Reflections on the Fabian Conference; Saturday 14 January, 2017 — Labour and the Abiliene Paradox

Sheila Chapman
Jan 20, 2017 · 5 min read

At the Fabian New Year Conference 2017; The Left in Britain, Britain in the World, Seb Dance MEP made the point, in relation to Brexit, that 1. all clubs have rules and benefits and you can’t have the benefits without complying with the rules; and 2. being inside a club must be different to being outside; being outside must be worse.

This ‘deadly syllogism’ as Mr Dance described it, is one that the government, the electorate and the Labour Party seem reluctant to face. While pundits and politicos debate the definition and relative merits of hard versus soft Brexit, the word on the rue in Brussels is that our choice is between hard Brexit and no Brexit: you cannot refuse to comply with the rules of the EU — free movement being the obvious example here — and expect to receive the benefits such as access to a free market. Being outside the EU must be worse than being in it or the club wouldn’t exist.

Conference participants and panellists debated the future of progressive politics, the viability of progressive coalitions and progressive responses to Brexit. Mr Dance, who speaks from the coal face rather than the committee rooms of Westminster and Whitehall, warns there is no progressive response to Brexit. There is just Brexit — the worst incarnation of which is not, as Keir Starmer pointed out, a hard Brexit, but is rather an unnegotiated one.

Claire Fox, Brexiteer and Director of the wonderfully titled Institute of Ideas, gave a spirited and provocative account of what the ideals of progressive politics should be. She argued that self-government and the belief that change is possible should lie at its heart: that Labour must have faith that the demos is capable of shaping the future and recognise that both the Brexit and Trump vote represent the populous re-emerging into political fora. She acknowledged that this truth is an uncomfortable one for the metropolitan liberal elite who packed the Friends’ House on the Euston Road (and who clapped approvingly and with the appropriate degree of irony when Mr Corbyn advocated that politics should cease being so London-centric). To some polite heckling, Ms Fox accused the assemblage of only being comfortable with politics executed by tinkering technocrats and expressed through focus groups and opinion polls. She told a mostly white and middle aged audience that the response of so called progressives (as distinct from a progressive response) to this re-emergence of the people into politics has been horror and despair, one pundit coming up with the metaphor of the sewers bursting.

And this gestures to a fundamental and endemic problem within the Labour movement at present: the demonization of the other. Those who voted Leave are tabloid reading, racist idiots. Populism, whether applied to Mr Corbyn’s brand of socialism or to Brexiteers, has become a term of abuse as if elitism is somehow to be preferred: the passive poor; hapless and helpless, how morally superior are we with our unpopular beliefs. Don’t worry, Ms Fox lampooned, we will save you from yourselves, your football and your flags.

The so-called progressives within the Labour movement detest Momentum who they dismiss as Trots, those who support Corbyn are descried as naïve idealists, the remnants of New Labour are held in suspicion and termed Blue Labour. Those to the right of the movement are vilified as red Tories and we’re all still banging on about Iraq when the electorate moved on years ago. If ‘Tory’, like ‘populist’, is a term of abuse, how are we going to get actual, living breathing Tories to vote Labour? Not by insulting them; not by using metaphors in which they are characterised as sewage, not by using the term applied to their loose set of beliefs as an insult to be thrown at those within our own movement we don’t like. Labour must grasp that to avoid being lobbed into the long grass of 200 seats at the next election and especially in light of the boundary changes, large numbers of ‘Tories’ need to be persuaded to vote Labour.

When it came to discussion of what Labour’s core values are and what the aims of the movement should be, there was a remarkable degree of consensus: to promote a more equal society (Paul Mason, journalist); to create the circumstances in which ‘work’ (whether remunerated or otherwise) pays (Stephen Bush of the New Statesman); to offer change via big ideas that don’t scare people (Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society); to regulate, bend and shape markets for the common good (Stephen Kinnock MP); and to restore hope by overturning a rigged system and making sure power and wealth resides in the hands of the many and not the few (Jeremy Corbyn).

So, it seems, when it comes to the question of values at least, we have far more in common than that which divides us and this is the chink of light in the darkness.

The Abilene paradox, so termed by a management theorist in the 1970s, occurs where communication within a group breaks down and each member of the group wrongly concludes that his or her own preferences run counter to the will of the majority and thus avoid raising objections. It is fundamentally an inability to manage agreement.

The Labour movement needs to acknowledge that a consensus on values exists within its famously broad church. Once acknowledged, this agreement can be managed to enable Labour to move beyond divisive labels, factionalism and endless debating within the many virtual echo chambers of the left and wake up to the critical need not simply to avoid electoral annihilation but actually to win in 2020. We are facing the end of the post war liberal consensus between the US and the UK, the end of one type of European cooperation that has delivered peace, prosperity and an improved standard of living for most and the systematic dismantling of our health service, social care provision and state education.

The future progressive is a grammatical tense that pertains to something that will be going on at some point in the future. Labour cannot afford to be a party of the ‘future progressive’. Progressive policies — devolution, investment in public services, ending tax loopholes, talking like grown-ups about immigration, building houses, renationalising the rail network — these are urgently needed now, not at some undefined point in the future. As a movement, we must break free of the Abilene paradox, get out of the echo chamber, stop insulting those who disagree with us and reengage — not with each other — but with them.

Sheila Chapman

Written by

Lawyer; writer; school governor; trustee & IMB member for HMP Pentonville. Fabian Women's Network mentee and part of 2016 Jo Cox Women in Leadership scheme.