Wednesday 1 January 2020

Labour and Progressive Coalitions

Two penneth worth concerning Jem Gilbert's piece on Labourism. Jem takes aim at what you might otherwise call Labour's sectarianism: the idea Labour is the sole means of achieving progressive social change in this country, with the trade unions and affiliated societies as adjuncts, and other movements kept at arm's length. He argues that Corbynism was a step away from traditional Labourism with its re-emphasis on community building, supporting campaigning and struggle and, yes, standing with workers on picket lines. But it was only a step. The supremacy of the Labour Party as the parliamentary vehicle for change went fundamentally unchallenged. However, this will no longer do. The opposition to the Tories is split and, as this election has demonstrated again, a Labour victory is the exception not the rule. What we need to see is the democratisation of Labour to continue apace and, for once, a bit more modesty about the party's capacity to win elections. As Jem argues, "the fantasy of another 1945 ... has paralysed our politics for too long." Labour has to think seriously about progressive coalitions and leverage the actual anti-Tory majority in the country to deliver an anti-Tory majority in the Commons.

In the abstract, who can disagree? The problem comes with the practicalities. The Greens took some votes from Labour in this election, but didn't cost the party many seats. It's a much smaller outfit that is a contender in a vanishingly tiny number of constituencies and, given its recent remainia turn, helped make the EU wedge issue for detaching Labour voters. Of the nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru has embraced neoliberalism with Welsh characteristics just as Labour moved left and, fresh from clawing back all the seats lost to Labour in 2017, there is little incentive for the SNP to sign up for a progressive alliance. Nicola Sturgeon's 2015 rhetoric notwithstanding.

And then we have a Liberal Democrat problem. The problem with forging a progressive alliance with the LibDems is, well, they're not that progressive. Given the opportunity of government with the Tories they dived under the covers with alacrity, and enabled the worst attacks seen on the post-war settlement since John Major. And they helped pave the way for Brexit too. At the recent election, instead of attacking the Tories as the greater danger they thought piling into Labour alongside Boris Johnson and parroting Tory attacks was the better bet. In short, at every juncture since Charles Kennedy stood down as leader in 2005, the LibDems have made the wrong call. If the next Labour leader was minded to arrange something with the yellow party, it would be against resistance within and without the parliamentary party. And who can blame any sceptic? There's nothing stopping the LibDems doing the dirty after benefiting from an electoral pact with Labour.

A progressive coalition faces serious obstacles coming to fruition, and that's before we even consider who the next LibDem leader might be. If it's Ed Davey he'd no doubt concur with the recently dethroned Anna Soubry that the best thing to have happened in the 2010s were their wretched coalition, and we can expect more of the disastrous same. If it's someone else, we'll have to see.

So much for practicalities, how about desirability? Jem argues continental states have seen greater protections of the post-war settlement than the UK, and progressive legislation has been enacted by centre left parties governing in coalition with smaller centrist and liberal rivals. True, though I'd suggest the greater strength and institutional weight of labour movements also had its part to play. Nevertheless, the first problem is electoral, of the Tories playing the underdog card vs an underhanded liberal alliance - something they did successfully with Brexit as the wedge. And the second is what would a progressive coalition coalesce around. Jem mentions electoral reform and yes, it's fundamental, but a coalition needs to have something distinctive and shared beyond overhauling Westminster. Just being anti-Tory would not be enough.

The other danger is despite marrying a more pluralistic political outlook to democratising the party, there is no getting away from the fact that coalition moves empowers the leader's office and parliamentary elites in general. Over the course of 2018 and most of last year we saw how frustrated the membership felt as they were relegated to spectating House of Commons and PLP shenanigans. And also with this comes the pressure to water down policy so it's acceptable to other parties. I doubt the Greens have many problems with Labour's 2019 manifesto, but despite fielding their most 'left' manifesto for years the LibDems wanted no truck with large parts of Labour's programme. We have to be honest about it: short-term coalition building with nationalists and liberals could threaten the long-term project of making the party fit for contemporary class politics, and create new blockages for realising this aim.

Does this mean ruling coalitions out of order? Not necessarily. They are worth tentative exploration, particularly in England where the outcomes of elections are decided. But we should be fully aware of the pitfalls, problems, difficulties and the dangers, as well as the possibility of failure and the potentially half-arsed character of such an enterprise. But as Jem notes, Labour hasn't succeeded on its own terms without capitulating entirely to core ruling class interests for over 40 years. So why not try something new?

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Blissex said...

«The problem with forging a progressive alliance with the LibDems is, well, they're not that progressive.»

They are "centrists" which is an euphemism today for "original thatcherite", a position that is is to the left of the ultra thatcherism of the Conservatives of today. They were for gay marriage, but that's done.

The real problem with a LibDem alliance is the usual with the "centrist" claim that Labour must appeal to "wet" tory voters, those with good incomes, property ownership, good health, in order to win Conservative-Labour marginals: that the "centrists" make clear that in order to have a coalition with 90% Labour voters and 10% tory, the political position must be 90% tory and 10% labour, on cutting taxes, pumping up property prices, holding back spending on health and social service, the brand of politics represented in Labour by Yvette Cooper (author of the ATOS test regime for the disabled) and Rachel Reeves and Liz Kendall.

