Maybe this is really at the root of the split in the Labour Party?


Rejoining the Labour Party after 32 years and attempting to engage with online debates and policy discussions has been a real culture shock.

The New, ‘Old Labour’ Corbynista’s and the Old ‘New Labour’ aficionados are not just at each others throats on issues of policy, they seem to be living in different moral universes and speaking entirely different languages. This often leads to extreme online abuse and an inability to discuss policy behind a yah-boo-sucks, ‘not only are you wrong you are also stupid and evil’, type of rhetoric.

I have to admit I find this mutual moral superiority fascinating and puzzling. Arguments about bombing Syria, renewing Trident or the UK’s place in the EU  are always going to be heated within the Labour Party. But it doesn’t feel to me that these online rows are really discussions about policy at all.

Applying Occam’s Razor and trying to strip back to the underlying philosophies that are guiding people’s behaviour, led me to wonder if the split is not based on policy disagreements at all, and the underlying vitriolic bitterness of these disputes indicates a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the political process itself and the role of the Labour Party within that process.

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For the record, I’m one of the New, ‘Old Labour’ Corbynista’s. I’m 59, no really, and from an aspirational working class background. I was educated at a state Grammar school and a red-brick university and have pursued a career in the ‘creative industries’. My upbringing, education and experience have led me to believe that the structure of democratic party politics goes something like this:

  • Individuals through education and experience form political opinions. Some become politically engaged enough to combine with other people to promote and pursue their collective political views and aspirations. The over-arching ideas that bind the Party together are sometimes called the underlying political ‘principles’ of  the Party
  • Political parties are thus established to collectively and publicly promote and pursue the political aims and aspirations of a significant number of people who share a similar political outlook or ideology.  This group are the members of the political party and in this world view the Party exists to express, promote and pursue the views and political aspirations of the members and based on the founding principles.
  • On a periodic basis the members decide through a democratic process of debate what policies the Party should adopt and promote. These policies are designed to most accurately reflect the aggregate views of Party members and are based on specific economic, social and political circumstances but always guided by the collectively agreed principles that unite the party.
  • ‘Promoting’ policies will include seeking election to formal bodies and being able to influence or determine legislation (i.e. form a government) but will also include the wider promotion of the political principles and policies of the Party members, as defined by the founding principles and the democratic processes of the Party, amongst the wider population. (Electoral victory is thus not the only point of a political party.)
  • The paid Party officials, Party representatives and Party members then accept a ‘collective responsibility’ for these agreed policies and work together to promote them to the wider electorate and society at large.
  • The members of the Party and their paid staff, then works out how best to present these policies to the public; not just for the purpose of election but also to influence public opinion and to define the extent and nature of the public debate.
  • At election time the electorate react to the presentation of these collectively devised policies by either voting for the Party programme or for other political parties whose programmes they prefer.

This is I think the template for how most political parties were formed historically and the recent formation of Left Unity, UKIP and The Women’s Party, shows that this is still how most political parties are formed and how they engage with the political process. In this ideas driven, ‘principled’ model, the Party members ARE the party. The  purpose of the Party is to promote the principles and political aspirations of the members. Those aspirations may include getting Party members elected to office and even forming governments, but that is NOT the purpose of the Party.

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The most obvious problem with this approach is that the principled political aspirations of the Party members may not be shared by the general public and as a result the Party may only achieve limited electoral success and for example may never be able to achieve a parliamentary majority and form a government.

Such a party may still be able to influence ‘public opinion’ and thus the government, as parties like The Greens, UKIP and the LibDems have proven. But such parties stand almost no chance of forming a majority government and under our ‘first past the post’ electoral system, rarely will such parties even get to be part of coalition governments.

So some will regard such minor parties as playing an insignificant role in UK politics and that a major political party such as the Conservative or Labour parties should always and primarily be aiming to win elections.

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Partly in response to this problem of  the ‘electability’ of principle driven political parties, some modern political theorists and activists have conceptualised the political process so it is almost exactly the other way round to the way I have described it above.

According to this ‘pragmatic’ methodology, a major political party such as the Labour Party has only one function and that is to get elected into government. All other functions of the party are subservient to this objective.

  • Thus the party must only adopt policies that will achieve that end and as logic suggests that success at elections is far more likely when Party policy is aligned with public opinion, therefore the party must only adopt policies that are popular with the public and must not adopt any policies that are not popular with the public.
  • The Parties job is NOT to seek to influence public opinion, on the contrary the parties job is to constantly assess and monitor public opinion and adjust party policy so that it remains constantly aligned with public opinion.
  • Thus, logically, the political aspirations and ideology of Party members are only incidental to Party policy making and are only to be considered to the extent that they coincide with public opinion. The duty of party members is not to determine Party policy but merely to promote the policies that the Party machine has decided most align with ‘public opinion’.
  • Furthermore, for Party members believing in a specific ideology or holding strong political views of any kind is a problem under this system because such beliefs hinder the ability of the individual and the Party to rapidly and continuously adapt policy to changing public opinion. The most important characteristic of any policy adopted by the Party is that it has to be flexible enough to be rapidly changed  in response to perceived changes in public opinion.
  • Similarly the Party machine, Party leaders, Party officials and Party Representatives must wherever possible avoid forcibly express any political views or allegiance to any specific policies, in case these views or policies have to be abandoned later in order for the Party to remain aligned to public opinion.
  • The only exception is when ‘public opinion’ seems to be very, very clearly defined, perhaps by the media, in which case Party leaders, Party officials and Party Representatives must wherever possible, forcibly and passionately express their complete agreement with ‘public opinion’.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊Some argue that this ‘pragmatic’ approach is more ‘democratic’ than the ideas driven model I described above,  because it devises policy by tracking public opinion and thus policy is set not by a group of intellectual ‘ideologues’, or the partisan group of ‘party members’ or even by ‘core voters’, but by the electorate at large. Thus it is argued Party policy will be far more ‘representative’.

