A couple of days ago I received a breathless missive from my old comrades at compass. “Treasury Spending Review – Take Action”, it boomed. “The public service cuts, benefit freezes and raising indirect taxes announced in the budget will increase inequality”, before adding helpfully, “but there is an alternative”. With mounting excitement I scrolled down to learn more of this bold fight back against the Lib/Con assault on the poor, the dispossessed and the vulnerable.
Nothing. No thunderous denunciation. No elegant polemic eviscerating the injustice. Just a standard template inviting me to contribute to a treasury consultation.
There I was preparing to rage against the machine. Instead, I’d run slap bang into the new pluralism.
I’d last encountered the new pluralism, (NP to its admirers), a week out from polling day, when I bumped into my old friend Neal Lawson, compass founder, and long standing high priest of NP (let us call him the HPNP), in Jon Cruddas’ campaign offices. Expressing surprise at seeing the HPNP in a Labour party office so soon after advocating a new pluralist alliance with the Lib Dems, he responded, “Typical tribalist. If there’s a ditch to be found, you’ll happily die in it”.
Neal’s vision of NP was recently summed up in the New Statesman, “pluralists are different. They give primacy not to ends, but to means. For the pluralist the process and the journey are everything.” Not for the pluralist the crude savagery of modern political warfare. Instead, “change for pluralists comes through dialogue, respect, trust, tolerance and interest in others. Pluralists recognise a political terrain of multiple centres of power and celebrate difference as a dialectical force. Through debate and consensus-building we learn. We need to work with others, not destroy them.”
That was written on June 10. Two weeks later Nick Clegg signed up to a budget described by compass itself as, “dishonest”, “regressive” and forcing “ordinary people and public sector workers pay the heaviest cost”. Not a whole lot of consensus building there then.
The easiest attack on the new pluralism is, in fairness, the least valid. “Look what it’s brought us. VAT rises, a freeze on child benefit, a cap on housing benefit”. Not really. It’s true that the new coalition introduced those measures, but so did Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and in the case of child benefit, so did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the 1990s. Regressive budgets were as much the business of the old politics as they are of the new.
What is damning is the manner in which the backlash against the budget, especially from Lib Dem voters, has pulled away one of the core planks of new pluralism, namely its capacity to enfranchise those outside the political elite. Consensus politics was supposed to end the ‘tyranny of the majority by the minority’ created by first past the post. Instead, we have the grotesque spectacle of the voters’ mandate being turned against them, as the MPs they elected on a platform of opposing VAT rises troop through the lobbies in support of that very policy. Electors aren’t being empowered, they’re being cut down by the parliamentary equivalent of friendly fire.
Not that NP’s failure to clear the first political fence should come as a surprise. At it’s heart lies a fundamental structural weakness: the blind belief that where there is consensus, there is truth. That is a fatally flawed premise. Look at any radical progressive policy of the past 200 years and you will find its genesis not in pluralism but social division. You’ll also find that’s the reason we have such a vacuum of radical thinking today.
The problem with modern politics isn’t an absence of consensus. It’s that our politicians daren’t move without one. Triangulation. Focus groups. The dash to the centre. They’re all about creating synergy with popular convention, rather than run the risk of charting a new political course.
But the greatest case to be made against the new pluralism is actually that when push comes to shove, the new pluralists are… well… not that pluralistic. Remember the reality of the new politics we witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the election. Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis hammering the phones, trying to cut deals with other pluralists – “pluralists are different. They give primacy not to ends, but to means” – the cabinet, PLP, NEC sidelined – “for the pluralist the process and the journey are everything”.
And the response to those who dared question the railroading of our party into coalition? Here’s Polly Toynbee: “the worst of the old Labour party, the knuckle-dragging neanderthal tendency, emerged to roaring opposition to the guests. David Blunkett, John Reid, Jack Straw, Diane Abbott, now unleashed from government, reminded the world how backward, how unprogressive, tribal and sectarian much of the People’s Party still is”.
Thanks Polly. How do you new pluralists operate again? “through dialogue, respect, trust, tolerance and interest in others”? Ah, yes. Except when us knuckle-draggers happen to get in your way.
So does it matter, especially when the Lib/Con petard continues to launch the new pluralism skyward? Well, yes it does. NP isn’t dead, it’s only sleeping. A number of the leadership candidates are also expressing more than a passing interest in the pluralist prospectus. And as time passes the purveyors of the new politics will find a way of putting clear mauve water between their vision and that of Clegg and Cameron.
At that point they will return with their programme of “debate and consensus building”. And if you don’t chose to embrace it, well, they know where you live.
Dan Hodges is a contributing editor of Labour Uncut.