Even Andy Burnham recognized in 2015 that a 90% tory-10% labour policy mix was not that right for the Labour party, even if it might win some "wet tory votes.
«but he also praised Corbyn for having brought the contest to life. “The attacks we’ve seen on Jeremy misread the mood of the party because what people are crying out for is something different. They are fed up with the way Labour has been conducting policies in recent times,” he said.»

Robert said...

Paddy Ashdown did his best to collaborate with Tony Blair in order to achieve PR but Tony had to tell him he couldn't get it past the Cabinet with hoary old warhorses like Prescott, Straw and Brown dead against.

Speedy said...

These kind of factoids are distorted because they reflect the voting system as it was applied. It may be that a progressive alliance might have been proportionately possible under FPTP, but not under pure PR - look at what happened at the European elections. Rather than getting a progressive allianace you could get a right-wing one.

Boffy said...

"The real problem with a LibDem alliance is the usual with the "centrist" claim that Labour must appeal to "wet" tory voters, those with good incomes, property ownership, good health, in order to win Conservative-Labour marginals:"

Actually, these are not now the typical Tory voter, though they may be the typical "wet" Tory voter. The core Tory voter, like the typical core brexit voter is the small business owner, and those businesses run from at the top the relatively successful small/medium business employing 100 people down to the more typical small business of the market trader, corner shop owner, and the self-employed white van man, or window cleaner/gardener etc. You can see many of these latter represented as Tory Councillors, for example.

This latter group frequently are barely distinguishable from others in precarious employment. Their businesses depend upon skirting close to the edge of ethics and even the law. Some will rub shoulders with those the other side of it, the white van owners that do the ciggies runs across the channel, that do dodgy property deals and so on, some might even rub shoulders with those moving things a bit more profitable than fags and booze across the channel. Borders and tariff regimes are literally meat and drink to some of these elements. Such restrictions made millionaires out of such elements in the US during Prohibition, and were lucrative for the IRA in the 1970's.

Those groups of people with higher incomes and so on you describe, may fall into the category of wet Tories, but as better educated workers they are often the most stable support for Labour, including for Corbyn. They are the layer of "Affluent workers" identified by Goldthorpe et al, that formed the core support for Labour and progressive politics in the post war era.

Poverty rarely equates to more progressive outlooks and political affiliations. It usually results in the opposite.

Zac said...

If a progressive alliance is not the solution, and if focusing on electoral and constitutional reform won't work, then what will? Some suggestions as to what might work, rather than easy dismissals of what won't, would be a boost for the disheartened and downtrodden reading your blog.

Like other parties or not, 3.7 million voted LD and 840K voted green. Add that to the 10.3m who voted Labour and you have 14.8 million votes, compared to the combined Brexit and Tory vote of 14.6 million.

As things stand, the best Labour can hope for next time is a minority government which would require some sort of alliance. It would be wise to start working on building better relationships with Greens, LDs and SNP or face another 2 or three terms as enfeebled opposition.

Where I live we have been working on creating an informal progressive coalition at local level and it delivered success in local elections. In the GE it has been fruitless because national Labour and LD won't countenance any sort of arrangement. So while we have wrested control of councils from many years of tory dominance, we can't make any headway with our MPs. It is hugely frustrating and disappointing. The tribalism of party politics is impeding progress and ultimately it is because those most intransigent refuse to face reality.

George Carty said...

Boffy, I think Blissex is looking at traditional "swing" voters (of the type to whom Tony Blair owed his three election victories, but who reverted to Tories in 2010), not at the core Conservative voters which you describe accurately.

bourgeois dissident said...

My problem with the Compass 'baggy-tent on the purportedly left-of-centre' proposition is that to define 'progressive' to include political liberalism in effect already capitulates to 'things as they are', to such an extent that 'progressive' permits making common cause with reactionaries in power, especially where a genuine threat from the Left to the ruling order of things may be in the offing. Historically understood, liberalism, is both the ideology of the capitalist economy and a name for the socially progressive faction of the ruling and professional middle class. Political liberals invariably see themselves in ethical antagonism to socialism, opposing us on the grounds that only socialism and left-social democracy (minimally understood to mean socialist transformation of the bases of the economy) would go too far. Second, to be clear, since the inception of Labour representation in parliament, liberalism has enjoyed the intellectually leading role in the Labour coalition (aka Labourism). The Blairists are the latest but not the first faction to command this hegemony, in the PLP in particular. The significance of the Corbyn interregnum (if that's what it turns out to be) is that through Miliband-era changes to party democracy the Left succeeded in capturing power over policy making. The corresponding loss of entitlement experienced by Labour liberals of course also goes a long way to explaining their hubris and readiness to wreck the Corbyn project at any cost.

All of which is to say, liberals aren't to be trusted now or in the future because the scope or compass, if you will, of poltical liberalsm will not accede the limits of reform capitalism. Labourism, on the other hand, surely is capacious enough to overcome the alienation of the brexit voting working class, by rebuilding the class coalition that has traditionally included enlightened elements of the professional class, the state sector, the trade unions, students and the zero-hours precariat. All these can readily accommodate social movements and nonsectarian identity politics in solidarity with the 'heartlands' that will benefit from the demand-led neokeynesan structural investment needed to deliver the next really big, socialist idea of a transformative green industrial revolution. All-comers welcome on the condition of joining-in a radical coalition for real-change. Those who would stymie, obfuscate and sabotage, meantime, shall be kept at an arm's length, not given defeinitional authority which they'd use to undermine the project.