Ergo the principle aim of the Party, which is winning a General Election and forming a government, will be made inevitably more likely by this ‘pragmatic’ approach because Party policy is, as far as is humanely possible, always aligning itself with ‘public opinion’.

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Of course a number of problem’s arise with this ‘pragmatic’ approach.

Firstly it strips politics of all political content. Politics stops being about presenting a vision of what the world could be, and becomes merely about giving people what they want at the moment of the election. It also means that wherever possible, politicians must avoid saying anything definite; they must always be leaving the door open to the possibility of a future reversal of policy. if ‘public opinion’ dictated such a change.

Secondly, it hands substantial control of Party policy making to those who can influence ‘public opinion. Particularly the mainstream media (MSM) because the MSM have a significant, although admittedly not defining, influence on what opinions large numbers of the public hold. Thus if Party policy is only determined by public opinion then effectively the Party has ceded policy making to the ‘opinion formers’, i.e. the media proprietors.

Thirdly, over time the Party would appear to be hypocritical; one year promoting one policy, the next year it’s opposite. Eventually no one would know what the party ‘actually’ stood for, no one would believe a word politicians say and distinct policy would be replaced by meaningless platitudes that polling and focus-groups suggested would be aligned with current ‘public opinion.

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I would argue that broadly speaking the The New, ‘Old Labour’ Corbynista’s like myself think we are operating under the first, ideas driven, ‘principled’, system, I described above, a system that devises Party policy based the views of Party members guided by the founding principles of the Party.

Conversely, the Old ‘New Labour’ aficionados are working according to the second ‘pragmatic’ model where the views of Party members are incidental to policy making, and Party policy is determined by ‘public opinion’.

Some of you will claim that my black v white, either/or, Manichean dualism is simplistic and that in reality it’s ‘more complicated’ than this, and that in the ‘real world’ both of these approaches run side by side.

Unsurprisingly, as I’ve taken the time to write this, I don’t buy it. It seems to me that these two world views are actually mutually exclusive and that it is the incompatibility of these world views that is at the heart of the current split in the Labour Party.

In all walks of life, individuals can and do disagree about policy all the time and yet still remain friends or colleagues. But at the moment in the Labour Party we rarely get to actually discuss policy because we  are talking to each other from entirely distinct world views, from two entirely different moral universes and thus in entirely different moral languages.

The New Labour ‘pragmatists’ sneer at the ‘ideologues’ accusing them of being out of touch with public opinion and ideologically inflexible and thus ‘unelectable’.

And the ideologues rage back that the pragmatists have no principles, don’t believe in party democracy and would adopt any policy to get elected if it coincided with public opinion.

Personally I’m with the principled, ideologues but writing this has given me much food for thought.

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5 responses to “Maybe this is really at the root of the split in the Labour Party?

  1. I believe, the missing factor in your analysis is Principles. They are not essential but I believe they are beneficial. Labour principles could include * to defend the valued of labour (work) against capitalism *to believe in contributory welfare schemes (Pensions, NHS) *working with other nations for the benefit of all peoples. *the avoidance of armed conflict wherever possible. They would of course be very general. In the run up to a general election the party would devise a set of policies to make a manifesto for 1 parliamentary term. These would be concrete proposals to further the principles but would be chosen to maximise the appeal to the electorate. If elected they would be expected to try and fulfill their manifesto pledges and react to unexpected circumstances guided by their principles on the one hand and public opinion on the other. Policies can change according to circumstances. The principles should remain and never be denied even if they are unachievable at a given time. New Labour pragmatism may have been appropriate but it turned into Blairism because it was unprincipled.

  2. I recognise your analysis from participating in the forums. I agree that there is this fundamental different perspective between the two sides. But I think on particular issues it isn’t necessarily about being consumed with following so called public opinion in order to ‘win’ – many of the supporters of multilateralism and trident do seem to believe in their position and see it as the red line they won’t ever cross. But mostly I think you are right. I remember before Blair (showing my age) I was on the Labour Housing Group executive and suddenly overnight it decided that the right to buy shouldn’t be opposed – they rationalised the change in policy but actually it was all about ‘public opinion’. I remember that as it represented (later) to me when Labour begun to become Blairite. And it didn’t help of course Labour to win the subsequent elections.

  3. Great example Janet! Thanks.

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