by Kevin Meagher
One of the curiosities of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is the way in which the institutions look nothing like Westminster.
Whether it was a Freudian rejection of the hyper-tribalism of the Commons chamber and Westminster’s self-regard, the model for the devolved bodies has ensured a more pluralistic form of politics, with more grown-up politics the result.
That’s something Westminster village dwellers are not used to. Here, politics is still shaped by student union politicking and the public school debating society.
Yet all parties are coalitions of people with a wide range of views who happen to coalesce around broad themes. Is there really much of an issue of principle, therefore, to seek agreement with people outside the tribe if the ends are mutually satisfactory?
Enter Labour for Democracy, launched in Westminster last night and led by MPs Paul Blomfield and John Denham. The group seeks to make the case for inter-party working, particularly on big, expensive, long-term, cross-cutting issues like social care, pensions and climate change. As the website blurb puts it:
“The tough decisions that we will face, and the need to build wide support for radical change, demand a new approach to the way we do politics.’
It adds: ‘The days when over 95% of the electorate voted either Tory or Labour are long gone. Increasing support for smaller parties, switching between parties and differentiation between local and national voting reflect the changed approach of the electorate.”
By 2015 the age of majoritarian government may well indeed be behind us. There is nothing to guarantee Labour will win a general election victory outright (alas) and the party needs to get its collective head around that prospect.
But that doesn’t mean pacts, deals or pre-election manoeuvring. Pluralism is about recognising that the big ideas we will face over coming years do not fit neatly under party standards the way they once did. Labour for Democracy is trying to cultivate a conversation on big themes where there is an anti-Tory majority, helping shift the terms of political debate and build an alliance for greater equality and social justice.
The lodestars here are Sir William Beveridge and John Maynard-Keynes – co-architects of Labour’s post-war economic settlement and welfare state – and both liberals (indeed, Beveridge was a Liberal MP and Peer).
The campaigns for Scottish and Welsh devolution are other cases in point. People came together across the aisle to work for a common purpose, as they will do, in due course, to oppose Scotland’s referendum on independence.
Indeed, whether it’s been on the alternative vote referendum campaign, elected mayors or making the case for Europe, new cross-party issues being presented to political parties which need to be met with a cross party response; while much of the youthful dynamism in opposition to the coalition taking place outside party politics altogether.
The days when British politics was a battle between Big Endians and Little Endians over the correct way to slice a boiled egg are over. Labour’s politics needs to be smart, agile and open; willing to embrace new thinking and share ideas to make sure they take root in the long term.
That doesn’t stop Labour people being Labour, or Greens being Greens or Lib Dems being Lib Dems. There is no quarter given at election time, but it would be ludicrous not to explore common ground on the big issues where our values are in alignment.
Labour completely failed to make the weather in those critical days in the aftermath of the 2010’s inconclusive election. The party simply didn’t have the mindset to forge an anti-Tory coalition. As a result, negotiations with the Lib Dems were unproductive – and brief. The rest is history.
We cannot afford a repeat. Nor can we sit on the sidelines because we have left David Cameron to remake “a big comprehensive offer”. Working outside the tribe on issues of mutual concern is not a sign of weakness but a necessity.
May 2015 is not the time to realise the electorate is no longer prepared to hand over the keys to Downing street to a single party any longer.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut