Monday, 15 October 2012

British politics – is the future plural?

So asked the Fabian Society at Labour conference two weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to find the time to write in the last couple of weeks.  Part of this is workload – in the last four weeks I’ve worked at five weddings and a party conference, which rather sounds like an idea for a film.  Added to this is the inevitable effect a 13-week old baby has on both production and inclination. 

But I do want to discuss this matter.  There are several reasons.  Firstly, I am a pluralist and I believe that discussion of the nature of British politics is necessary and will be topical for at least as long as we have coalition government.  Secondly, this debate evidenced attitudes that are both encouraging and concerning in equal measure.  Thirdly, given the coalition’s internal dynamics and the latest news that a new coalition document is already being drawn up, it must be asked whether the coalition is actually pluralism in action or in fact simply a different expression of tribal affiliation.  And, finally, as I’d written copious notes I didn’t want to waste them.

The Fabian Society pointed to research suggesting that 30% of Labour supporters favour coalition.  They also observed that Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters are in many respects very similar and asked the question: “How desirable are pluralist politics?”  To answer the question was a panel made up of Labour MPs John Denham and Caroline Flint, Lib Dem MPs John Pugh and Simon Hughes and Katie Ghose from the Electoral Reform Society.  It might have been useful to have also included a Conservative but this didn’t seem to have occurred to the Fabian Society who seemed to view pluralism through the narrow prism of Labour-Liberal Democrat relations.

John Denham
First to speak was John Denham.  Denham was interesting.  He was measured and sensible.  He was strangely positive.  He openly embraced pluralism and was critical of partisan politics.  The past has always been plural he explained, but that this was not necessarily about coalition government.  This plurality was evident in the battles for women’s suffrage, the NHS, workers’ rights and devolution.  Unlike some other Labour figures, he conceded that neither of these would have been achieved without the help of “others from outwith the Labour Party”.  Progressive change, he insisted, “can never be delivered solely by one party in parliament” – which sounded a little like a criticism of the Blair-Brown governments, but perhaps was not intended to be.

On coalitions, Denham said they were no bad thing.  He added that “the Lib Dems are OK really”, but went on to say that these assumptions, once common among Labour supporters, had been seriously challenged recently.  On critical issues such as social justice he claimed that Lib Dem supporters share very similar values to Labour and that, therefore, we need a system of politics that brings this to the fore, “challenging tribalism and sectarianism where it exists”.  He spoke of the AV referendum and how this didn’t aid the cause of “progressive politics” – something he clearly feels is the ultimate goal of pluralism.

He had a great deal to say on this.  Progressive pluralism is required, he argued, to ensure that the largely progressive views of the public were adequately expressed within the political system.  This is a challenge to all parties, he declared.  In particular, Labour face a challenge to become less sectarian while Liberal Democrats bust become better at articulating the progressive attitudes of  members and, in key areas, become more than a mere anti-Labour party.

John Pugh
Denham was followed by John Pugh, one of my favourite Liberal Democrat MPs.  Pugh chose to emphasise the importance of relationships.  He stated that he dislikes the politics of personality, but that ultimately personalities and how the interact have a huge impact on the success of cross-party collaboration.  He spoke of the need for a “tribal realignment” that he felt must go beyond coalitions – which he felt were both the results of electoral accidents and have a tendency to lock parties into them so that they become prisoners of events.  Some wise words indeed on the difficulties the party is currently experiencing.  Turning his attentions to the Lib Dems, Pugh spoke of the difficulty of implementing policy, of the spectre of an emerging tribalism within the party and the need to avoid knee-jerk reactions which are, more often than not, based on relationships between parties and individuals. 

Pugh announced that his principal aspiration in life is to avoid ever watching “The Sound of Music” and to date he has been successful.  I had to admit to feeling a pang of envy at that point.  His other aspiration is to go through a parliament without ever resorting to such lines as “I take no lessons...”  This is either grandstanding or intolerance, neither of which further pluralism.  The language of politics must change, he insisted, if there is to be a change in culture.  He finished by suggesting that voters are weary of tribalism and in fact like off-key messages.

Katie Ghose
Katie Ghose agreed that tribal allegiances were dying.  Support for the main parties is also in decline.  Parties now have the choice between pursuing the tribal or the plural and must have the courage to opt for the tougher option.  She suggested that the evolving nature of British politics meant that parties need to learn to “retain their sense of identity while changing the conversation” or risk irrelevance.  While admitting that support for coalition itself is in freefall among Labour members, a high proportion continue to value collaboration. 

