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Convention of the Left: Challenging the Two-Party System

Fri 27th Feb 2009

The next election will be a momentous one for the British left if only in the Hound of the Baskervilles sense. If, as seems likely, the Labour government goes down to defeat, quite probably a heavy one, then it will spell the end of the New Labour project, the political experiment in cutting a major party free of its historical base and substituting a centralised, almost virtual, party based upon that which its leadership believed ‘would work’ rather than any obvious ideological purpose.

For almost a hundred years, the British political system has been based upon the dominance of a two-party system in which the two parties swapped power under an electoral system which prevented any outside party from mounting any credible challenge. Indeed on a wider perspective, this has been the mainstay of British politics for close on two hundred years with only one disruption, the takeover of Labour from Liberal in the 1920s. This stability is essentially unknown in the rest of Europe, countries where there have been makeovers of the political system at quite regular intervals.

There are, of course, peculiarly British reasons for this stability including the lack of occupation by foreign armies or defeat in a major war as well as, until recently, the absence of any national or regional differences sufficient to override a single national hegemony. However, one necessary feature of such a two-party system is that there should be enough of a political divide between the two principals to suggest that the simple exchange provided enough variation to prevent the system from falling into disrepute provoking what Gramsci termed a crisis of legitimacy.

The coming election, presumably in 2010 unless the turkeys decide to choose Christmas, will mark the end of that necessary difference, one that was fraying in 2001 and 2005 but which still maintained a small purchase. Now, as most commentators agree, there is really no obvious difference between Labour and Conservative however much they may still fight in Parliament like snakes in a bag. There are numerous Cabinet ministers (dare one name names; Burnham, Purnell, Miliband…) who would sit very comfortably in a Cameron Cabinet, probably more than would be fidgety such a seat. This is not to mention a complete team of unelected ministers (Mandelson et al) who could carry on running the absurdly named Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform without noticing that an election has occurred. Indeed, adding the half-party of the Liberal Democrats to this mix makes very little difference except for a slight thickening of the left-centre part of the political plot of differences between the MPs in the parties which dominate the House of Commons.

One consequence of this is that the forthcoming election may throw up some ‘wild’ results ─ perhaps a Green seat or two or the BNP coming close in a couple of places or the election of some independents or expelled Labour MPs. The most likely deviancy will come in the Celtic nations as nationalism really does take over from class divides. It is also probable that the most striking sign of a crisis of legitimacy will come from falling turnout. Already in the low 40 per cents in the Labour strongholds of North and Central Manchester where I live, it would be surprising if battered Labour voters were to do other than turn away entirely from the electoral process

However, in this mix of disillusion and wildness, one factor is missing (and this is where the Hound comes in), any kind of leftwing challenge to the present hegemony of essentially neoliberal politics. In many ways, this is the most obvious political difference between now and the previous periods when the industrial economies were battered by deep recessions, the early 1980s and during the depression of the 1930s. Of course, in the latter time, both communism and fascism were real and ominous threats to the capitalist system whilst in the 1980s, the challenge of socialism was essentially a house of cards. But the challenge, nevertheless, was present in the political process. In spending some hours recently in tracking through the many websites maintained by various components of the British (or at least English) left, the absence of any such voice became drearily apparent.

Essentially, one can split the politics of the left into three parts. The first comprises those in the Labour Party who still see themselves as the ‘left’ of that organisation grouped into the Labour Representation Committee and the Compass group (which may be a pressure group, a think-tank or a political fraction depending upon sources). Both look to an individual MP (McDonnell or Cruddas) to bring light to the Labour party whilst omitting any significant discussion of any possible political process whereby this might come about. The large number, seemingly about a dozen or so, of groups descended from the Communist and Trotskyist parties of the 1970s, rely heavily upon that old favourite, the rising consciousness of the working class, whilst spending much of their energies on denouncing the particular characterisation of that elusive phenomenon by their rivals. Thirdly, the Green Party (of which I am a member), which is basically the thinking-person’s social democracy, relies upon a slow-motion electoralism picking up council seats in the hope that one day this will translate into higher things.

The one common feature of these perspectives is a lack of any desire to engage with other fractions of the left to discuss just how they could work together in some way to take any kind of role in the national political drama currently being unfolded. This is despite a very large measure of agreement on the policies, big and small, needed in national government. Such a situation is even more dispiriting given the fact that in other European countries, the most notable being Germany, Italy and France, the left has come through a couple of decades of battering and has started to try and come together in some kind of united coalition. The fruits of these endeavours have, so far, been small but the efforts have been made and could come to something.

One small and flickering light in this gloom is the recent Convention of the Left held in Manchester in September, parallel to the Labour Party conference, and followed up in January by a one-day gathering. This attempts to bring together all parts of the self-defined left including both those organised into political groupings and activists belonging to no group. It is unclear where this Convention is going and it is not without its sectarian squabbles. Even so, to bring together 200 people from around Manchester not to hear speeches delivered from any platform, indeed lacking any notable speakers at all, but just to discuss how the left can advance is a notable achievement.

As part of the future expansion of the Convention, we are opening a new website called www.colforum.co.uk In it, contributors from the left will post a set of running ‘diaries’ expressing their own views about the left and how it can develop. It has no sectarian base and no agenda. Its success will depend upon it reaching a wide audience and some of that audience responding either by comments or by writing their own diaries in it. The internet remains an important arena for political debate and organisation which is at yet largely unused on the left. Yet, as the Obama campaign showed, it does have tremendous potential for both ideas and for gathering support for interventions in the political process. The London Progressive Journal is one site which advances this ideal. We hope that the Convention of the Left Forum will be another.
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