Rethinking pluralism and discipline in the Labour Party

We seem, in Labour, to be making life difficult for ourselves at the moment – so it might be helpful to pull back on the focus a little and try to find a sense of strategic tolerance.

People who are broadly on the same side of things can have different views on specific issues.  Sometimes their views change over time, sometimes they see merit in views emanating from other parties, and it’s pretty much always the case that the party line changes over time – but we seem to lose sight of all this when we are fixated on the party line at any one point in time.  This results in those deviating from the given line either facing expulsion from the party, or feeling they have to resign their membership over the issue.  This is a two-way street I don’t want to live on.

It seems that some kinds of ‘different opinion’ to the given line can be good, but other kinds are definitely bad, depending on where they come from.  For example, evidence-based research findings from a sympathetic think tank are likely to be good, recommendations from a citizens’ assembly could well be good, and views from focus groups are almost certainly good – so they can change the given policy.  But differing views from within the party represent dissent, and seeing merit in lines being promoted by other progressive parties is tantamount to fraternising with the enemy.  They are bad, and therefore can’t be seen to change the given policy.

We surely need to move to a position where we are comfortable that a range of possible policy variants exist around an issue (the ‘landing strip’), that we are currently running with one of those as our preference, but that circumstances or evidence might change that preference.  Crucially, it must be circumstances, evidence or practicability that will determine that preference – not where or who the idea came from.

Now, there are inevitably points in time when policy proposals do need to become fixed (temporarily) – most obviously when writing an election manifesto.  But if we can achieve a sense of strategic tolerance with each other, recognising that we are all ultimately on the same side and more unites us than divides us, then we needn’t all take umbrage at those specific policy lines we disagree with.  The policy may well evolve in practice if it isn’t well founded, and it will be a lot easer for the party in government to shift to a variant of the policy if it has previously acknowledged that such variants may have validity.

Let’s all chill a little.  Let’s get ourselves off a hook.  Let’s ditch this false perception of permanence in policy positions and embrace the notion that we should all be constantly searching for the best policy line for now – irrespective of where or who it comes from.

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