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Where do we go from here? Notes on a contribution from Compass

The left think-tank Compass recently published an extended essay Mayism without May: the crisis of the Regressive Alliance and the challenge of Corbynism. It is offered as “an analysis of the dominant bloc that determines the common sense of our society” and as a contribution to finding a path to alliances of progressive forces inside and outside the Labour Party. It was written by Ken Spours, Professor of Post-Compulsory Education at the London Institute of Education. He previously wrote The Osborne Supremacy and The Very Modern Prince: the 21st century political party, both published by Compass.

The essay is based on four propositions: (1) Tory dominance continues but in changed circumstances opening new possibilities; (2) The Tory-led regressive alliance is in crisis but will adapt; (3) Corbyn’s Labour has achieved much but now needs to develop a “progressive combinatorial politics”; (4) the progressive bloc must be led by Labour but will require new alliance-based politics and popular mobilisation.

Labour and the left generally need to hear analyses from many viewpoints and Ken Spours tackles some issues that need to be discussed. However, given that large numbers of young people recently drawn into politics and the weak political culture of Labour it is disconcerting in the first two pages of the document to be told that we need a “hegemonic project” and that this will serve a “progressive combinatorial politics”. This problem of jargon blights the whole booklet.

Thus we read “The Conservative strategy has been to create a wider Regressive Alliance centred around Hard Brexit”. What exactly can the author have been thinking? An alliance implies some sort of agreement to work together. The Tories saw the 2017 election as their to eliminate UKIP not to work with it. The alliance with the DUP can hardly be said to have been the result of a strategy. The argument floats on a cloud of rhetoric without feeling any need to bring it down to earth by linking it with political experience or practice.

This is even true of the term “Mayism” which is variously described as “a shift towards a more traditionalist, interventionist, nationalist … Conservatism”, a “decoupling of Conservative Euroscepticism from Thatcherism”, “a sharp break with the neolibral cosmopolitanism of the Cameron/Osborne”, and as a “new mixture of hard right and mild left politics in the form of the Conservative double-shuffle …”. What on earth is a new comers to politics, or even seasoned activists, supposed to make of this?

The book has four chapters. The first is entitled Mayism without May? Conservative political hegemony in flux. Ken Spours likes the word “hegemony” but in never seems to have a clear content and often seems to mean no more than “majority support”. In the Gramscian sense to which Spours alludes it should refer to the ability to dominate what is generally regarded as “common sense” across the political spectrum (in the way neo-liberal concepts have done in recent decades). Spours’ essay doesn’t provide much evidence of the word being used in that sense.

Ken Spours claims that May has responded to the Brexit context with a “reconfiguration of Conservative philosophy and policy” but offers no specifics. He argues that “the Conservative electoral strategy continues to represent a ‘social holding pattern’, based on a cultural-ideological strategy to knit together disparate social roups of an ageing population rather than build a block that is led by the most dynamic and innovative economic social and cultural forces”. Again, there are no specifics so make of that what you will.

There is a brief discussion of the “Regressive Alliance in June 2017” from which it is clear that it is understood to include every right-wing and conservative social organisation whether or not they have any agreements or common strategy with the Conservative Party. There is also some discussion of the tension in the Conservative Party between a subordinate a ‘soft’ nationalist economic strategy and dominant Hard Brexit strategy but there is nothing here that is not common knowledge. Finally there is a claim that Mayism has “bequeathed” o the Tories a great many working-class votes. There no analysis, no data and no comparison with the traditional Tory working class support so it is difficult to know just what the author thought was being “bequeathed”.

The second chapter, Tensions within Conservative Political Hegemony, continues the analysis of internal Tory problems but with little to surprise anyone following the news. There are a couple of references to Brexit trade issues but with no data or analysis. In a section on the unity of the UK Ken Spours points out that the nationalist scene was transformed by the 2017 election with the SNP losing support. He briefly mentions the “distant” possibility of a federal social democratic UK. It is a pity that he didn’t explore the idea since, even if a distant prospect, it could, if spelt out, help to cast debate about the components of the UK in a new light.

Chapter 3, Can Progressives Build a Better Block?, moves on to more controversial territory. But rhetoric aside (e.g. talk of a “counter-hegemony” that would lead to an “expansive combinatorial politics”) some ideas worth discussing are hinted at. Thus we read that forming a progressive alliance would involve

… promoting politics and discourses that appeal beyond the educated and young concentrated in cties and focussing on sections of the Conservative working class and older voters who live in small towns and the countryside.

It is just a shame that this is not followed up with any discussion.

