Compass Conference – “A New Hope”: Tribalism or Pluralism?

With so many productive and interesting discussions throughout the day, it was rather disappointing Compass’s conference didn’t take place over a few days instead of the one. Central to the conference was the tribalism vs. pluralism debate. The case was made rather convincingly for a progressive left to increasingly develop via pluralism. However, it seems that some Labour MPs/activists/supporters are rather antagonistic to such a move, as they fail to consider the benefits this would bring to their party and to the country as a whole.

If we take the general election, in terms of actual promised policies, the progressive left gained the biggest mandate. With the LibDems gradually deteriorating into oblivion it is now up to the remaining left focused parties to build an alliance and movement. Furthermore, this will involve a greater consideration of left leaning movements and pressure groups from outside of politics – such as women’s and disability organisations.

Caroline Lucas opened with an important question:

“To what extent does the left want pluralism in political representation?”

Lucas produced a very effective case for pluralism, drawing on the fact that no Labour leader candidate has supported PR and how there is yet to be a coherent call for the market fundamentalist economy to be replaced by a state economy. The left needs pluralism so that progressive ideas come together more and strengthen the left movement so as to provide a fairer society and economy. Through pluralism, for example, Labour may be increasingly convinced into accepting a PR system, or having a more redistributive approach to the economy, which also concentrates on civil liberties.

I went to an interesting seminar addressing some of these issues as it looked into the question of whether party tribalism and electoral politics keep progressives apart. Labour MP, Emily Thornberry, was there and her stubborn and counter productive attitude resulted in one person walking out (later returning for his coat)! Her tribalist and anti pluralist views illustrated the dangers this poses to the progressive left. She believes Labour can do it alone, and seemingly defined Labour’s mission to be the continuous grab for power. This rather misses the need for progressives to work together in opposition, you don’t need government to have influence on issues that the left care about – as Neal Lawson nicely put in his address to the conference, “the opposition is a permanent state of mind for the democratic left”.

Foucault’s and Elias’s writings around power are relevent here. Thornberry has a rather dichotomous and deterministic view of power – seeing it as when one group has control over another. Instead, power should be seen as part of an increasingly interdependent set of relations, with everyone having some ability to initiate power against another, albeit at different levels. Thus, instead of being so pessimistic of the ability of an opposition, she should see the merits of a progressive left in an attempt to wield increasing pressure on the government so that we try as best we can to prevent the disastrous right-wing policies that are going to be introduced in the near future.

If the left is serious about retaking the initiative against the right-wing ConDem government, pluralism will be key. Whilst it is important for all parties and all movements to maintain their own sense of independence and distinct values, there are many areas where the left progressives can strike a claim for greater collaboration. After all, if the left wants similar outcomes, why are we breaking each other down through counter productive tribalist lines?

There will be a more extensive review of the Compass conference by myself and Darrell Goodliffe soon, so keep checking back.


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