Unless the political system recognises this and parties learn to both co-operate and communicate more effectively, the volatile nature of the modern voter and an increased willingness on the part of electors to shift their vote could force pluralism onto an unwilling parliamentary “system”.  Ghose’s message seemed to be one of the inevitability of pluralism based on voters’ dissatisfaction with their voices not counting and rising support for minor parties.  Better for the system to embrace pluralism now than have it painfully thrust upon it.

Caroline Flint: "I caught a fish that was this big!"
Next up was Caroline Flint.  Flint was not John Denham.  Flint was not a pluralist.  Flint was a reactionary Labour tribalist who didn’t quite seem to understand the point of the question.  For her, this was simply an opportunity to bash the Liberal Democrats.  And bash them she did.  She started off by suggesting that Labour lost the General Election because it wasn’t saying enough about immigration (never a promising introduction).  She then dismissed the argument that coalition is “an answer to our problems” as “sterile”.  Coalitions do not work, she said, forgetting about Scotland and Wales.  What Britain needs is not coalition government, but “more decentralisation of decision-making and greater differentiation at local level.”  That actually sounded quite good but ignores two key points: why does Labour refuse to lay down its centralising instincts and what alternative form of government at Westminster does she feel would provide an effective alternative?

But Caroline Flint was not there to provide answers, simply to criticise.  Among her more memorable quotes were these painfully predictable assertions: “coalition is not good”, “coalition is not accountable and leads to backroom, secretive deals”, “smaller parties make promises they can’t keep”, “principles are undermined by coalition”.  Each of these can be easily rebuffed and I can only imagine what Donald Dewar might make of that last one.  She went as far as to say the entire discussion was “dishonest” as the Liberal Democrats “only want [pluralism] as a means to power”. 

Her main objection seemed to be that “you can’t vote for a coalition” and therefore that it shouldn’t be an option post-election should no party have a majority.  Naturally, she saw no reason to suggest what other possible outcomes were acceptable, and whether the voters’ inability to vote for these might present equally tough democratic problems.  All in all, Flint’s contribution was a tribalist rant thinly obscured behind a veneer of an argument.  It was a huge disappointment and highlights some of the potential difficulties our party may have in future collaborations with key Labour personnel.

Simon Hughes makes his point
Finally it was Simon Hughes’ turn.  He did appear to respond to some of Caroline Flint’s facile criticisms: “do we ask how we can achieve some of what we want or do we take our bat home?”  He used Scotland and Wales of examples of both coalition partners being happy with what they got from the partnerships.  He added that coalitions were not natural alliances, and that the alternative to coalition in 2010 was potentially another General Election and three terms of Tory government.  Hughes gave examples of where the Liberal Democrats have opposed Conservative policies and admitted that he “is not embarrassed by these”.  He also pointed out that government is inevitably more uncomfortable than non-government as Labour knows.  “They both introduced and trebled tuition fees when they said they wouldn’t” he reminded the audience.

After this, Hughes turned his attentions to a more general vision of pluralist politics.  He expressed dismay at how so many votes are determined by party management.  He added that “big picture” politics needs co-operation in place of timid government.  We can’t know what electoral outcomes might be in the future, but that isn’t the principal point.  Future judgments should be made in an evidence-based way and should not be about personalities.  The focus “should be on the team, not the players” he maintained, referring to an Observer piece speculating about key personnel being sacrificed to facilitate a future Labour-Lib Dem alliance.  It is not for us to dictate who other parties’ spokesmen are said Hughes, overlooking Nick Clegg’s comments about Gordon Brown in 2010.  “if you want a deal” he challenged Labour, “have a radical manifesto that allows progressives to work together for a real redistribution of wealth and power, internationalism and environmentalism.”   He concluded by describing a pluralism in which “co-operative politics [could] be forged irrespective of the [kind of] electoral accident that produced the coalition.”

After this a more fierce debate ensued with contributions from the floor – some interesting and intelligent, others idiotic, tribal and hostile.  One of the better questioners asked why we are chiefly talking about pluralism in respect to the Lib Dem – Labour relationship and in a very narrow way.  Aren’t parties themselves coalitions?  And doesn’t the changing nature of pluralism go beyond party politics, such as those organisations much more able to mobilise people than political parties?  Shouldn’t they be part of the progressive future?