The call for “democratic collaboration between progressive forces at all levels” is worthy but it would have made sense to consider why this in general is not happening. It might further have made sense to ask why this is not even happening within the Labour Party itself. The differences over Brexit are a perfect example. Where is the “democratic collaboration” between the different trends? If that problem can’t be solved then the idea of such collaboration with other forces at all levels must remain problematic.

I am not at all sure that it helps to be told that

The Corbyn surge … has yet to become an embodiment of the connected heterogeneity of the 21st century. Diversification, as well as a sense of connectiveness, is the fundamental organic trend.

In making one of his few excursions into political detail Ken Spours quotes Guardian Journalist Zoe Williams as claiming if the Progressive Alliance had been operating in the south west there would not be a single Tory MP from that region and Corbyn could now by PM. What she actually wrote was

… we still have the absurd situation of an entirely blue Cornwall, for instance, where the combination of Labour and Lib Dem votes would have ousted the Conservative in almost every seat. (Emphasis added)

The combination of overblown rhetoric and such a slipshod way of dealing with particulars does not match well with Ken Spours’ repeated homilies to the effect that

… when you have made progress on the field of battle, it is important to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the adversary and how you can further advance your position.

It is in the fourth and final chapter, The Challenge of Corbynism: The Challenge For Corbynism, that most interest will be generated among those wanting to see some realisation of Corbyn’s declared commitment to democratise the Labour Party. To get to the point readers will have to get past Ken Spours’ piling up of military analogies (“war arena”, “wars of position”, “wars of manoeuvre”) and the rhetoric of hegemonic combinatorial politics which embody connected heterogeneity. Those who have the perseverance to do this will find some points worth discussing.

It may be controversial in these columns but I broadly agree with Spours when he says

Corbynism in 2017 appears to comprise at least two tendencies. The first is a statist, sectarian hard left politics, represented by many of those who surround him at the national level. This has provided some of the discipline and focus, but is unattractive at the human and wider political levels and vulnerable to ideological attack as promoting a historically failed form of top-down socialism. The second tendency is the growth in the number of local insurgent anti-austerity activists. Often young, without much previous involvement in politics, they have been inspired by Corbyn’s message of hope and seek to build a new type of left politics. Both tendencies have manifested themselves in Momentum.

These differences are clear also in the Labour Party more generally.

Spours’ point is not new but it is important enough to be worth repeating. Labour needs to find non-sectarian ways of discussing politics within its own ranks. It’s inability to do so will clearly hold it back should it look for democratic collaboration with forces outside the party. This point is made in a number of different ways and I am with Spours on that. I regret only that he still keeps his argument at an excessive level of generality and those offers nothing by the way of specific solutions to specific problems.

We need to discuss these issues but we need to do so in a way that shows a close correlation between theory and practice. Thus if problems of democratic collaboration within Labour are to have any bite they should include an analysis of Labour’s internal structures and institutions with proposals about how they need to be changed. There is no mention of the rule changes currently be proposed. Nothing about the way the National Policy Forum works. Nothing on the problems of the relation between regional officers and constituency Labour Parties. Finally there is nothing on ways in which left groups like Momentum could be more effective. Ken Spours’ booklet comes dangerously close to interpreting the world in various ways with little indication of the action needed to change it.

11 Comments

  1. Peter Rowlands says:

    nd, to be fair, the shifting sands of different political directions taken by various groupings are very difficult to pin down into something precise and clear.
    It is Spours’s view of Corbyn and Labour that I have most difficulty with. This is not to say that Labour should not embrace dialogue and co-operation, but Spours, Lawson and others in Compass and elsewhere are obsessed with the notion of the ‘Progressive Alliance’, which I fancy they see themselves as grand conductors of.
    There are two reasons why such an alliance cannot currently work. The first is our ‘winner takes all’ electoral system, which means that parties have to mutually agree to stand down in different constituencies to prevent their Tory opponents getting elected on a split vote. In almost all cases this means Labour and the Lib-Dems, but as any Labour activist knows, the level of hatred and contempt felt by many in Labour for the Lib-Dems, fuelled considerably by the 2010 – 2015 experience, effectively rules out any such co-operation. That is not to say that there is not extensive tactical voting, but you can’t build an alliance on that. A Labour majority is the only likely way forward in the here and now.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Agreed. And, in fairness, I think the Lib Dems feel a fair amount of hatred towards Corbyn’s Labour at the moment, so I’m not sure they’d be willing to stand down in most places either.

