, it has made little difference to the SNP politically. It remains pretty much the same outfit with the same people in charge. Scottish radicalism hasn't remade the party in the same way Corbynism has upended everything in Labour. That, ultimately, has something to do with the character of the SNP as a bourgeois nationalist party. The basic political subject it's trying to organise is the nation, and in capitalist societies the interests of the nation are defined in impeccably bourgeois terms: growing GDP, low inflation rates, balance of payments, the successful competition over markets and so on. True, the SNP offer 'nice' civic, left-tinged nationalism and not the ugly rubbish long associated with Britishness and Englishness in particular, yet it too cannot resist defining itself against the backward, Tory-voting xenophobes south of the border. Nor seeking to exacerbate divisions in Labour, its long time rival and potential future nemesis. Perhaps I'm old fashioned for sticking to the view that nationalism is the passage to division and the domination of politics by unscrupulous scoundrels. What an idle whimsy, eh? The same applies to Plaid as well. While seeking more autonomy for Wales in a federal-style arrangement, which seem entirely sensible to me, for PC it's a step toward independence and ultimately they organise on that basis, albeit much less successfully than their friends in the north. For us, interests and solidarity exits across borders. For the SNP and Plaid, that fundamentally threatens their project.

And the Greens. Of the four parties they are perhaps the best candidates for an alliance with Labour. Our party arose to prosecute the claims and interests of working people in capitalism, and green parties respond to the environmental despoliation that same system has accumulated in slag heaps, rubbish tips, and long-term changes to the climate. Both are potentially and imminently radical because of the adversarial position they have vis conventional economics. Where Labour and the Greens differ is at the level of constituency. Labour is powered by working people generally - historically most of the "traditional" working class and the middle class in the professions and public sector, and now increasingly by the networked worker. The Greens by small business and also sections of the middle class. Unlike the other parties, there is a tension between these constituencies but no fundamental opposition. An alliance that wouldn't lead to political catastrophe a la Italy's Democratic Party is possible here. Thing is, it's completely pointless. The Greens didn't cost Labour the general election. A deal would benefit the Greens - Caroline Lucas would remain unmolested in Brighton - but where's the quid pro quo for the much larger would-be partner?

There's nothing wrong with members from different parties working together where interests are episodically aligned, but a tie up is fraught with serious difficulties. There are significant sections in each, particularly Labour and the SNP who wouldn't countenance such a thing. Sinking differences into an amorphous nice-politics-for-nice-anti-Tory-people formation is a recipe for splits. The second problem is, well, the national card. The Tories proved adept at playing it in 2015 and, unfortunately, it did frighten the horses in too many marginals. A full blown alliance unhappily risks stirring the rank politics of English nationalism and anti-elite populism. Remember, the consequences of its recent outing hasn't been positive. And lastly, an alliance between irreconcilable parties won't fly because of the interests underpinning them. So-called tribalism recognises this truism of politics. No matter how crude its expression, such dumb materialism is more advanced than "enlightened" views stubbornly refusing to understand politics beyond free floating ideas.


MikeB said...

"Anti-elite populism" is too powerful at the moment for any alliance with the current Labour Party to be attractive to anyone beyond it who has a genuinely radical agenda. Blair continues to poison the well, and Corbyn, undermined from within and without, hasn't managed to cleanse it.

For a Welsh person, there is nothing new to this - the LP in the Valleys has been The Establishment for many years. People vote for it from loyalty to a memory, not from any active allegiance with its policies. And as a result, that support is, horrifyingly, now defecting to UKIP and/or complete disengagement. Some time ago, I switched to critical support for Plaid - listen to Leanne Woods' recent speeches in the Assembly in support of the Standing Rock protests, and against petty nationalist opportunism against the EU, and contrast them to Carwyn James' timidity and evasiveness. Talking of the "underpinning interests" of their respective support bases as if they were fixed forever is to underestimate how things can change, both subjectively and in the character of parties.

Phil said...

A comment from Francesco on the Facebook:

Phil it was two days that I wanted to comment on this! I understand your point on the "progressive alliance", but would about a simpler pact of non-belligerance? Could not Labour just think about limiting the damage by finding an agreement with some of the parties?This would be only a tactical move to avoid having the number of MPs halved. I think it would work with the Lib Dem because there are a certain numbers of seats where the two parties could really help each other (and the pact would be limited to some seats,in the others they could just compete normally). I don't think the same would work with the SNP because they have essentially built their consensus on taking away vote from Labour.

Phil said...

And the reply ...

It just wouldn't fly with most Labour members, regardless of whether it's desirable or not. If voters want a progressive alliance, they're going to have to vote tactically - just as happened in Richmond.

Phil said...

Yes Mike, interests do change and what they become associated with are in flux. However, what might be true of the valleys isn't necessarily the case elsewhere. And besides, Plaid remains a nationalist party and no amount of progressive tinged politics are going to change that fundamental fact.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mike B that talking of the "underpinning interests" of respective party support bases “as if they were fixed forever” is to underestimate how things can change. The present political climate is not And to claim that “Labour is powered by working people generally - historically most of the ‘traditional’ working class and the middle class in the professions and public sector, and now increasingly by the networked worker’ sounds as if you are trying to make something fit that doesn’t. In the Post-Brexit vote era many seem to be voting along pro- and anti-European lines (Richmond and Sleaford) and because of that – possibly a re-alignment of voting patterns - Labour is losing out, having a weak Brexit approach.

There is a clear electoral-reality imperative for a pact but it does need to be on a quid pro quo basis. For that reason a SNP-Lab pact would not work, the SNP has won all the Labour seats already so why would they relinquish any? In Wales however, Labour and PC must align as Ukip will benefit if they don’t.

In Wales and England I think an alliance would work with the LibDems because there are a certain number of seats where the two parties could really help each other (the pact should be limited to some seats only). Talking of the Liberal Party in the 1920s as if that is the same beast as the LibDems of the 21st century, seems naive in my opinion.

224 Politics said...

Interesting argument, though I'd have a few bones to pick.

A progressive alliance would probably be most effective in Labour-Tory swing seats, where the Labour Party has to spend time and resources constructing arguments to persuade Labour-Green voters. By standing down and endorsing the Labour candidate, the Greens could help a Labour candidate over the line in a tight race.
Perhaps the only practical help Labour could be expected to give in return would be commitment to explore introducing PR.

Lib Dems, for all their flaws, are less bad than the Tories, just as Tories are less bad than a Nazi Party with a chance of outright victory. Obviously they make the idea of a 'progressive' alliance a bit misleading, but you've got to flatter people a bit to persuade them to get involved.