Two tribes go to war: making sense of the battle for Labour
Steve Akehurst
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Another fantastic piece from my good friend Steve. I think the trends he rightly identifies go a little deeper and if I may be a little more academic…

I think it’s partly about what we see democracy as and for. It’s very easy in British politics, with the strong influence of American politics, to see democracy as about offering a conflictual choice for control. But not only are not all elections fought this way, but ultimately democracy is really about much more than elections — it’s about how do we live together? How do our interest co-exist? What makes us a society? And in this work of nation building and re-building, institutions are far more important than elections.

I think therefore the idea of reaching out goes beyond compromise and electoral triangulation but is the very essence of what democracy is, bringing people together. In systems with large parties, that is in many ways the role of the party: to build new alliances. As Steve says “building cross-class, cross-societal voter coalitions”. In this way the party is acting as a societal institution where democracy in this wider sense happens, aggregating and negotiating interests.

Now, there is more than one type of party in the world. Parties can be more obviously representational, acting as delegates for one group i.e. Catholic & Protestant parties, Farmers parties etc. In this case, the parties present the interests not aggregate them and the ‘democracy’ work of figuring out how we co-exist is done through coalition forming in a more literal, parliamentary sense.

I think partly what is happening in Labour is a move from wanting to do the work of integrating to being an interest group themselves. This is who we are and we demand to be considered. I think this is shown rhetorically but also, as Steve indicates, in a growing interest in PR.

This comes back to an analysis of how change happens.

Yes, I think most of this becoming an interest group idea is about feeling good about yourself by making an ideational statement. And yes a traditional Marxist false consciousness, transitional demands view of change is certainly present in the party, including I suspect in the leader’s office. But I think there is another analysis in Labour. That you have to stake out a position to stretch the middle point of negotiations. Provide a left wing stance and when we compromise for the middle, that will be moved left. I remember a questioner at party conference when Ed Miliband was leader asking him “The Tories are right, so why can’t we be left?”.

To put it another way, the Corbyn supporter’s theory is a pseudo-Downsian one which aims to widen the Overton window. Or another way again, it’s like a fullback hugging the touchline to stretch the play. The danger is, like the football analogy, that you end up alone and isolated while the action is on the other side. Particularly in a system where traditionally the parties as I said have done the integrating so there’s no tradition of bargaining between the parties as it’s normally done within them.

Of course, my argument that it goes even deeper than Steve’s ‘what are parties for’ to ‘what democracy is for’ offers absolutely no perspective about how the Labour party heals, what a conflicted member should do, or why hasn’t Corbyn been asked about Venezuela’s total collapse…but I’ll leave those topics in Steve’s able hands.

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