Positively Plural: a response to Mark Perryman

In the context of recent pressure for proportional representation, Jeremy Gilbert argues that Labour will have to adjust to a newly pluralist politics
Jeremy Gilbert
1 October 2009

On this subject, see also Jeremy's debate with Rosemary Bechler: 'Which Plurality?'

Mark Perryman has written a typically astute analysis of the current predicament of the Labour Party for Compass (We’re All in this Together: Towards the Political Practice of a Plural Left, PDF here). In it, Mark essentially argues that for Labour to recover any sense of a radical project, then it has got to accept a situation in which it cannot be seen as the sole representative of progressive politics in the UK electoral arena: a role which it has taken upon itself throughout most of its history.

I entirely agree with Mark's analysis, although I think his narrative is either a little disingenuous (which is forgivable, given the need to focus minds urgently on the issues at stake) or slightly mistaken. For while Mark identifies this situation with the loss of Labour's legitimacy following the invasion of Iraq, I think it is clear that it has in fact obtained, to all intents and purposes, since the early 1980s.

Where were you in '92?

A little self-aggrandisement now: I hope I will be forgiven. When I was 20 years old, in 1992 (it may have been very late in 1991), I took a motion from my polytechnic Labour club to the national Labour Students conference. The great cause amongst mainstream Labour students at the time was proportional representation. All right-thinking young Kinnockites knew (despite Kinnock's own reluctance) that persuading the party to adopt a commitment to implementing the Additional Members system for the House of Commons - in the teeth of Roy Hattersley's reactionary resistance - was the single greatest struggle we faced that year. (Try to remember that at this time, Hattersley was still widely understood as being on the right of the party, while Brian Gould was seen as a leading moderniser. That's how far to the left of anything we can imagine today the Labour mainstream was.). I had persuaded my Labour club to let me take a motion to the conference which went further, however. This motion argued that in supporting PR, we were, rightly, implicitly supporting an end to the dream of majority Labour government, and accepting the principle of political pluralism. As such, our motion argued, we should embrace the new future and open exploratory fraternal talks with the student wings of other potentially progressive parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats.

The motion fell, of course, in the face of the dogged insistence of most of my soft-left comrades that this would be a capitulation to bourgeois liberals, and that once we had PR we would quickly and easily build the mass party for democratic socialism that would deliver us over 50% of the popular vote. I'm not joking. That's really what most of them believed...

My argument against this was quite simple (although it failed to carry the day). I argued that this was a delusional view: that the social changes which had undermined our electoral base were irreversible, and that the emergence of a strong centre vote in the early 1980s had been an expression of these major social changes rather than merely a symptom of David Owen's perfidy or Michael Foot's poor dress sense. I argued that under these circumstances, there were only two routes Labour could follow: either it could accept that, as the party of organised labour and public sector workers, it would only ever command 30-35% of the vote, but that as the leading element of an anti-Tory coalition it could set the agenda and move the political centre of gravity in Britain permanently to the left; or it could insist on chasing the dream of a parliamentary majority, which would require it to transform its identity enough to swallow up much of the new political middle-ground, which would require its effective reinvention as a party so far to the right that it would be unrecognisable to almost all of its (then) current membership. The latter, of course, is exactly what happened during the period of New Labour's birth (1994-1997). To be fair, I wasn't just an incredibly precocious political analyst: having hung around a bit with certain young Fabians in London (including one Derek Draper), I knew, unlike many of the delegates to that conference, that there were leading figures in the party who secretly harboured the ambition to ditch social democracy forever. But still: I was right.

The point of this story is just this: that in 1991 it was already clear enough to a first-year undergraduate at a London poly, as it was to to those commentators in magazines like Marxism Today and the New Statesman from whom I derived most of my opinions, that Labour had lost the capacity to operate as the sole institutional agent of progressive politics in the UK. The point is also that, seen in the light of these observations, the entire New Labour project can be seen as a sort of desperate holding operation, trying by any means necessary to stave off the inevitable moment when Labour is forced to accept its natural place in the political order.