Fortunately Caroline Flint had left by this stage due to other commitments, so John Pugh answered that “Liberal Democrats reject a simple polarity of left and right...the change of conversation is the real prize”.  John Denham echoed this and extended the logic: “Progressive pluralism is the only way to achieve progressive change.  The purpose of pluralism is critical to the exercise.  The worst case for pluralism is pointing to electoral results and stating that it is inevitable.  Maturity of discussion is made difficult by political cultures in which differences are maximised.” He noted with regret that this too often extends to local politics where party politics becomes a roadblock to “progressive discussion”.    Simon Hughes agreed that there has been a rise of political activity outside of party structures and that the energy of independent organisations is an example of pluralism in action.

Of course pluralism is wider than the narrow activities of parliamentary party politics and is, in fact, far from dependent on it.  Pluralism is not an action or an arrangement but an attitude.  Indeed, as Liberal Democrats it is one that should influence how we relate to other parties and respond to political events.  As John Pugh observed, the coalition is not evidence of a pluralist system but has “created the need for a different, more civilised, style of politics.”  In his view, the adversarial nature of Westminster politics undermines coalition and progressive politics.

John Denham rounded up by insisting that “Labour will do better if not seen as a sectarian party” but was realistic enough to recognise the need to “minimise the number of people [within Labour] who consider electoral reform to be a barrier to dialogue”.  And then, it was announced, there was room for one final question.  The “questioner” was Austin Mitchell MP.  The question never came; what did was a rant of which Caroline Flint would be proud and an accusation that the coalition “shows that the Liberal Democrats are the enemies of pluralism.”  Inadvertently Mitchell had made a timely contribution, confirming every one of John Denham’s points.  Can there be a pluralist politics in the UK as long as the views of Mitchell, Flint and their ilk command support of a large proportion of their party?

It was certainly an interesting debate, hampered as it inevitably would be by the ironic decent into tribalism.  It suggested positive opportunities while reinforcing the need to proceed with caution as far as relationships with Labour are concerned.  As John Pugh stated, inter-party co-operation is largely down to successful relationships.  The prospect of having any kind of constructive relationship with the likes of Caroline Flint seems remote.

Pluralism in one sense is not an aspiration; it is a current reality.  We live in a pluralist society, work in pluralist offices and send our children to pluralist schools.  Pluralism is a product of contemporary social culture, a culture that the political system must both accept and adjust to.  We might not be a nation of pluralists, but it is certainly the predominant view of a society becoming ever more tolerant and inclusive.  Therefore any lead from parliamentarians to ensure our parliaments and councils need to more adequately reflect this reality is to be welcomed, even if exorcising the spectre of tribalism seems (for the moment) an impossible task.  


Anonymous said...

I think sometimes Austin Mitchell has a point. Surely such incidents (among others) as the refusal to even enter coalition talks in 2007, the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history and having to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing an independence referendum show that we, the Liberal Democrats, are the enemies of pluralism?

Should we not take the log from our own eyes before pointing out the splinter in others?

Andrew said...

Anonymous - I take it you didn't read my previous post in regards my challenge to Simon Hughes on our pluralist credentials?

Precisely the fact that we refused to enter talks in 2007 means that the current coalition is more difficult to justify. If we were genuinely pluralistic in 2007, the only option would have been to talk to the SNP, even if agreement may not later have been reached. The fact that we didn't over the SNP's desire for a referendum means it's far harder to defend a coalition in which many of our principles and objectives are being actively undermined or attacked by the Conservatives.

Georg said...

Progessive pluralism... as a European I would love to see a bit of this in US politics and I welcomed Obama's victory speech in which he promised to work together with Romney and the Republicans - and Romney appeared to reciprocate these feelings! Perhaps yet we shall see an American 'coalition' government...

But I digress. In my opinion more pluralism equals more democracy. Of course there are always the arguements about how too many parties in power with too many different stances will just deadlock parliament but the Germans are pulling it off nicely. Plus, the alternative is a single-party government which, whilst I'm not alluding to it being anything like China, represents a depleted range of popular opinions. Tribalism in politics (and elsewhere, i.e. football) gets us nowhere. It merely frustrates.