Two tribes go to war: making sense of the battle for Labour

In 2013, commenting on the downward spiral of his party, Republican consultant Mike Murphy observed:

“There seem to be two schools of thought in GOP. One group, the Mathematicians, look at the GOP’s losing streak and the changing demography of the country and say the party needs to make real changes to attract voters beyond the old Republican base of white guys. Not just mechanics, but also policy. They want to modernize conservatism and change some of the old dogma on big issues like same sex marriage. I’m one of them. The other group, the Priests, say the problem is we don’t have enough ideological purity. We must have faith, be pure and nominate “real conservatives” (whatever that means; the Priests are a bit slippery about their definitions) who will fight without compromise against liberalism. The Priests are mostly focused on the sins we are against; they say our problem is a lack of intensity; if we are passionate and loud enough, we will alert and win over the rest of the country. The Mathematicians hear all this and think the Priests are totally in a… echo chamber of their own creation and disconnected from the reality of today’s electorate…The Priests hear the Mathematicians and think they are all sell-outs.”

This is the debate that is defining all kinds of political upheaval across the Western world today. It is not a simple matter of left vs right, establishment vs grass roots or the centre against the fringe. In fact it’s happening between and within movements and organisations of all kinds — political and civil society — all across the political spectrum.

It is though at it’s most obvious in the UK in the fight going on within the Labour party, where the priestly disposition of the influx of new members is at odds with the party apparatus and longer standing members. What makes this so intractable, and gives it the feeling of a culture war, is that is is not a pitched battle over policy per se — the differences between the two sides are over stated. It’s really a fight between two different modes of activism; one that have at their core two different and largely incompatible theories of persuasion, and how you win people over to your side.

The mathematicians, such as we are, start from a position that most people — voters, members of the public — disagree with us, and need to be won round. Our model of persuasion is one built on compromise; hold the same objective but meet the person you’re trying to win over half way, give a little on mood music or detail if you need to; half a loaf is better than no loaf. At it’s worst it can feel transactional but it is also rooted in a sort of humility and pragmatism. Out of this approach falls the more professionalised approach to campaigns associated with New Labour, and an approach to communications (that I outlined here) focused on earning the right to be heard.

The priests, on the other hand, start from the position that people already agree with them — they just don’t know it yet; in some way they have had their consciousness obscured. In so far as they even think about ordinary people that disagree with them, they will often explain things in terms of the message not being properly heard. Perhaps it’s being distorted by a lack of conviction, some third party or ne’er-do-wells in the media. Or, when the cognitive dissonance becomes too much, faith is held in the idea of a large hitherto unengaged mass, just waiting out there, desperate to be inspired. Either way, the remedy is almost always to shout louder and shout better.

Their approach to persuasion was captured quite amusingly in a recent LRB piece, covering a Momentum event in the swing seat of Nuneaton:

“I had checked the local branch’s Facebook page on the train: 35 people were confirmed as attending and someone had recently posted an article entitled ‘1983: The Biggest Myth in Labour Party History’. As I approached a woman was bellowing ‘Vote Labour! Save yourselves! The Tories will destroy you!’ to no one in particular….The speeches were similar to those I’d heard elsewhere…Only a handful of passers-by stopped to listen…”

This is a creed best imbued in Tony Benn’s famous quote about sign posts v.s weathervanes. If you hold your ground and your line you will be there to reap the benefits when the tide of history turns your way. This has the virtue we commonly ascribe to ‘sticking to one’s principles’. It also tends to give rise more easily to things like paranoia, conspiracy and self-pity.

Again, this is not a simple matter of left or right. For example, I think Owen Jones’ estrangement from Corbynism, such as it is, is probably based on this divide. Though formidable in the pulpit he has a genuine interest in how you win people over by starting from where they are. He is a mathematician amid a movement of priests.

Even the likes of Paul Mason or Aaron Bastani in their better moments have at times shown flashes of realism over winning over UKIP or Tory voters.

But the Corbynite backlash against Mason’s proposed pragmatism on free movement is instructive. He is fundamentally misunderstanding the social movement he has ridden in on. If nothing else it is a movement built on a total rejection of any compromise, in either detail or framing and communications. Any attempts to professionalise it is doomed to fail.

Indeed, at it’s core Corbynism’s sole interest is not policy or elections but process — namely, defeating the mathematicians’ mode of party politics and activism, which they associate with capitulation. This currently travels under more pleasant talk of ‘letting members decide policy’, ‘party democracy’, ‘wrestling back control from elites’ and so on, but it should be seen for what it is. Much more than anything else, it is what makes it so urgent that it must be defeated.

We on the other side have to understand it as a challenge to our entire philosophy of politics, and learn to fight on those terms.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, for what it’s worth, every shred of evidence around voter psychology suggests you can persuade voters — but only if you make the argument with a value frame they have some kind of sympathy with. So you can move people to a progressive place on immigration or welfare, for instance, but you have to talk about things like contribution or patriotism — things many left activists feel instinctively uncomfortable with. Banging on about open borders or entitlement may feel good but it will always bounce off people.

In more cynical moments, you suspect many of the ‘priests’ know this — they just don’t care. From this perspective their mode of politics seems much more about expression than anything else; it is about what they want to say, not what the unpersuaded need to hear. We have a habit of saying this is ‘naive’ or ‘idealistic’ but narcissistic might be a better word.

Dangerous may be another. Whether it knows it or not, this expressive, populist form of electoral activism de facto gives up on building cross-class, cross-societal voter coalitions. In its place is a purer form of identity politics that instead doubles down on reinforcing the virtue and prejudices of the already converted. Other than being electorally suicidal, it begets a political culture rife with bitterness, sanctimony and righteous anger; a country where cultural divides are doubled down on rather than reached across and mediated. It’s end game is a society where ever tinier, cordoned off cantons — the liberal cosmopolitans in the big cities, the communitarians in the suburbs and provinces — are in constant conflict with each other, rather than part of a wider movement.

This, one imagines, is also why so many Corbyn allies favour proportional representation — it lessens the need to reach outside of those enclaves.

It is this form of individualised boisterous identity politics that is tearing apart broad church movements and institutions across the Western world, from the Republicans in the US, to the British Union and social democracy across Europe.

It is this understanding which should frame the moderate counter argument.

Too often we portray our mode of politics as cold instrumentalism or about necessary evils to gain power (I appreciate the framing of ‘mathematicians’ is unhelpful here).

But it’s not. At its heart it is about reaching out; building broad alliances and solidarity. It’s easy to sneer at the more professionalised techniques we might employ — focus groups, polling, messaging — but it could just be called listening. Empathising with people and building bridges. Genuine movement building. This is not just a route to power but a good in itself, adding to the sum of solidarity and togetherness in a country we love and want to improve. Done properly, if it moves us just one single step closer to our shared goals, it is more than worth most compromises it might entail. It is a form of politics and togetherness far more beautiful than listening to another sulphurous speech against neo-liberalism in a run down town hall in Lambeth.

But at present that argument is being lost across Western democracies, and most acutely within the Labour party. Until that fact is acknowledged as a root cause, and until that argument is renewed, made again and made better — in a way that resonates with those sceptical of it — and people are recruited on that basis, Corbyn will continue to advance. A better, kinder politics will be defeated. The priests will inherit the earth.