The reasons for such desperation are many and complex. They have to do with the deep emotional investment of the party's elites in Westminster institutions and traditions, as in other great British institutions which, while demonstrably dysfunctional, have nonetheless done a great deal to bolster the egos of the individuals who have passed through their hallowed doors over the years (one thinks of the almost mind-boggling attachment of the Labour leadership to the assumption that Oxbridge's position within our educational hierarchies is not only defensible but positively desirable). They have to do with the very real and understandable attachment of Labour loyalists to their party and their mistrust of others, especially the legatees of the SDP split: one important lesson that I learned during my brief career as a Labour activist was the power of that overwhelming desire shared by thousands of third or fourth-generation party activists just to see their party give the Tories a proper kicking for once, no matter what it took to do it. They have to do, of course, with the desire of Labour MPs and PPCs to keep and win their seats.

How many of these factors still apply today, it is hard to judge. But Mark is surely right that Labour will, soon enough, find itself once more forced to choose between accepting or not-accepting the historic inevitability of its role as just one element of a progressive coalition (primarily, I would suggest once again, as a representative of trade-unionists and public-sector workers).

The Dilemmas of a Minor Organisation...

In making this argument, Mark reminds me of an issue which I have come across in two different sets of discussions which I have taken part in recently: discussions around Compass, and discussions in workshops at Climate Camp. This is also an issue which Rosemary Bechler has raised implicitly in her recent essays on the politics of plurality. The question is simply this: what does an organisation or project do when it knows that must be part of a broader coalition, but it knows that it cannot hope even to lead that coalition? This is a different position from the one that Labour finds itself in, given that in Cameron's Britain, Labour will at least still be able to claim to be leading force of opposition.

The most interesting conversations that I've been party to within both Compass and at the camp have turned on exactly this theme: the need to broaden out a campaign beyond its initial core constituency, and the difficulty of doing so from a position of relative weakness. Compass is in a peculiar position: it has emerged as the most prominent public voice for a green, libertarian, social-democratic alternative to neoliberal normalcy, yet it is still institutionally, in effect, an internal Labour Party pressure group. The dilemma which faces the organisation is this: any attempt to become a kind of umbrella for the much wider political coalition which it knows is needed would both over-stretch its meagre resources and jeopardise its effectivity within the party; and yet without such a wider coalition, any gains it might win within the party would prove fruitless (as were the gains for the left when it took control of Labour under Michael Foot).

Similarly: I was struck with some force by a new (for me) observation while taking part in discussions at Climate Camp last week. For years, as well as occasionally skulking in some of the murkier corners of the Labour Soft Left, I've participated with equally dilettantish languor in some of the more amusing activities of the ‘direct action' protest movements (I know this is a combination which confuses people but you'll have to bear with me for now: it's perfectly logical but this isn't the place to discuss it...). My frustrations with that experience have generally been driven by the historic lack of interest shown by fellow-participants in the question of whether or not they were actually doing anything at all to win people over to their causes. The failure of activist groups and projects to widen themselves out, to develop a ‘strategic orientation' towards the formation of counter-hegemonic coalitions, was something that I had been moaning about for years. The irony was, that this was exactly the kind of issue that was being discussed at length at the camp this year, and yet somehow I felt that a point was being missed in most of the discussions that I took part in.

Eventually I realised that that point was simply this - that in order to facilitate the possible formation of such coalitions, projects like Climate Camp also have to recognise their limitations. Much to my own surprise, I found myself arguing that CC ought to accept that its role was to act as a point of convergence and radicalisation for a certain middle-class bohemian constituency, instead of dreaming of mobilising a mass public against climate chaos and capitalism. Was I finally renouncing my long-standing commitment to ‘hegemonic' analysis and intervention?

