Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Agreeing to disagree

There's been a small example in the past week of how things could go really badly wrong in the future for Labour.

Last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Fabian Society published some research about public attitudes to inequality. Government minister John Denham gave a speech in response to this, suggesting different ways that Labour could persuade a majority of people to support the goal of increasing equality. This got reported as Denham rejecting of '1960s egalitarianism'. Denham then got denounced by Labour activists, including Roy Hattersley.

By yesterday, columnists were writing about how this showed a split pitting "Old Labourites, Compass, Jon Cruddas and a growing number of party activists...against...Denham and some powerful Blairites, still in government: Mandelson, Miliband, Jowell – not to mention those like James Purnell, who have left", in a battle for Labour's soul.

On this particular issue, this is a fight where just about everyone in Labour is actually on the same side. It isn't a right v left fight - champion of the Labour Right Luke Akehurst and Susan Press, chair of the Labour Representation Committee, agree on the central role that increasing equality has for Labour. And the research evidence is extremely clear. About 20% of people are 'traditional egalitarians', and about another 50-60% could be won over to support more equality but are currently sceptical.

So what is needed is to shift the way that we argue for equality in order to appeal to a wider audience. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that while the 'traditional egalitarians' aren't a majority, there is no way of building a majority without their enthusiastic support, and they mustn't be taken for granted.

There are two main challenges to this. The first is that the media loves to report 'splits' much more than people having civilised discussions to find common ground, and will twist people's words to try to provoke a fight. And the second, and much more important, is that different people in the Labour Party don't trust or get on with each other enough at the moment to be able to have a civilised kind of conversation.

For example, when I see a government minister quoted saying something stupid or obnoxious, I tend to assume that it is because they are trying to suck up to right-wing newspapers, rather than that they have been misquoted. This is because over the last few years government ministers have built up a track record of reliably saying stupid and obnoxious things to try to suck up to right wing newspapers, whether on housing, welfare, immigration or any other issues I care about. I know I'm not alone in this. Similarly, I know some comrades who get similarly exasperated when they hear Jon Cruddas or John McDonnell or suchlike on the telly criticising the government.

What this suggests is that any kind of discussion about Labour's future - what ideas to adopt in the future, how to build an election-winning coalition of support, which policies to keep and which to abandon - will quickly degenerate into an unproductive shouting match between different factions, conducted and analysed in the national newspapers to the general disgust of the electorate.

But it doesn't have to be this way, and it mustn't be this way. I hardly ever say this sort of thing, but some of the discussions on the internet hint at a better way. Online, Luke and Susan can agree about equality, and Hopi, Paul and Duncan can have a thoughtful and productive conversation about political economy, despite coming from different 'wings' of the party. David Miliband's John Smith memorial speech is an example of the kind of thoughtful contribution that we could do with more of.

Dropping post office privatisation, ID cards (in effect), and building more council housing are all good steps in the right direction. Government ministers need to get better at avoiding the temptation to take the piss out of lefties when doing announcements, and us lefties need to give the benefit of the doubt to what seem like genuine attempts to think about new ways of achieving our aims, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone.

In the 1980s, Labour tore itself apart over great issues of principle where there were big and fundamental disagreements. It would be both tragedy and farce if over the next few years we ended up tearing ourselves apart again over issues which, fundamentally, we all agree on.

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