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    Sorry, the first bit of what I wrote on Spours got lost. As I recall, I said that I agreed with much of what David had said, including Spours’s use of jargon, although I felt that it was somewhat unfair to dismiss his theories on the grounds of incomprehensibility, as he had I thought correctly diagnosed an attempt by May and others to move to a more ‘one nation’ and less cosmopolitan stance, although she had neither the ability, or post election the standing to carry it through, which the dire state of the economy would have rendered difficult anyway.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Thanks for the response. I am not sure about incomprehensibility not be a justified grounds for criticism. What is more I actually tried to go further and show that it is not just a matter of incomprehensibility. Something might be hard to understand but nevertheless contain real insights. I felt that Spours’ use of jargon was actually a cover for a lack of such insight with the emptiness of the argument being covered by heavy sounding jargon.

      Technical language is always required at a certain point in research so that is not what I am referring to. The jargon is technical sounding language with no real object. Another take on this would be to describe what he does as pretentious posturing. I gave examples which I think fall into this category.

      I wonder why you think that Spours as got the right analysis of May’s leadership. His analysis struck me as incoherent. He argues that (1) “Conservative strategy has been to create a wider Regressive Alliance centred around Hard Brexit” AND (2) the Conservatives are “creating a new fusion of Tory one-nation economic and social trends with the reality of Brexit”. So, is it a new Regressive Alliance or support for one-nation economic and social trends? This incoherence runs throughout all the discussion of the Tory strategy. So what is it that you think is helpful about what Spours writes on this?

      I agree with you about the problems of our electoral system and the other difficulties in the way of forming a progressive alliance. But that is far from the end of the problems with Spours’ discussion of the political alternative to the Tories.

      The overriding problem is the sheer vagueness of what he writes. Thus he says

      At the roots of an open country will be people creating and recreating the concept of community and a vibrant in which they can exercise greater control over their lives. This can become part of a new type of ‘civic socialism’ that ivolves building more cohesive communities based on a closer relationship between … ‘work, living and playing'”.

      The is just too vague to be meaningful. My central criticism of the booklet was just that and that this weakness was hidden behind some important-sounding but ultimately empty rhetoric. If you think I am wrong about that then I would be keen to know on what basis.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    I don’t have any difficulty in accepting that some at least of Spours’s piece is ‘pretentious posturing’, but he has I think sought to distinguish between different currents and approaches on the right, something I am sure that you are in favour of, and that much of the Labour left should attempt, rather than lumping half the Labour Party and everyone else in the same category as ‘the right’. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily contradictory to see support for both hard brexit and a renewed one nationism as complementing each other.It’s about supporting the more right wing JAMs, but as I’ve said I don’t think that May ( no, there is no coherent ‘Mayism’, but this was true of Blair and Thatcher) or anyone else can deliver this at the moment.
    Where Spours falls down is his failure to consider the powerful anti brexit forces on the right in the shape of the sizeable Tory remain vote and the big business lobby.Whether they can intervene and promote something different (welcome back George Osborne) without splitting the Tory party is the same question that could be asked of the Labour hard brexiteers. Yes, all of this is fairly imprecise, but given the volatility of politics at the moment nothing much else is possible.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Peter, I am puzzled by your response.

      Of course I agree that it is important to distinguish between different currents on the right. I just don’t see in what respect Spours has made any advances with this. After all the differences within the Tory party and the their struggles to win support from different sections of the electorate are not exactly a political secret. They are the stuff of even journalistic commentary. What has Spours added to all that?

      I don’t think that I suggested that there is necessarily a contradiction between “support for both hard brexit and a renewed one nationism”. What I suggested was that there is a contradiction between seeing the Tories as setting out to create a wider “regressive alliance” (which means extending its reach rightwards) and redirecting itself in the direction of one-nationism.

      I think that the problem here is a failure to distinguish between one-nation rhetoric (at which May excels) and one-nation politics. Whatever else we may think of him Disraeli’s one-nation Toryism actually had really political outcomes. He understood that the working class needed some real concessions to be kept under the tutelage of their social superiors. This took the form of parliamentary reform, factory acts, trade union legislation … . Where is the equivalent with May? Isn’t modern one-nation Toryism just a rhetorical echo of its former self?

      I would be interested to know just what it is in Spours analysis that you think has contributed anything to our understanding of Tory policy.

      1. Peter Rowlands says:

        David, I have not claimed that the Spours piece is particularly original, and have pointed to its inadequacies, but neither do I think it incomprehensible, notwithstanding its pretentiousness. He also uses ‘regressive alliance’in two ways, without properly distinguishing between them, firstly as that with the DUP where numbers dictated what the would otherwise not have wanted, and a sort of Brexit one nationism.I did point out however in my earlier piece that the state of the economy apartfrom anything else meant that one nationism is not deliverable, although I now doubt that anything is by May.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Okay. Where I say “incoherent” you say “He uses ‘regressive alliance’ in two ways, without properly distinguishing between them”. I can live with that.