The Rhizomatic Coalition

Well, no, but I was realising an important truth about it which I had not fully reflected on before. If one accepts that phenomena such as, say, the implementation of neoliberal policies all around the world, are the effects of large scale strategic co-ordinations engaged in by powerful institutions in order to neutralise and disable potential opposition (in other words, that they are hegemonic projects), and that organising against them requires some degree of co-ordination between a large number of their opponents, but one also recognises that many of those opponents will be acting from very specific positions, and from positions of relative weakness, then it becomes necessary to think about how those weaker and more dispersed opponents might act in the absence of any obvious leadership. Mark seems to be reflecting on this when he calls for

"A pluralism involving big parties and small parties, some united behind pluralism, some a minority arguing for pluralism from within their parties, reaching out to the majority who share these ideals but who belong to no party. This demands a coalition of uneven development. There will be no single model, no central control, no diktat of what will and will not work. Instead we will come together around our existing ideals, and invent some new ones too. Where we disagree we will say so but as disappointed friends not as deadly enemies. We will support each other wherever we can and where we can't we will resist the temptation to revert to type, chasing after cheap votes at each others expense. What this describes won't be a conventional campaign finishing in a march to Hyde Park and grandstanding speeches. Instead out of economic crisis, the horror of the duck house and moat-cleaning, the threat of environmental catastrophe, we will be crafting a cultural revolution of how progressives do politics. If we build it, we will change for the better, and most important of all, the world will too."

What Mark describes here is what Deleuze & Guattari would call a ‘rhizomatic' set of relationships: decentralised, uneven, proliferating, productive. The idea of a rhizomatic coalition is a highly suggestive one. What it would surely demand of its participants would be a willingness for the most part to abjure the goal of ‘leadership' and instead accept the role of attempting to catalyse and intensify radicalism within the specific spaces that it found itself in. Indeed, something of the double-logic of this function would be required even of a potentially ‘leading' element such as the Labour Party. Within such a future, Labour would have to accept the specificity of its social location while simultaneously working to cultivate the widest range of relationships between that location and others. Having stopped trying to be the party of Everybody (which became, under Blair, the party of Nobody: and thus, soon enough, the party of the already-richest-and-most-powerful), it might be able to begin trying to develop new kinds of political relationship between the people it can represent and the people that it can't - and the bodies and organisations that can represent them. That is what a meaningful pluralism might look like in the 21st century: a coalition at once counter-hegemonic and positively rhizomatic in character.

I know that this suggestion will shock and dismay many of my colleagues in Compass who still think that the Labour Party can and should be the party for Everybody, and who think that any suggestion that it should accept a limited constituency is tantamount to reneging on its moral duties. But let me leave them with this observation and this question: what you, my Labour comrades, are feeling now is exactly what my young comrades were feeling back at that Labour Students conference at the beginning of the 1990s. They too felt shocked at the suggestion that Labour should accept a limited role, and give up the dream of being the one great party of the Left. And yet... not one of them would have voted the way they did if they had believed me about how New Labour would turn out. If they had believed me about what the alternative was, then they would certainly have accepted this limited role for the Labour Party. So: where were you in '92? And do you really want to be there again?

Along similar lines, I'd suggest that Climate Camp can olny play a very positive role in the future if it can recognise its own specificity and limitations. Despite the misconceptions of many of both its critics and its supporters, the real primary funciton of Climate Camp is not as a propaganda tool for radical ecology (if it is that then it is clearly an abject failure: it is hard to believe that anybody's attitudes to issues around climate change have ever actually been altered by the existence of the camp), but as a point at which a certain strand of libertarian / anarchist / anticapitalist /green political activism - which can be traced back through Reclaim the Streets, Stop the City, the squatting and free festival movements etc. at least to the 1960s (See George McKay's books, Senseless Acts of Beauty and DiY Culture) - can survive and thrive in a hostile climate, enabling it to take advantage of what historical opportunities for intervention may occasionally arise. As Tony Daly correcly observes, Cimate Camp this year constituted ‘a collective calling for reflection, education and training on the causes and consequences of climate change and what the response from the environmental movement should be'. It will never, as some of its key activists clearly imagine it could, become the key focal point of an anarchist revolution. It might play an important role in an broader coalition for change, working to radicalise those middle-class bohemians to which it is most culturally proximate and enabling points of information transfer and mutual-intensification to emerge between a range of different actors and constituencies. The irony is that can it can only play this role if it accepts the narrowness of its base and the differences between its participants and other sections of the wider community, and makes those the starting points for an open conversation with others that it can never hope fully to include.

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