A Bridge Over Troubled Water?

Labour’s disunity has been much in evidence recently. ALEX SOBEL argues that Open Labour can act as a bridge for those in the party who want to build an anti-Tory alliance based on an inclusive and empowering politics.

At present, our party doesn’t look like a united party to those looking in from the outside. It doesn’t even get close to looking like one on social media. And the reports from within parliament make grim reading.

Open Labour logoWe have been as united as I can ever remember in the last couple of years leading up to May 2015, and that didn’t get us close to winning – but a level of unity and consensus is still a prerequisite to building a party which can win, as a minimum.

Building consensus is a two way street, and it is important that right across the party we remain aware of Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and the broad brush of his campaign.

He campaigned in opposition to austerity and to create a more economically equal society, for democratic collective action opening up how we are governed, and to engender a new politics. His policies included taking our railways and the energy sector into public ownership, a large scale social housing programme, and rent control for tenants living in private sector housing.

These are the issues that got him a 60% final share, alongside his ability to communicate straight down the line. They require some fleshing out of course, not least in terms of how the party will persuade sceptics of these ideas to back them. But Corbyn has a mandate around them and the direction of travel has the democratic backing of the party, and the last few weeks have not changed this.

In addition to these policies, which in any event are subject to the will of conference, Corbyn built his leadership campaign on the idea of the ‘new politics’. A call for a new politics isn’t an idea Corbyn invented – I have sat in meetings talking about creating a meaningful new politics and how we can reach it for 10 years or more, and many readers will have similar experiences. So we have a vague idea of what this means.

‘New politics’ is not a set of policies or even principles, but a way of organising politics and relating to each other both in the party and society at large. It is an emancipatory and democratic approach, aimed at trying to include everybody who wants to engage, so through a process of rigorous but open and respectful debate a political programme can be created.

It is not a politics of an elite vanguardism, or the obsessive centralising which partially links New Labour’s command and control with small Trotskyist factions (where the central committee decides the ‘line’ activists must give). It is meant to move beyond both of these old fashioned and naturally divisive approaches. It’s harder, messier, and requires a huge amount of tolerance and patience.

Leadership by consent

Labour Party members and supporters, new and old, should be prepared to give this new politics a chance if we are offered a policymaking process based on its principles. Much of the mechanics which would have realised this were meant to be put in place under Ed Miliband, but were never carried through, partly due to a lack of political will, and partly due to the electoral pressure that builds in the run up to polling day. This resulted in a fudge around both involvement and policy making. It leaves Jeremy Corbyn with work to do, and a gap before it is complete.

The leader and his office have an opportunity around this to reach out and maximise unity, building the processes which will seed an inclusive and participative political culture, and embody the hope and change which so many felt in the summer. To do so would create a path to consolidation and a settled model of leadership by consent.

This is the obvious path for the new leader, and probably the path that should be chosen. Such an approach should have the PLP and party uniting around creating a narrative together as equals, a story we can all tell on the doorstep, which speaks to the country and overcomes the Tories’ economic story, which is built on a great lie that our nation’s economy is like their household budget and we crashed the economy.

There are differences around policy areas, particularly foreign policy, but we have a lot of talent in the Shadow Cabinet and across the PLP. These differences of opinion are genuinely held and will in some way find an expression. Such a situation is a challenge Labour has coped with in the past and which is to be expected now. People will however still want to see solutions from us, and a new politics approach could give each part of the party a voice in creating them, even if it is often hard to keep everyone happy.

There are many areas of consensus. Now is the time to try and move forward opposing the damage the Tories are doing to the fabric of the nation whether in public services, climate change, social housing or the squeeze on pay.

We must avoid the party turning inwards. A choice is opening up for leadership and the PLP, who are together facing a key moment. In the weeks to come, they could choose to embrace the new politics and move forward – or face a deepening divide in the party that we all love and have given up so much for.

Open Labour can act as a bridge for those in the party who want to build an anti-Tory alliance based on an inclusive and empowering politics. To achieve this, MPs, unions and the rest of us must bear Corbyn’s mandate in mind, but choose means which are tolerant of difference and encourage different strands and personalities within Labour to listen to each other. Only through an open dialogue can we reach consensus, or indeed have had a stake in majority decisions.

Labour’s differences may prove to be irrevocable as the most fundamentalist doommongers on the wings of the party constantly tell us. But without an open dialogue, how will the mandate given to Jeremy Corbyn ever be given a chance? And how could any common ground be identified? Without testing the core contentions of Corbyn’s platform, we may never be a settled party, or regain the unity of purpose we need to win.

Alex Sobel is a Labour councillor in Leeds and was a signatory to the Open Labour letter to the Guardian on 9 December 2015.

This article was orginally published on the Open Labour website on 31 December 2015.