  4. Mervyn Hyde says:

    For those in the party that think we need to form alliances in order to win, I agree with the general tenet that our first past the post system makes that very difficult and the libdems themselves can’t be trusted to keep their side of the bargain…. they have more in common with the Tories than they do Labour.

    As a demonstration of the changing face of politics today and the impact Momentum is having, the Cotswold constituency offers some indication as to how real campaigning can alter unheard of outcomes.

    First Momentum Members, all middle class people I might add typical of that area, and Cirencester is the heart of a very large rural constituency, took control of the local party, and these dedicated people mounted a real campaign based on Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto and traditional Labour values. Not New Labour but real Labour values.

    These were the results, noting we have Royalty in these Cotswold areas and most are picture postcard villages.

    This is the results of the 2015 General election led by Pro Blair supporters.

    http://geo.digiminster.com/election/2015-05-07/Results/Location/Constituency/The%20Cotswolds

    This is the result of the 2017 General election after Coebyn supporterters took charge.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/constituencies/E14000991

    From the previous 2015 election Labour moved from fourth to second place as now the real opposition to the Tories ousting the Libdems into third place. Noting in places like this people are far more likely to vote tactically in favour of the libdems we can look in the future to an even better result, as Clifton Brown is a poor representative for the area and now Labour is the second party…… will galvanise greater opposition.

    The local party under it’s new administration mounted a brilliant campaign, instead of resigning themselves to the usual forgone conclusions, they took the fight to the Tories and amassed the support of 70 party members all over the cotswold district and now have every area covered, and will lead campaigns in the heart of Tory Land. Noting they lead a Left wing campaign promoting Jeremy Corbyn unlike here in Gloucester with a low key campaign with a candidate imposed on us by the NEC and south west region, the difference couldn’t be starker.

    Finally I am sure the results generally would have been better but for the postal votes, I stopped a middle aged women in the road on election night and asked her, had she voted yet? She replied, “yes I voted early with my postal vote, but think now that I made a big mistake”. Accounts from colleagues at the count said they thought the votes on the day were in our favour, until the postal votes appeared. Towards the end of the campaign Labours chances of winning surged, but was in my opinion thwarted by early postal voters. The opinion polls, if they can be believed, seem now to confirm that.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Very interesting points about the Cotswald results. We need to know much more about such cases. Interesting too about the postal vote on which a discussion still needs to take place.

      I would disagree with you only on your comment on the Lib Dems: “the libdems themselves can’t be trusted to keep their side of the bargain…. they have more in common with the Tories than they do Labour”.

      This seems to me to commit the cardinal political sin of over-generalisation. Lib Dems come in many different shapes, sizes and motivations (just like any other party). In politics we should always be looking within groups to see where advantage can be gained rather than dismissing everyone within a given group with one dismissive generalisation.

      I wonder also if you have read the Compass booklet by Spours since you don’t say anything about that even though that is the subject of my piece.

  5. Bazza says:

    Someone recently put it well on Facebook: “The Tories have just to get those they rob off to vote for them!” (aided by the Right Wing media).
    And this is the crux of the matter – the Tories need to win the popular vote and hence they PRETEND to work for working people and PRETEND to rule in “the National Interest” when you should read: “in the Neo-Liberal Capitalist interest!”
    Take austerity for example – the first thing the Tories did was to give tax cuts to millionaires – so don’t worry rich, powerful and the better off, this austerity stuff won’t really effect you.
    Of course they also gave tax cuts to large corporations, private landlords with multiple properties, more tax relief to grouse moor owners, tax cuts to hedge funds (£145m along with the Lib Dems) and hedge funds donated £50m to the Tories!
    And with local councils they changed the local government settlement rules so they were just based on population size and no longer included NEED where there is poverty (as under the previous Labour Government) so Northern, Scottish, Welsh, Midlands etc. councils were hammered but mainly Tory Southern/South Eastern Councils faced few if any cuts.
    But the message from the General Election was clear for Labour (as demonstrated by Mervyn above) if you stand for something pretty progressive and have something you believe in plus argue for it passionately you do a lot better.
    So Labour with its leadership (and a majority of its members) is in a good place; we just need to fight every seat with passion and democratically select 620 left wing democratic socialist stars (it is up to any current incumbents to prove themselves) and members need reform Conference too and policy making and the Labour Party itself to democratise it more to encourage a culture of grassroots involvement.
    Yours in solidarity!

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