Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Beyond tribalism

We must work in a more pluralist way to make ‘One Nation’ politics a reality

By Paul Blomfield

­—As Ed Miliband sets out the framework for Labour’s policies for 2015 and beyond, it is a good moment to ask how we deliver the fundamental change that the country needs. Alongside the new economic settlement that is at the heart of the appeal of ‘One Nation’, we must provide long-term solutions to big issues like social care, pensions and climate change. As a new government in 2015, we will have to meet these challenges without the dividends of the extraordinary growth that funded public investment after 1997. 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.

Achieving the change we want, and embedding it beyond one parliament, means building the sort of progressive consensus that the 1945 Labour government achieved in the postwar settlement on the welfare state. We cannot achieve this sort of change alone. We will need to reach out to others who share our values. And we will find support from the public. Despite their disillusion with this coalition government, voters still yearn for politicians to work together and be less tribal. They know that there are real ideological differences on many issues, but still urge us to put the interests of the country above the interests of our parties. And this increasingly reflects the way that people engage with politics.

The days when over 95 per cent 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. It has been a long-term trend, but data from the British Election Study shows that even in the few years between 1997 and 2005 the proportion of voters identifying very strongly with any party fell from 16 per cent to 10 per cent. And those identifying as either Labour or Conservative dropped further, from 76 per cent to 63 per cent. A recent YouGov poll, from June 2012, found that 34 per cent of people voting Labour in 2010 described themselves as ‘not very strong’ supporters, while the same applied to 60 per cent of those who voted Liberal Democrat and 34 per cent of Tory voters.

But this dealignment and increased support for smaller parties sits alongside a clear consensus across supporters of different parties for the values at the heart of One Nation politics. So the changing terrain may challenge the way that we have done politics over the last 60 years, but it provides a real opportunity for us. Labour4Democracy, which formally launches this month, has been established with support from across the party to explore how we seize that opportunity. We have undertaken a new analysis of recent polling on issues at the heart of Labour concerns. It reveals shared values between Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, which we know extend to Green voters and others, on the need for a new economic model, for the state to intervene to protect people from an uncontrolled market, on the role of trade unions in defending working people, on taxes and benefits, and for action on climate change.

This consensus across supporters of different parties challenges us to work with people in those parties to achieve radical change through a more pluralist approach to politics. This does not mean taking politics to the centre through compromise and shabby deals, but building on the views of voters to achieve real change to rebuild Britain. We want other parties to ensure that the progressive values of their voters are reflected in their political programmes. To promote this pluralist approach, Labour4Democracy will explore the areas of agreement, researching views on key issues and opening up discussion across parties. It is not about coalitions, but about approaching politics differently. All Labour members will work hard for every Labour vote. But whether we win the outright Labour majority we all seek, or end up with a less conclusive result, the change Britain needs will require the support of all who share our values.

A more tribal approach is a tempting response to this coalition government, but it will be self-defeating. Hostility to Nick Clegg, rather than the issues around electoral reform, defined the AV referendum debate and we need to avoid this on other issues. Existing structures encourage tribalism, forcing us to find disagreement rather than agreement, but Labour’s history has often been of working with others for progressive goals – in trade unions, community organisations, solidarity movements and campaign groups. Some of the radical changes that we claim with most pride – the NHS, the welfare state and devolution – only happened with the support of people outside the Labour movement. At a time when old allegiances to political parties are breaking down, yet organisations like 38 Degrees are mobilising active support, we need that approach more than ever. We must be open to reaching out and working with others to achieve and embed our vision, developing a One Nation politics to match One Nation policies.


Paul Blomfield MP is chair of Labour4Democracy


Photo: Louisa Thomson

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Paul Blomfield MP

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